Saturday, June 29, 2013

SHOULD I READ IT? Winter in Wartime (2008)

                “Winter in Wartime” is a Dutch movie based on a young adult novel by Jan Teurlouw.  It was directed by Martin Koolhoven who decided to aim at a more mature audience than the book.  The film was a huge hit in the Netherlands and was voted movie of the year by the Dutch press. 

                The film is set in occupied Netherlands in January, 1945.  A British plane crashes outside a Dutch town and the surviving crewman is forced to shoot a German soldier who discovers him hanging from a tree that his parachute is ensnared in. A fourteen year old boy named Michiel (Martin Lakemeier) and his friend stumble upon the crash site and their faces evidence the excitement of teenage boys who see only the glamour of war.

                 The local town is divided between citizens who collaborate with the Germans and those who secretly work against them.  Michiel’s father is the mayor and he is in the group that tries to tolerate the Germans as a matter of survival.  This is contrasted by Michiel’s uncle Ben (Yorick van Wangingen) who is associated with the Resistance.  Although Michiel does not resent his father’s attitude, he clearly idolizes his uncle.  The movie avoids cliché by not putting Michiel in the middle of a struggle for his soul.

                Michiel’s teenage world is overturned when two friends are outed as Resistance members and Michiel is left as caretaker of the British airman Jack (Jamie Bower) who has been hidden in the forest.  Michiel is thrilled with the adventure of it all.  Michiel is forced to involve his sister Erica (Melody Klaver) because she is a nurse and Jack has an injured leg.  Naturally, romance develops.  Uncle Ben is also brought in because Jack has a package that needs to be delivered back to England.

Erica and Jack (no, he's not a vampire)
                Two escape attempts by Jack and Michiel are foiled.  Meanwhile, the Germans discover the body of the dead German and take hostages in the town to force revealing of the “murderer”.  Michiel’s father is one of the hostages.  Jack wants to turn himself in, but Uncle Ben promises Michiel he can get his father released.  No one questions how a shady resistance operative will convince the Nazis to do this.  Uncle Ben promises more than he can deliver.  However, he will make up for this by aiding in the escape of Jack.  This gets complicated when one of the quartet turns out to be not who they seem to be.

don't you want to know who
Michiel is about to shoot?
                “Winter in Wartime” is a well-made film.  The winter setting is snowily pristine which is contrasting to the underlying malevolence of Nazi occupation.  The cinematography is an interesting blend of styles.  There is some hand-held, some slo-mo, and some POV.  The score is your basic epic orchestral.  It fits well.  Not too pompous or manipulating.  The movie is not violent or graphic and the language is not strong.  It is very perplexing why this movie was rated-R. 

                The plot has weaknesses.  The several escapes are implausible.  The Nazis lack persistence and Jack and Michiel are two lucky dudes.  The romance between Jack and Erica seems thrown in, but it does not sour the movie.  The strength of the plot is in the twisty, thought-provoking ending.  The film finishes strong.  The theme of how war affects young people is explored effectively.  Michiel evolves from wide-eyed innocence to hardened stoicism.  His excitement upon discovery of the downed plane and then the downed airman contrasts with some of the very hard adult decisions he ends up having to make.  Within a week he goes from teenage boy to prematurely aged young man.  This has been seen before, but Lakemeier is up to the task.  The rest of the cast is satisfactory.

                The film attempts to explore the dynamics of an occupied town.  Some of the citizens (like neighbor Shafter) are collaborators.  Some, like Michiel’s father, are just trying to survive by tolerating the Nazis.  Others, like Uncle Ben, are actively working against the occupiers.  This was reality.  The movie clearly depicts the dangers of being in that last group.  Curiously, the movie does not take the time to develop empathy for the Dutch people. The townspeople are not really suffering under Nazi domination.  There are some shocking examples of violence, but they seem thrown in to advance the plot.

so, you thought war was exciting?
                I meant to read the book in conjunction with this review, but my local library could not get it.  Based on Caroline’s excellent review at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, it is apparent there are some differences between the movie and the book.  I gathered from what Caroline writes that the parents in the book are much more involved in the Resistance than they are in the movie.  Michiel’s father is not an ass-kisser like Shafter, but he is not using his home to aid the Underground.  Caroline says:   Every night they open their doors to distant relatives, people on the run, displaced persons, provide shelter and food for one night.”  This does not happen in the movie which is good because the movie widens the gulf between the father and the uncle. The movie also does not really show hardships like hunger affected the people.  The movie does not spend a lot of time on the village dynamics.

                “Winter in Wartime” is an entertaining movie, but does not belong with the greats of the Resistance subgenre.  Focusing on a teenage boy is a nice touch and instructive.  Although the director targeted it at a more adult audience than the novel, the movie still works best if aimed at a teenage audience.  It has an important “what would you do?” vibe to it.

grade =  B-


  1. I watched and reviewed a while ago and seem to remember I was a bit disappointed. i watched right after having seen Max Manus, Flame & Citron and Black Book. Obviously unfair for this movie.
    Now that I read your review, I'd say the book is better. Shafter isn't a collaborator but everyone thinks so. And there is a good reason why. That leads to the same twist as in the movie.
    There is also a love story in the book and Erica gets an important part.
    One perosn who read along and teaches YA literature will include it in hr course, which is a good sig, I think.
    While it may not be the best resistance movie, it's very good at depicting an occupied village, as you pointed out as well.

  2. Your comment about Shafter is intriguing because I was puzzled towards the end when Shafter sees Jack and Michiel going to hide in the family shed and just nods to Michiel and apparently does not turn them in. This happened after the movie implied that Shafter ratted them out leading to the ambush at the ferry.

    As far as other Resistance movies, it is definitely not better than the ones you mention, but it is superior to "Army of Shadows" LOL. An interesting comparison would be to "Come and See".

  3. Shafter is involved with the Nazis to disguise the fact he is hiding Jews. Martijn and Jack catch a little Jeiwsh girl named Sarah playing in the snow in his front garden when they sneak Jack to Michiel's house. The girl is allowed to play outside briefly at night, when nobody can see her. But then Shafter calls her back inside and destroys her snowman, evidence of a child living in his house. Knowing Michlie has seen all this and connected the dots, Shafter gives him a nod: two people both defying the Nazis, reocnising one another. It's quite a good scene, telling a lot without words.
    This movie is based on a well-loved and awarded Dutch children's novel. For strange reasons, it seems to have been quite mismarketed abroad as being aimed at adults. In The Netherlands, it received a 12+ rating, lower than in most other countries. This movie was aimed at young teens, and probably also younger children who can handle the topic. It's not a movie for adults, but it can certainly be enjoyed by adults!


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