Amateur Filmmaker Re-Creates WWII in Tennessee
Three young paratroopers take refuge in an abandoned barn. One of the trio, a radio operator, tries to make contact with another squad. “Baker Two, this is Baker One. How do you copy?"
No answer. He tosses his headphones down. "Can’t raise ‘em.”
Two more American GIs burst in, carrying a wounded soldier and a German prisoner. The wounded man, Wilson, needs morphine to dull the pain, and his sergeant frantically searches for a disposable morphine unit called a syrette.
A typical scene in Normandy in the summer of 1944. But the year is 2020 and this is Hohenwald, Tennessee, about an hour southwest of Nashville. The explanation for the time and space warp is the sergeant administering the morphine: Kevin Vogel.
Vogel was born in 1998, more than fifty years after the Second World War ended. A construction worker by trade, Kevin spends his downtime writing, shooting, editing and acting in short films set in the war's European theater. They appear on his YouTube channel, Prosaic Pictures.
In his home-school years, Vogel got a broad-brush look at the war as part of the larger story of American history. But a deeper interest was sparked when he saw the film Saints and Soldiers, which is set during the Battle of the Bulge.
“And that was, like, the first time I was able to visualize anything from World War II. That movie got me very interested in the whole thing,” he says.
The spark grew into a flame when he saw the seminal modern war film Saving Private Ryan.
“I think I was fourteen at the time, and I was thinking, ‘Well, If Mr. Spielberg can do it, then I can do it too,’ so…” He laughs, somewhat self-consciously, as he remembers the ambitiousness of his idea.
Unlike Steven Spielberg, Kevin had only a digital video camera and no formal training in filmmaking. But his desire to tell stories and participate in them carried him forward. His first war film was posted on YouTube seven years ago. It’s three minutes long. There’s no dialogue and no one would mistake it for the screen-spanning spectacle of Saving Private Ryan. Since that first short, Kevin’s produced more than fifty more. Many are extended comic or tragicomic sketches. But there are also longer films that explore a soldier’s experience.
Many big-studio war films "Hollywoodize" the war with explosions, dramtic set pieces and nonstop action, Vogel says. "I try not to do that. I really try to delve into the emotions of the period and what the guys went through, just to give a representation of that."
There’s no soundstage or studio backlot, just the outdoors in Lewis County – weather permitting, of course. Vogel’s wardrobe department is his own uniform collection, assembled from online auctions and shops that outfit World War II re-enactors. His cast is himself and a few friends. They have played Americans and Germans, soldiers and civilians. The rough edges show, and Vogel says that’s okay.
"The people who troll on YouTube...one of the things they don't really understand is all the effort that goes into it," Vogel says. “Even though some of my earlier productions I’m not entirely proud of, there still was a lot of effort that went into it. And to try to make it as good as we could at the time with our limited resources.”
There are other war re-enactors who have capitalized on consumer cameras and editing software to make their own films. They include Americans, Britons, Germans, and others who, like Vogel, decided to bring their own ideas to life. And while some Kevin’s videos have gotten a quarter-million views or more, he says he’s been recognized only once – and it wasn’t in his own town.
“I was at a World War II re-enactment in Kentucky, and I had this kid come up to me. And he was like, ‘Are you Kevin Vogel?’" he recalls. "And I was like yeah, and he was like, ‘Dude, I’ve watched all your videos.’ And I was like, ‘That’s awesome!’”
Vogel has no plans to pack his bags for Hollywood, or even the blossoming film hubs of Atlanta or Nashville. He says filmmaking isn’t a career for him, but a hobby – one with a healthy dose of perspective.
“I remember for the longest time, my goal was to try to make a World War II movie that was better than Saving Private Ryan," he says. "So far, I’m pretty sure I haven’t accomplished that, but there’s still room for growth.”
Instead of competing with an Oscar-winning cinematic icon, Vogel’s sights today are more firmly set on telling his stories, on his own time, in his own way.