Coming out in time for Veterans’ Day is Sunken Roads: Three Generations After D-Day from documentarian Charlotte Juergens. In part it is a way of recording the memories of the ever-shrining number of veterans of that era. But more, it is a personal story of a much younger person in trying to understand that time.
Juergens became interested in World War II by hearing an interview of her great-grandfather done by her mother before his death (and before Juergens’s birth). He was decorated for his service with the 29th Infantry. When Juergens learns there is a trip planned for reunion trip to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of the invasion, she attaches herself to the group as a helper for one of the veterans who has Parkinson’s. As she travels with this group of men now in their nineties, she understands that when they stormed Omaha Beach, they were the age she was while making the film. She captures the memories of some of these aging veterans, but even more, the film is very much about her journey.
I’ll admit that for a while, I was a bit put off by the filmmaker’s constant references to herself in the film that I expected to be more focused on the veterans and their histories. But by putting so much focus on her own experience of the trip, it provides a perspective of someone far removed in time for those events. That also contrasts to the local children in the various Normandy towns they visit. Those children are well versed in the history of the invasion, because it had such an impact on the places they live.
The film also touches on the ways memories evolve and take on special meaning. That is especially clear in the story of one of the soldiers and his memory of a little girl who signaled him to be silent just before German soldiers came along. That has become a very sacred memory for him, and one that he has personified in a French woman he met on an earlier trip. That memory and the sharing of it serves as an example of how truth can be present, even if the facts do not back it up.
As one who’s father was a World War II veteran (though not in Europe), I feel far less removed from that history than Juergens. Indeed, World War II for her generation is about the same as the Spanish-American War for mine. Soon there will be no veterans left to return to Normandy for those times of remembrance. The memories this film gathers are an addition to others that have been archived in recent years. But a key question might be, what happens to the history when generations come along that are far removed from such important events? Juergens was able to absorb that history into her own life to keep it alive a bit longer.
Sunken Roads is available in select theaters.
Photo credits: Charlotte Juergens. Courtesy of First Run Features