Sunday, April 22, 2018

Film Notes: Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)

Winter in Wartime is a Dutch film about life in Holland in the last days of the Nazi occupation of their country during WWII. As the title suggests, the entire film takes place during the last bleak Winter of the war and it centres upon the life of the van Beusekom family, as they respond to the pressures of life under tyrannical occupiers.

The central protagonist is the teenage son, Michiele, and concerns how he became drawn into the war, despite the stern warnings of collaborators and resistance fighters alike, to remain apart from it. Michiele's father is the town mayor, who has to deal directly with the Germans, and takes the approach of seeking as friendly relations as possible with them, in order to ameliorate the suffering of the people. His cheerful hand-shaking with the Nazi commander, might win the occasional reprieve, but is seen as great treachery by the resistance, as represented by Michiele's jovial uncle.

The delicate balance as difficult negotiation between occupiers and the occupied, is shattered when a British plane is shot down in the woods outside the town, and the body of a dead German soldier found near the scene.

When local resistance members are shot, Michiele, finds himself as the only person who knows where the Allied airman is hiding; and takes responsibility for him - and his sister soon falls in love with the airman after bandaging his wounds. The action (all rather nicely shot, against the snow-bound landscape) unfolds around a gripping tale of betrayal, loyalties and reprisals; and ending with a couple of unlikely plot-twists.

While this film was apparently wildly popular in Holland, it received quite a few hostile reviews here, which I thought were unfair. It's true that showing a harrowing scene in silent slow-motion has been done before and might be thought of a cliched, but is a technique that rater closely mirrors the way in which memory works; and so its use isn't as dreadful as some reviewers might suggest. It might be true that this isn't a film bursting with action, or making huge statements; but I thought it was gripping, and the characters engaging and the acting strong. My gauge is watching films such as this, is whether I care about the fate of the characters or not. Some films just fall totally flat on this score, and I find myself counting the minutes until the credits roll. Poor writing, lack of character development, or just wooden acting can all act as a switch-off to engagement with a film; but despite some of the critics moans; I found that I really did care about these characters as the film built to its conclusion. Would Michiele negotiate the complexities of a situation that was way beyond him? Would the British airman survive his wounds, and the intense search for him by the Nazi's? Would Michele and his sister get caught protecting him? What would the resistance, and Michele's uncle do? Who kept betraying resistance men, and would the airman be handed over? Needless to say, all these pot lines converge into a surprising finale, which held my attention to the very last frame.

This film might not appear in the 'greatest films ever made' lists which appear all over the internet; but it's a fine piece of work; embedding a very believable story into a grim historical context and drawing the viewer in through the universal themes of childhood, loyalty, good v evil, danger, survival, betrayal and love.

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