Friday, July 22, 2011

Winter in Wartime: The complexities of heroism

Winter in Wartime (2008) • View trailer for Winter in Wartime
Four stars. Rating: R, for brief profanity, violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang

Children, bless their resilience, can find adventure in almost anything.

Director/co-scripter Martin Koolhoven’s Winter in Wartime, The Netherlands’ submission for the 2010 Academy Awards’ foreign-language film category — where it became one of the nine penultimate contenders, but missed the short-listed final five — takes place in January 1945 in Holland, in a rural village occupied by Nazi soldiers.
Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier, right) and his fellow villagers share the local roads
with German soldiers on a constant basis, and the wariness — on both sides —
never diminishes. For Michiel, the cautious circumspection grows even more
intense when he becomes involved with local Resistance activities ... where a
single mistake could result in arrest and severe punishment, not only for
himself, but for his entire family.

The film is based on Dutch author Jan Terlouw’s semi-autobiographical best-selling novel, 1972’s Oorlongswinter; Terlouw spent five years under German occupation during World War II, and his father, a vicar, was twice arrested and threatened with execution. The author designed his book for young readers, but Koolhoven structures his film more for adult viewers ... while maintaining the focus on a 13-year-old protagonist who loses his innocence in the space of a few short weeks.

Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) and his best friend Theo (Jessie van Driel) are excited when an Allied plane crashes in the nearby woods; despite the presence of investigating German soldiers who don’t want the townsfolk anywhere near the wreck, the two boys sneak close and pilfer a few small items.

I was reminded, by the boys’ casual disregard for personal safety, of director John Boorman’s similarly autobiographical Hope and Glory; this film is set during the London Blitz, when Boorman's younger childhood self found thrilling excitement even in that ghastly, unrelenting experience. Kids simply weave their own magic.

Ah, but Michiel gets caught and hauled in front of the senior Nazi officer, who relents and releases the boy after learning that he’s the mayor’s son.

Rather than feeling grateful, though, Michiel is ashamed by the apparent way in which his father, Johan (Raymond Thiry) cozies up to the Nazis. This seems a betrayal in the boy’s eyes, particularly when compared to the activities of his favorite uncle — Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), Johan’s brother — who works with the local Resistance. Visits from Uncle Ben always are accompanied by stolen ration cards and clandestine food items, such as prized tins of sardines.

Because Michiel said nothing about Theo’s involvement with the downed airplane, he gains the trust of Theo’s older brother, Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg), a Resistance member who entrusts Michiel with an important letter. Michiel eventually winds up reading the letter himself, at which point he learns that an RAF pilot survived the crash, and is holed up in an underground shelter in the same woods. The pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower, in a nicely modulated role), needs to reach a larger town across the river, in order to rendezvous with colleagues who can get him back to England ... but he’s badly wounded and running out of food.

Michiel, believing himself quite capable of handling such an important mission, assures Jack that he can help; the pilot, not that much older himself, has no choice but to trust the boy.

Needless to say, things won’t be nearly as simple as Michiel naively assumes.

Koolhoven plays us viewers with the assurance of a master musician. The atmosphere in early scenes minimizes the everyday danger enveloping this village; co-existence seems to have reached some sort of stability, despite occasional arrests — or worse — and the threat of same. At least, that’s the way Michiel sees things, and our point of view is his: Up until now, the boy has enjoyed the luxury of assigning labels to everybody — good Resistance fighters, bad Nazi invaders — based on observation, local gossip and his own assumptions.

But people aren’t that easily catalogued, as Michiel gradually realizes, now that he has assumed responsibility for Jack. He can’t afford any mistakes, but of course he blunders in all sorts of ways. He doesn’t feel that his Nazi-sympathizing father can be trusted, and his uncle also seems an unwise choice; the protective Ben already has warned the boy against getting involved in anything dangerous.

Now, even the most casual glance from a neighbor, a friend or a passing German soldier fills Michiel with dread ... and Koolhoven correspondingly ratchets up the tension.

When Jack’s injury becomes life-threatening, Michiel finally, reluctantly brings his older sister — Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse — to help the pilot. Although her medical ministrations turn the tide, Erica isn’t content to simply return home and let her younger brother carry on; she’s attracted to this dashing young British soldier ... and he, to her. Michiel, not yet distracted by girls, views this as a needless complication. Which it is.

Klaver, vexingly, doesn’t bring much life to Erica; her performance is unnecessarily subdued, and — in fairness to the actress — the script doesn’t animate her too well.

And still, unintentionally but perversely, the boy keeps drawing attention to himself. Angered by his own carelessness, aware that his actions could endanger his own family, Michiel increasingly succumbs to paranoia ... and, as we eventually reach the third act, the bubbling suspense is almost too much to endure.

That said, Koolhoven isn’t telling a tale of stereotypical Nazi brutality; he resists any sort of exploitative violence while still getting the crucial narrative points across. In many respects, the director’s approach is decidedly retro, even restrained; the blend of paranoia-fueled drama — particularly as amplified by Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack — feels like Alfred Hitchcock’s espionage-laden collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann, notably 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

That said, Donaggio’s ostentatious, operatic underscore can be rather jarring. This film is all about oppressive silences, and the constant need to be quiet: avoiding patrolling German soldiers while sneaking through the snow-covered woods; walking carefully late at night, so as not to draw the attention of watchful neighbors who might be Nazi spies. Donaggio’s crashing crescendos therefore seem an odd choice, and I’d argue that Koolhoven relies on them much too heavily; it works against the subtly unsettling mood that he establishes via the narrative and various character interactions.

Indeed, Donaggio is best known in this country for his many 1970s and ’80s horror movie scores, and particularly his numerous collaborations with director Brian De Palma, on films such as Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Donaggio is an in-our-face composer, and that’s not the atmosphere Koolhoven builds here.

Lakemeier is making his film debut, and he’s reasonably persuasive as a boy increasingly conflicted about various loyalties. Michiel’s assumptions are challenged at every turn; even some of the despised German soldiers can be helpful, courteous and kind. Lakemeier’s often troubled gaze speaks volumes; he successfully carries the film, since Michiel is front and center almost all the time.

We become invested in this young man, and want him to quickly achieve levels of perception and intelligence that seem just beyond his reach. And that’s ironic, because on another level we decry the way in which the war is robbing all these children of their innocence.

Van Wageningen’s Ben is every inch the capable, larger-than-life figure that a boy would make of his favorite uncle. Thiry, in deliberate contrast, is a calmer, more cautionary individual, and therefore one easily viewed as “weak” by an impatient son. We know better — at least we think we do (paranoia clouding our own judgment, as well) — and understand that when Johan bargains pleasantly with the Nazis, he’s trying to prevent his neighbors and townsfolk from getting arrested ... or shot.

Nor is the father/son dynamic completely shattered. The film’s most loving moment comes when Johan catches Michiel attempting to shave; the father then instructs his son in this rite of passage. Thiry and Lakemeier handle this intimate moment brilliantly ... and if you’re not yet worried on behalf on these characters prior to this scene, you will be after it concludes.

The R rating seems needlessly harsh, even allowing for occasional bursts of profanity and some flurries of violence. Koolhoven’s film deserves to be seen by a general audience, with parents then able to help educate young viewers intrigued by history, and the intricacies of day-to-day existence in the face of an invading army.

And heroism, of course, and the tough choices placed upon those forced into awful moral quandaries.

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