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European Cinema

Kolkata IFF screenings 2: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009)

Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel with Anneke Blok as his mother

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) was possibly the most successful film I saw in Kolkata, partly because it offers a conventional genre film which is both entertaining but also suggestive of an attempt to explore aspects of the wartime German occupation of Holland through the experiences of a young teenager.

The premise is straightforward. The main protagonist is Michiel, son of the mayor of a small Dutch town in 1943/4. Looking for excitement, he and a friend visit the crash site of a downed RAF Mosquito, searching the wreckage for souvenirs. Michiel is arrested by the Germans but is let off when his father intervenes. This is the first of several references to how families respond to the occupation. Is the mayor a collaborator? Initially, Michiel is unaware that one of the two RAF men bailed out and, from his position dangling from his parachute caught in a tree, shot and killed a German soldier. The Germans are keen to find whoever shot the soldier and enquiries begin.

When a friend entrusts Michiel with a message and is then arrested, the teenager decides to disobey his father and uncle and get involved in the Resistance, albeit on his own. He reads the message, discovers the wounded airman in the woods and plots to get him to safety. The final third of the film becomes an exciting chase narrative as a resourceful Michiel tries to effect the safe passage of the airman across the local river.

There are several reasons why the film works so well. Not least is the wintery landscape, beautifully presented in CinemaScope in very muted tones. In fact, I first began to write about the film thinking that I’d seen a B+W print. I was reminded of one of my favourite war pictures, Carl Foreman’s The Victors, which includes a memorable scene in the snow when an American deserter is shot by a US Army firing squad. Added to this is the high level of the performances by the whole cast, but especially Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel. He actually looked and behaved as I imagine boys in the 1940s did – I have photographs of my brother in the late 1940s and this is my yardstick for ‘authenticity’. Although the film is a genre narrative with conventions intact – Michiel’s older sister is an attractive nurse who naturally falls for the equally attractive young British flyer – there is also an attempt to resist typing. Apart from the stereotypical Nazi commander of the local forces, the Germans are shown as real people not monsters and the real focus is on the Dutch community and how it responds to Occupation. Michiel is the recipient of two acts of kindness from German soldiers who unwittingly help him when he is actually working against them. The narrative is a clever mix of ‘boys own adventure’ and serious questions about how to behave under Occupation, who to trust and how to deal with family loyalties and issues of patriotism in the context of real life and death situations. All credit to writers Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven and Paul Jan Nelissen who adapted the novel by Jan Terlouw and to Koolhoven who directed the film.

Winter in Wartime (an accurate title, but not a commercial one?) follows other recent attempts to explore aspects of the ‘Home Front’/Resistance in Holland (Black Book, 2006), Denmark (Flame and Citron, 2008) and Norway (Max Manus, 2008). Like the last of these, Winter in Wartime is an Oscar contender. Other recent war films discussed on this blog include the Polish-American Defiance and Spike Lee’s Miracle of St. Anna. One suggestion is that the current period offers the last occasion to remember the war while there are still survivors of the period alive. Another suggestion is that the birth of the ‘new Europe’ of the expanded EU has prompted filmmakers to explore the recent histories of their countries. However, it’s worth noting that there has also been interest in the First World War with young people in particular interested in what their great grandparents experienced. So perhaps the genre will survive for some time yet.

These European war films have generally been popular in their own domestic markets but a quick glance at IMDB suggests that in the Netherlands audiences have to some extent divided between those that prefer the action-driven Hollywood style of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and those that rate the more muted drama of Winter in Wartime. I’ve only seen part of the Verhoeven flick but I think that both films are worthwhile entrants in the current cycle.

The Dutch trailer for the film is here on the official website.

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