Martin Koolhoven’s exquisite “Winter In Wartime,” (The Netherland’s Oscar entry, 2009) is based on the popular children’s book by Jan Terlouw. Artfully bridging a boy’s adventure story, with the harsh truths of World War II, tracks the wartime loss of innocence of 14-year-old Michiel, an unlikely hero.
Michiel (Martijn Lakemeie), son of the mayor of a small town near Zwolle, hungers for adventure. From his bedroom window, Michiel spies an RAF plane going down in flames. Michiel and neighbor Theo search the wreckage, recovering a stopped watch. Spotted by a Nazi patrol, they escape, but everyone recognizes the Mayor’s son. When Michiel and his father (Raymond Thiry), are called before the local Nazi Commander Auer (Dan van Husen), the only color relieving Koolhoven’s icy grey palette, is the red of the Nazi flags and Michiel’s ruddy cheeks. (Koolhoven never uses warm tones till Armistice as people celebrate in the street.)
Theo’s older brother Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg), a resistance member, asks Michiel to deliver a letter to the village blacksmith Bertus, in case he doesn’t make it back by morning. The raid is betrayed, Dirk is arrested and Bertus is is shot by the Germans in front of Michiel, whose father manages to free Dirk’s father, joking with the Nazi’s who’ve come to arrest him.
Michiel misunderstands the patient compromises his father makes to protect those around him. In Michiel’s eyes he’s a coward, schmoozing the Nazi High Command. He lionizes his mother’s brother, charismatic Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), the family resistance fighter. Whenever he visits it’s a house party.
Michiel’s itching to get into the Resistance fight despite Uncle Ben’s warning” if you get mixed up in this, I”ll chop your head off.” Opening the letter Michiel finds a map leading him to a cave where British pilot Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) is hiding. Jack expects Bertus or Dirk, but it’s up to Michiel to bring Jack to a contact in Zwolle. Jack learns to rely on Michiel who brings him food, and his sister Erika (Melody Klaver). As Michiel and nurse Erika tromp through the woods, they’re spotted by suspicious neighbors and Nazi patrols.
Koolhoen captures the queasy feeling of occupation, everyone is suspicious of everyone, and even eye contact is suspect. When Dirk is arrested, and later his father, Michiel assumes it’s sneaky Schafter (Ad van Kempen), but neighbor Schafter has his own reasons to fear detection. Assuming responsibility for Jack, Michiel shies from even telling Ben anything, but finally he gives Ben a fateful message to deliver to England.
Nothing is simple in this moral tale. When Michiel falls through the ice, the one who risks the ice to haul him out is a Nazi soldier, as townspeople watch idly from the bank. A shaving scene between Michiel and his father brings them closer together. Thiry creates a subtle portrait of a practical man of resolute goodness, whose heroism Michiel understands too late.
The war turns Michiel into a man. In the shifting boundary between good and evil during wartime, he makes tough decisions. Seeking the hidden flyer, the Nazi arrest and execute locals. Attempting to save his father, Michiel realizes he would betray Jack if it would help.
The film never loses momentum. Relationships are drawn with great emotional resonance. Anneke Blok (as Michiel’s mother) has a powerful scene when she tries to visit her imprisoned husband. Jack and Erika become a wartime couple.
Shooting exteriors in Lithuania, Koolhoven recreates the famous snowbound “Hunger Winter” of 1945, using real, plastic and digital snow, used to stunning effect in a chase on horseback.
Pino Donnagio’s score, featuring a boy soprano, recurrent themes for Michiel and his father, and rich operatic moments, recalls the lyric scores of classic italian films.Floris Vos’s subtle period settings, Guido van Gennep’s artful widescreen landscapes and judicious handheld camera work, Job ter Burg’s unobtrusive editing and Pino Donaggio’s marvelous score make for a seamless, classic package. Opens March 18, Laemmle Royal.