Another entry in the plethora of global cinema mining the depths of WWII and/or Nazi themed cinema is this title from the Netherlands, Winter In Wartime, a not so odd pick-up from Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard considering their previous releases in The Counterfeiters and The White Ribbon straddle along such war dramas. Winner of the Golden Calf Award, as well as Best Actor (Martijn Lakemeier) and Best Supporting Actor (Raymond Thiry) at the 2009 Netherlands Film Festival, this Dutch title is certainly glossy and logically coherent, (especially in comparison to fellow countryman Paul Verhoeven’s similarly themed fare, the entertaining, hysteria laced Black Book, 2006) the generic, somnambulistic thrills leading to foregone conclusions make Wartime’s bland narrative one of the most declawed Nazi features of recent memory.
Set in a small Nazi occupied village in the Netherlands, the film opens with a spectacular looking plane crash in a wintry landscape. A 13 year old boy, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) witnesses the crash, from which there is one survivor, a young British paratrooper, forced to kill a German soldier that also witnessed the crash. Michiel, son of the village’s mayor (a man who, you can tell within seconds, is obviously collaborating with the Nazis) hides the boy in an underground lair—though the thatched roof doesn’t seem as inconspicuous as perhaps they hope it to be. Michiel bonds with the young Brit, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower, best known for his involvement in the Twilight series) but since he is wounded, Michiel must entrust his sister Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse, for help. Erica, of course, takes an immediate fancy to the young Brit. Meanwhile, on the home front, director Koolhoven reveals the true nature of this story as a coming-of-age-tale rather than a WWII melodrama. Michiel’s relationship with his father seems obviously strained and this is aggravated by the sudden presence of his Uncle Ben, who may well be part of the Resistance.
Wartime is a beautifully photographed film, and the snowy landscapes, enduring whiteness, falling snow, and wide shots of empty fields create a haunting mood of desolation. However, the film (based on a source novel by Jan Terlouw) doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before. Both as a tale that evokes the atrocities of WWII and as a coming of age tale, the film fails to provoke or entice. While the film operates at its best as visual genre fare, it suffers tremendously from some serious melodramatic slow motion moments, including a cringe inducing scene where Michiel is running towards the town square to stop an execution. Alas, a rather lazy and not altogether compelling last minute twist reduces the climax to a rather banal tale (in fact, a much more compelling Dutch feature set during Nazi occupation is the 1992 Jeroen Krabbe starrer For a Lost Soldier).
The film’s strongest asset is the visually captivating landscape. Enhanced by the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the muted and muffled hues of whites and blues evoke the dreary, wartime desolation and helplessness of occupation; as the Nazis blight the village, the snow blankets the landscape. The audio presentation is crisp, clear and explosive at times.
The Making of Winter In Wartime
The only special feature included in the Blu-Ray DVD Combo Pack is a behind the scene featurette which focuses on principal cast and director. However, the featurette is in Dutch without a subtitle option.
Unable to find an even ground between coming of age tale and war time drama, Koolhoven’s feature rather painstakingly and awkwardly tries to make the point that sometimes one can never know who to trust and people are never who they seem, the weariest trope explored in coming of age cinema and thrillers. And while the director takes pains to show Michiel as a young man still able to have fun engaging in activities for young boys with his friend at the film’s conclusion, I could only think of how ineffectively Winter In Wartime concludes itself. Koolhoven’s previous features are unavailable stateside, which is a pity since I am curious to see his work in another genre, perhaps not based on such heavy material.