Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Review of Winter in Wartime (Koolhoven, 2008)

Winter in Wartime
Directed by Martin Koolhoven
Starring: Martijn Lakemeier, Jamie Campbell Bower, Yorick van Wageningen, Melody Klaver, Raymond Thiry
Grade: C -

Written for In Review Online:

It’s been a case of “close, but no cigar” for Dutch cinema lately, with Robocop helmer Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book narrowly missing out on an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. “Winter in Wartime,” a story set in Nazi-occupied Holland and which chronicles the attempts of its inhabitants to resist fascism, bears many similarities to that film – including that, in 2009, it too made the Academy’s nine-film shortlist, and was callously left out in the cold. Set in a small village in the early months of 1945, “Winter in Wartime” follows 14 year-old Michiel (Lakemeier), whose hostility towards the Nazis is tempered by his mayor father, and welcomed by his somewhat roguish Uncle Ben. When Michiel winds up with a note penned by a dead member of the Dutch resistance movement, it leads him to a woodland bunker, and injured teenage British soldier Jack (Campbell-Bower).

In its capture of setting “Winter in Wartime” emerges neither as stylistically-polished as Jonathan Glazer’s piece of ice-art, Birth, nor as delightfully unpredictable as the fateful terrain of Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but still manages to impart a wondrous visual potency in its grainy winter texture and sparse, snow-laden landscape. Pallidly cinematic, the film amounts to a rather postcard account of forgotten, small-town battles and the universality of conflict in its small-scale souvenir of rebellion. It’s an enticing way of drawing us into this rural pocket of war-torn Holland, but one often feels as if the heightened picturesque too inextricably ties “Winter in Wartime” to exactly what it says on the tin: a confessional prioritisation of visual climate over social climate. Despite the suggestively chilly title, for significant spells Koolhoven’s film itself isn’t all that frosty a depiction of downtrodden crossfire-victims, like we’ve tended to see lately in humanist war tales Defiance and The Way Back, and even more so than in these two films “Winter in Wartime” often reveals a foolish tendency to mollycoddle its subject matter.

Koolhoven is keen to accentuate the cutesy, precious nature of Michiel’s involvement in the resistance by piling mawkish sensibility onto his relationship with Jack, and promoting the film as some kind of historical heavy-hitter told through the eyes of innocence. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas used a technique of dumbing down politics through infantile exchanges to force through its emotional payoff (to a much more offensive degree) but “Winter in Wartime” is certainly just as wary of alienating its audience by being too inherently bleak. Michiel’s adolescence emerges in the ever-reliable first-time shaving experience scene; Jack’s blossoming relationship with the boy’s sister Erica allows the two to become makeshift brothers-in-law, and some gamely, mistranslated banter to occur. In spirit, tone, and execution these scenes feel much too juxtaposed as featherweight filler to the intermittently cheap realisation of war as a cruel, unforgiving entity – which is hardly a novel concept.

Just as the script appears to be encouraging Lakemeier (on this performance, a promising young actor) to branch out from the “boy becomes a man through forcible trauma” saga, it resorts to find contrived ways to pummel home his childhood angst. Male authority figure-syndrome is a difficult enough proposition for those whose fathers have left for war, but “Winter in Wartime” is content to plague its protagonist with too many men to consider at home. Michiel’s Dad is the local Mayor, exercising his influence with peacemaking caution, but little passion for either cause; his younger Uncle a maverick, charismatic leftie with energy to burn. It’s set up simply through the boy’s eyes as a question of Serious Politician versus Fun Freedom Fighter, with a pinch of political spectrum adding flavour to the theory of which man is the correct role model. The film later shoots down any sense of poignancy this avenue bore by succumbing to polarised characterisation and a plot twist that takes devastation and whacks you about the head with it. The suggestive patience and promise of the film’s visual temperament alarmingly dissipates with the sledgehammer over-emphases placed on Michiel’s emotional maturation, charted largely through misjudged familial freakouts. Add to that that these moments spurn tenderness for scatterbrain editing, a rousing score, and unnecessarily slow-mo depictions of unequivocally raw DRAMA, and “Winter in Wartime” really does become a bit of an eye-rolling chore.

The dulcet flavours of the era infuse a vague charm, but peer more closely into the filmmaking psyche and this is a rather insidiously-schemed exercise in shock tactic cinema. In the fight against Fascism the film leaves no keystone of trauma unturned, even managing to make room for a tear-choking scene involving the boy and his horse – who gets put out of his misery well before “Winter in Wartime” quite reaches its own indignity. War brings out the best and worst in people –to equal degrees of extremity – and makes us all either martyrs or demons. Call that Poignant if you will, but ‘lazy’ feels like a more apt way to describe this Narnia-like advocacy of Dutch courage.

"Winter in Wartime" is currently playing at selected cinemas in the U.S.


Anonymous said...

The story is sittuated in the Netherlands, not in Poland.

Cal said...

Oops! A slip of the mind there, it seems :-) Must be used to watching the Polish suffer.