There are movies that hit all the right notes, and there are movies that hit all the right notes in the sense that you find yourself leaving the theater thinking entirely in movie-poster clichés. A coming-of-age tour de force. Breathtaking, heart wrenching. A new classic. Winter in Wartime, if the somewhat presumptuously generic/timeless/epic title doesn’t give some hint, is one of those movies: a flick that’s a peculiar kind of good that feels a tad manipulative. From start to finish, this just-dark-enough tale of a young boy forced to grow up way too fast in the snowy forests of the Nazi-occupied Netherlands is pulling your strings and doesn’t seem all that concerned about concealing the fact.
A huge part of Winter’s success is its ability to operate at multiple levels simultaneously: It’s a romance wrapped in a WWII movie wrapped in a discomforting statement about the shifting masks of neutrality and complicity within a wartime population under occupation by the very worst enemy. (The continuous stream of Jewish deportees marching through the snow outside of the film’s rural village is a constant reminder of that worst.) It’s smart, a tad violent, and wicked touching.
Winter revolves around Michiel, a preteen who is the son of his village’s mayor, a tortured and tired man forced into compliance with Nazi occupiers. The boy is openly resentful of a relationship he perceives as something close to collaboration. In one scene the father is gifted a rabbit carcass from one of the town’s more open and straight-up collaborators, responding to his son’s protests with “meat is meat.” And survival is survival.
And there is the Dutch resistance movement, with person by person being discovered and hauled off to some godforsaken end at Nazi hands. Through a couple of twists, Michiel finds himself within that resistance cause, sheltering a wounded Royal Air Force pilot in a tiny frozen bunker in the woods. They smoke cigarettes, play with cards that have dirty pictures on them, and, quite suddenly, Michiel has aged 10 years by sheer necessity. It’s become his job and his job alone to get this pilot not only healed but smuggled to safety. Not more than a few days earlier, he and a pal were scavenging through the remains of an RAF fighter, looking for playthings.
There’s a great deal of further tragedy and duplicity that make up the movie’s connective tissue and muscle, with absolutely no plot fat or a second of wasted celluloid. Allied forces arrive at the cusp of springtime. There are parades and cherry blossoms and you’re given the tantalizing hint that maybe Michiel can be a kid again: a closing scene of him whipping a stretch of aircraft tubing through the air to hear its weird hollow hum. It’s a finale that feels so much like cinematic math, and walking out of the theater having had your buttons pushed just so perfectly it’s difficult to deny that, hey, that’s what they’re there for.
Winter in Wartime
Dir. Martin Koolhoven; writ. Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven, Paul Jan Nelissen, Jan Terlouw; feat. Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower, Raymond Thiry, Melody Klaver. (R)