Winter in Wartime – Movie Review
The winter of 1944–45 is remembered in Holland as the "Hunger Winter." The Nazi troops who still occupied the Netherlands blockaded food and fuel, bringing additional suffering to the Dutch people as the war ground toward its climax.
This is the backdrop for director Martin Koolhaven’s film, Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter), which is based on Dutch author Jan Terlouw’s 1972 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Terlouw lived five years under Nazi occupation; his father, a vicar, was arrested and threatened with execution twice. The film won the Dutch Critics award as best Dutch film in 2008 and was a Best Foreign Film nominee for 2009′s Academy Awards. It is opening in the United States with a debut at the Lincoln Plaza & Quad Cinemas on March 18, 2011. The film is subtitled in English.
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Viewers expecting battle scenes won’t find any; the Germans here are use motorcycles and Kubelwagens, not Tiger tanks. This is part war film, part suspense thriller, part loss-of-innocence character study that focuses primarily on 13-year-old Michiel Van Beusekom, played by Martijn Lakemeier. Its influences are more The Bourne Identity and the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West) rather than Battle of the Bulge or Saving Private Ryan.
The film opens with a British plane crash-landing near the Dutch village where Michiel lives. That starts a series of events that gradually interconnect with mounting tension. An early scene of Michiel and his best friend, Theo, scavenging souvenirs from the plane’s wreckage and being chased by Germans who spot them is relatively lighthearted—though it leads to Michiel’s father being summoned to German headquarters.
From that point on, the threat posed by German occupiers is ever-present, even though the German soldiers in this film are not the fanatical, ranting Nazis of so many movies. They are polite, even helpful, to the Dutch around them—until they’re ordered to arrest or shoot someone. This dichotomy communicates the sense of terror the people of the occupied village live with every day, like living on top of an unexploded bomb.
We watch Michiel go from a rather carefree child at the beginning of the movie to his being drawn ever deeper into actions that could result in his death or the deaths of his family at any moment. He deeply resents what he sees as his father’s collaboration with the Germans, not understanding that his father, the mayor, (played by hopes to protect the villagers by not upsetting their overlords. A particularly touching scene is the one in which the father, knowing the resentment and disgust his son feels toward him, lovingly teaches Michiel how to shave.
Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice to say that a 13-year-old’s bravado and naivety aren’t the safest attitudes to have in an occupied country, and his choices ratchet up the stakes as the story plays out. Unfortunately, Michiel spends so much of the movie brooding or being angry that it is hard to warm up to him. Others around him are more sympathetic characters but are shown mostly in short snippets. When Lakemeier is called upon to show other emotions in Michiel, however, he delivers and creates one of the film’s most intense and memorable scenes.
With the exception of a chase scene that feels very out of place in a film that has been mostly subtle up to that point—a result, perhaps, of trying to mix elements of thrillers and Westerns into a loss-of-innocence character study—the plot and characters are believable. Viewers will probably wish some secondary characters had been developed more fully, but this is Michiel’s story, not theirs.
The film’s soft music remains in the background most of the time, enhancing the plot with whispers instead of shouting. Composed by Pino Donaggio, who wrote the music for several of Brian DePalma’s thrillers, such as Carrie and Dressed to Kill, the soundtrack perfectly compliments the snow-covered countryside in which much of the story takes place.
The disparate elements that influenced the making of Winter in Wartime don’t always work together, and the film’s final couple of minutes seem a bit contrived, but overall this is a movie that gradually, methodically pulls viewers to the edge of their seats and then keeps them there. From a historical standpoint, it is a well-made window into a part of World War II that American films usually ignore or overly dramatize—the lives of Europeans under Nazi occupation. Many of its images linger with the viewer well after the end credits have rolled. Recommended.
Winter in Wartime is a Sony Pictures Classics Release, produced by Isabella Films and FU Works. It was filmed on location in Lithuania.
Gerald D. Swick is senior online editor for ArmchairGeneral and other Websites of Weider History Group. He is an aficionado of all types of films, from Pixar animations to Hitchcock thrillers.
All photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.