Flame and Citron, as the name suggests, is both passionate and piquant; a tale of firebrand resistance and bitter betrayal in a climate of heady suspicion and conflict. Based on real events and set in occupied Denmark towards the end of World War II, it brings to life an iconic Danish resistance duo, codenamed Flammen (The Flame) and Citronen (The Lemon). Their story is captured with the gusto, panache and sometimes ramshackle efficiency of its protagonists.
The film opens with newsreel footage of the 1940 invasion of Denmark, accompanied by the words:
Do you remember when they arrived? Do you remember April 9th? I think you do. Everybody does. All of a sudden they were everywhere. The Gestapo, The Wehrmacht, Abwehr, SS. All the German corps. German Nazis. Danish Nazis. They came out of the dark. They had been awaiting the day. Did you go outside and watch? What were you thinking?
The narrator is speaking to a generation and global audience who, for the most part, will not recall these events first hand but, through his direct address, he forges the close association of a shared history. He asks us as spectators to share in the indignation and see the treachery and violation as if through eyes of the time; immediately immersing us in this fractured, duplicitous world.
Occupied Denmark during World War II was described by the Nazis in propaganda materials as “a model protectorate”, i.e., they claimed the invasion was an act of protection to prevent the Allies from seizing control, and it was intended as a paradigm of minimal interference. In this way Denmark was, initially at least, permitted to function relatively normally. The government remained largely intact and reluctantly promoted cooperation, whilst the police and judicial system stayed in Danish hands and King Christian X retained his position as Danish Head of State.
However, as the war progressed, relations grew increasingly strained and in August 1943 — after demonstrable public dissent and the government’s refusal of a new raft of impositions — the German authorities dissolved the government and began to subject the Danes to the undiluted brutality of Nazi reign, including the removal of Jews.
Flame and Citron is set during the hostile, tail-end of the occupation — in 1944, the year in which Copenhagen resisted and the whole city went on general strike — but contains flashbacks to earlier in the occupation. Its heroic couplet are Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Thure Lindhardt) known as Flammen, because of his flame red hair and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (Mads Mikkelsen) a.k.a. Citronnen, who had worked in a Citroen plant where he sabotaged German cars and trucks.
The duo are members of the Holger Danske group, one of the largest Danish resistance groups of the period. The pair carry-out executions of informants but a conversation with an intended target, who may not be the villain he seems, Gilbert (Hanns Zischler), leads Flammen to question their orders and the integrity of their work. Further complicating matters, and a source of potential jeopardy, is Flammen’s pursuit of the mysterious Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade), a woman with an ever expanding list of connections.
The film is a compelling, urgent portrait of violent, paranoid times, and questions what it is to be a hero. It is exuberantly confident, economical film making, with a running time in excess of two hours but which, given its stripped down pacey structure, feels a fraction of that. Director Ole Christian Madsen favours short scenes, fast editing and shorthand characterisations. However, for all its entertainment value, this technique gives a feeling that these are mere snapshots of the Danish resistance.
Madsen is a slick filmmaker and proves himself amply gifted in scene-setting, but there are issues and characters here which demand further development and overall the picture lacks the requisite dramatic heft. In addition, a more minor quibble is that, although for the most part it is bold and imaginatively executed, on occasion stylistic flourishes don’t come off: there are a number of fast zooms which seem off-kilter and jarring for example, and war film clichés aren’t entirely side-stepped. On the other hand, the performances and design of the film, from the wonderfully iconic costumes to the recreation of the time period frequently impress.
Ultimately, Madsen has delivered a film which is unashamedly thrilling and accessible; a York (or Cliffs) Notes version of the Danish resistance if you like. Although he succeeds in capturing an impression of the story and period, like his renegade heroes he is loathe to linger, and thus the finer details elude him.
Given the picture’s factual origins and the fascinating history of the period it is an unforgivable omission not to have included at the very least a commentary and feature, giving us a context for the duo’s heroics. Instead, rather pathetically, we just get a trailer.