Coming-of-age pathos, daring chases, narrow escapes, a fiery plane crash, Nazi brutality: Martin Koolhoven packs it all into the suspenseful, artful Winter in Wartime. Yet the net result is to dull, not heighten, the effect of a compelling story.
The bitter Dutch winter of 1945 finds 14-year-old Michiel passing time in the Nazi-occupied town where his father is mayor. School is out and the boy chafes at not having a part in the war. When he discovers a wounded British airman, hidden by resistance fighters who have since been captured or killed, Michiel takes responsibility for helping the young man escape, relishing the adventure.
Meanwhile, Michiel’s uncle Ben has come to stay, and Ben’s anti-Nazi fervor makes Michiel question his father’s more accommodating actions toward the occupying forces. When the adventure sours as the harsh reality of war intrudes, Michiel must rely on his own judgment in deciding how to act.
From Michiel’s perspective, the early moments of Winter in Wartime play “like a boys’ novel”, as director Martin Koolhoven puts it in the making-of featurette from the Blu-ray disc. When Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) and his friend Theo sneak into the cordoned-off site of a plane crash, the charred fuselage might just as well be one of the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in Michiel’s room. “Brains!” Theo says as Michiel holds up a helmet he finds in the wreckage. The two boys laugh, just before they’re run off by the Germans. Even after he sees the Nazis shoot a local member of the resistance in the street, Michiel underestimates the danger he’s courting.
Soon Michiel, following the trajectory of the coming-of-age plot, starts putting away childish things. Koolhoven cleverly grafts the timeworn markers of this plot onto his war story, thereby lending them greater resonance, and gradually turning the story “darker” (again, in his words). Michiel takes up smoking, he plays cards; his father teaches him how to shave. On his way home after meeting Jack, the airman (Jamie Campbell Bower), he stops his bicycle to remove the card he has clothespinned to the frame so that it will flap against the spokes of the wheel. It’s an economical way of indicating Michiel’s growing maturity, but also reflects the boy’s dawning understanding of the possible consequences of his actions.
Winter in Wartime, like many stories with a male adolescent protagonist, focuses on Michiel’s struggle over which of several male role models to emulate, but here choosing correctly is a matter of life and death. Is his father a collaborator, or a man taking great pains to remaining neutral in order to protect the townspeople? Is his beloved uncle Ben a resistance fighter, or a double agent working for the Nazis?
When the brutality finally touches Michiel’s family, the epiphany at the heart of all coming-of-age films (the discovery that adults are fallible and vulnerable, and their motives complex, ethically murky, and at times simply inscrutable), turns from bittersweet to bitter in the context of war. But just when we expect Michiel to become a man, he instead becomes an action hero.
Koolhoven brings to the screen the very elements of a boy’s adventure story that he’s scripted Michiel to reject in favor of a more sober assessment of the world and how it works. Granted, Michiel remains a tentative, reluctant action hero, and the climactic chase, escape, and confrontation between Michiel and Ben lack the polish and departure from reality that would have characterized a Hollywood adaptation of the story. Still, Winter in Wartime stops being a character study to become an action film, albeit an understated one.
It seems the director can’t help himself. In the featurette he reiteraties his insistence that the film realistically portray war. Jan Terlouw, author of the popular 1972 semi-autobiographical novel (same title) upon which the film is based, makes an appearance, and explains the horrors of war. Yet Koolhoven isn’t telling a story about war so much as he’s making a war movie, a genre that has always fascinated him. “It’s like playing with little trains” he gushes of the action sequences. The attitude is evidently contagious. “It’s like being in an Indiana Jones movie”, Jamie Campbell Bower says.
Just as the wax and cardboard Nazis melt away at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, so does the meditation on growing up in wartime fade with the arrival of gunplay and heroics as Winter in Wartime comes to a close. It’s a shame. Newcomer Lakemeier imbues Michiel with all the awkwardness, frustration, and tentative confidence of an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, and that should have been enough to carry the film.
The featurette is the only extra on the Blu-ray, and is not included on the DVD that also comes in the combo pack.