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Shudder Secrets: The Bunker Game Explained

Courtesy of Shudder

When Role-Playing Goes Too Far

I have to admit that I’ve never gotten into live-action roleplay (LARP). Heck, I don’t even play video games. This isn’t a knock against LARP by any means. It takes a lot of creativity to slide into those roles and act out characters from another era.

Director Roberto Zazzara’s The Bunker Game takes role-playing to the extreme. A group of players pretends they’re Nazis and hide out in a bunker. And while the film has some cool concepts at its core, I was generally left scratching my head why this group of people would want to participate in a game in which they act out some revised history/storyline about a fourth Reich. Is it simply escapism? Is it just for fun? The film never quite answers that, but it does have some interesting political dynamics and paranormal scenarios at its center.

Meet the Role Players of The Bunker Game

The Bunker Game stars Gaia Weiss as Laura. An actress, Laura sports a blonde wig and pretends that she’s living in the 1950s, hiding underground with Nazis after a nuclear war. In the game’s revisionist history, Germany won WWII, but nuclear war occurred in the 1950s. The remaining Nazis live in a sealed-off bunker and try to create the perfect human race.

It turns out Laura is also pregnant, and the baby belongs to the game master, Greg (Lorenzo Richelmy). However, they hide this from other players, while most of the female role-players pretend that they’re pregnant in service to the game/storyline. Again, talk about a weird type of scenario. These sort of revisionist history roleplaying games exist all over online and in person, however.

In fact, the film includes some interesting dynamics within the game. For instance, a non-binary character, Robin (Felice Jankell), plays a budding Nazi soldier, to the dismay of Andrej (Tudor Istodor), who takes the game and his character a little TOO seriously. He is disgusted that a non-binary person would want to roleplay a soldier. There’s also Makita Samba’s role as Marcus, a Black man who operates the Nazi airwaves within the bunker. According to Andrej, role-playing games should be reserved for an all-white, CIS-gendered cast.

But here’s one of the film’s main flaws. It’s totally unclear why Robin and Marcus especially would want to dress up and play Nazis. They’d be killed first. Is it some weird way to reclaim the narrative? Is it simply fun and creative for them? This is one of the film’s most interesting aspects. But the writers never give enough reason why the characters put on the clothes and assume the roles. There’s a missed opportunity here. At one point, one of the characters says, “It’s not real, but you can experience the horror of it.” Maybe that’s true. However, initially, at least, the characters seem like they’re having a good old time living some bizarre revisionist history. There’s even a party and dancing until everything goes black.

A Canvas for Our Fears

At one point, Greg says, “The dark is a canvas in which we paint our own fears.” This idea permeates throughout the film’s second half after the players become trapped in the bunker and Greg goes MIA. Lights flicker and fail, but it’s unclear who or what caused the outage. They’re unsure if it’s all part of the game or if they’re actually stuck underground, in a real bunker. Here, the past comes roaring back in the form of ghosts (maybe?) that torment the players. One by one, several of the characters face a mysterious death, some more gruesome than others. The surviving characters constantly catch glimpses of ghosts.

Specifically, Laura continually sees a spook named Clara (Serena de Ferrari), a singer who also had a thing with a soldier and ended up pregnant. However, she and her partner never made it out alive. Now, she’s a vengeful ghost, haunting the bunker where she apparently died. We see bits of her life in flashbacks, which Laura also witnesses, somehow.

Clara’s story is an interesting little tidbit, and it draws out Laura’s character and her connection to the child. Whether or not Laura wants to have the baby should be her choice, and it’s a decision Clara never had. Yet, becoming a mom remains one of Laura’s biggest fears, and the bunker plays on that.

Courtesy of Shudder

Worsening her woes, Laura must fend off the jealous and increasingly dangerous Harry (Mark Ryder). He snaps the longer they’re trapped underground. He’s certain that Greg is not the right man for Laura. He wants to control who she’s with and even decisions regarding her own body. Again, there are some interesting personal politics evident in this movie, but they’re never fleshed out. Some of these conflicts should have been elevated to make the characters more distinct and interesting.

Blending Reality with Role Playing

Some of the men, Harry and Andrej especially, become the characters they play. Andrej literally shows off his sympathy for the Nazis the longer they’re underground. He’s constantly bothered by a non-binary person wanting to put on the outfit and share a similar space. Harry, meanwhile, wants to control a woman’s choices, including her body. He also takes the game too far.

In fact, this is another concept that needed a little more room to breathe. This merging of fiction and reality is a cool concept. Players getting into their game a little too much sounds gnarly on paper. However, it’s not executed well enough here, nor are some of the personal politics among the players. There are some decent threads here and nascent ideas, but they’re too undercooked. Even Clara’s story and the history contained within the bunker are shown in glimpses that are too short to garner enough sympathy from the viewer. Clara should be a more interesting and sympathetic ghost. But she’s not.

As we watch the horrifying footage from Ukraine, along comes a film like The Bunker Game to remind us that dressing up and playing soldier is one thing, but living it is something totally different. War is brutal, and the type of society that can grow in its wake can be anti-democratic.  That’s what Laura and others learn once they’re stuck in the bunker with men who’ve been playing Nazi a little too long.

The Bunker Game premiers on Shudder on March 17. For more of the streaming service’s exclusive and original content, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column.