Hard choices define heroism
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 22, 2011
The most compelling thing about “Winter in Wartime,” the Netherlands’ official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, is not the story. And the story is pretty darn compelling.
Based on a novel by Jan Terlouw, and set in Nazi-occupied Holland in 1945, the film concerns the efforts of 13-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) to smuggle Jack, a wounded British airman (Jamie Campbell Bower), to safety after Jack’s plane is shot down near Michiel’s hometown, which is now crawling with Germans. It’s a gripping, edge-of-your-seat thriller, involving romance — between Jack and Michiel’s older sister (Melody Klaver), who is a nurse — and enough suspense, secrets and betrayal for two war films.
Despite all that’s going on, the story, directed by Martin Koolhoven, is impeccably paced and lean, with a visually gorgeous, icy blue pallor that underscores the cold, hard choices that its characters must make. But what makes “Winter” really special is its complex exploration of the theme of heroism.
Michiel, you see, is caught between a rock and hard place, and another hard place. On the one hand, there’s Michiel’s father, Johan (Raymond Thiry), the town’s mayor and a man whom Michiel sees as just this side of a collaborator for the way he sucks up to the occupying Germans. On the other hand, there’s Michiel’s Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen). Ben seems to be everything that Johan is not: a member of the resistance willing to put himself on the line for his countrymen. Ben is brave and willing to break the rules. To a 13-year-old boy, that’s nothing short of cool.
But Michiel can’t entirely forget that his father is his father, despite what appears to be a politician’s infuriating tendency to accommodate his Nazi oppressors. Consequently, the boy’s loyalties are buffeted this way and that way and this again by his hatred of the Nazis, his sense of filial duty and a rash longing for adventure instilled in him by a role model who may or may not deserve that honor.
What’s more, he’s 13 and scared. By helping Jack, Michiel is not just putting himself at risk, but his entire family. Jack knows that all too acutely, and he is torn between his own survival mechanism and a reluctance to endanger his civilian protectors.
Michiel will soon learn, all too harshly, that these competing interests cannot all be satisfied and that the definition of honor sometimes involves a quieter — and more tragic — form of heroism than his uncle’s blustering heroics.
How Koolhoven plays this cold lesson out is the chief pleasure of this tale, whose moral ground is as crystalline, as multifaceted and as slippery as the ice covering the frozen streams and canals that crisscross Michiel’s once simple world.
Contains violence, obscenity and a brief sexual encounter. In Dutch, German and English with subtitles.