The Metal Detector: Digging Up the Past

The Metal Detector follows Georg, an Austrian retiree who hunts for history amidst the hill surrounding his home. As a child, his mother claims to have witnessed a crash of an Allied B-17 during the Second World War and Georg spends his days with his simple metal detector, searching for fragments of a bygone era. As he researches the American crewmembers onboard, he reaches out to their descendants and invites them to his home to remember the 75th anniversary of the crash. However, digging up the past involves more than assembling artifacts and, suddenly, the families begin to unpack the challenges they faced within their own home as result of the war.

Directed by Brendan Patrick Hughes, The Metal Detector is a brief but reflective piece that begins with one man’s quest for artifacts and spins into a story with even greater emotional depth. In Georg, Hughes has found a fascinating subject. Quiet and unassuming, his commitment to recovering history brings reality to stories of the past. Everyone has heard of the sacrifices of our soldiers yet Georg’s quest makes it tangible. Scouring the area for pieces of a different time, Georg’s interest may be purely historical but his actions help the events of the war feel more real. With each bullet casing and gear shaft, Metal Detector feels like it’s reassembling the past before our eyes. Every fragment feels important as it speaks to the larger narrative of struggle and strife for our veterans.

Even so, The Metal Detector still manages to dig deeper than the average war documentary. While the film may begin with Georg’s journey to piece together the past, the film’s most profound realizations come through the family members that assemble to discuss their father’s legacies. Oftentimes, in docs of this nature, these moments emphasize the struggles that the soldiers faced on the field, pointing to their bravery. Instead, Detector sits with families who were left shattered by the traumas of war. Battles with alcoholism and abuse within the home have left their scars upon the children of these veterans and the film acknowledges their struggles.

But what comes next borders on the profound.

As these now elderly children of veterans step into the reality of their fathers’ experiences, many begin to reframe their childhoods with a lens of grace. With every piece of history that they discover, their memories gain further perspective. While the film never excuses the struggles they faced in their home, conversations about PTSD and the brutality of war actually help them understand fragments of their parents’ behaviour during that time. (“To think about your father being 23 and doing this, it’s so hard to believe,” we hear.) 

In doing so, Hughes walks a fine line between acknowledging lived trauma and understanding. For the children of these pilots, war was never part of their reality. Even so, they felt the effects of it. But Hughes somehow manages to honour the sacrifices of our veterans yet still gives space to weep with the damage left behind within the home. 

In the end, The Metal Detector is the perfect film for Veteran’s Day. Though only 30 minutes in length, this is a story that delves deeply into the power of sacrifice for those who gave their lives. But, at the same time, the film never forgets the emotional pain of those who were fighting their battles long after the final shot was fired as well.

The Metal Detector airs on PBS on November 11th, 2023.

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