You can form any type of story you wish around it, because so many countries, so many people, so many events were engulfed in the maelstrom of those 6 years that, no matter how many WWII-themed pics are released, you know there’ll be 10 more waiting around the corner.
Which would be a problem if none of them were good. As it stands, some of the best films ever made take place during that time, and in wildly different genres, too: The Survival Pic (The Pianist), The Rescue Mission (Saving Private Ryan), The Redemptive Tale (Schindler’s List) and the daring Prison Escape (The Great Escape), just to name a few.
There are many more, and that’s just my point: you’ll never see them all, and Hollywood will never tire of making them.
Which is why Winter in Wartime is such a treat – not because it is yet another World War II film, but because it’s told from the perspective of a teenage boy and it takes place in a land isolated from the as-yet-to-arrive Americans. This is European War, baby, and the Yankee Saints ain’t Marchin’ In for a while.
Winter in Wartime, set in Nazi-occupied Netherlands circa 1945, tells the story of Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), an impressionable 14-year old who yearns to be part of the war. He wants to be the noble, rebellious type, in part because he knows a few men in The Resistance (among them his idol of an Uncle, Ben), and because he resents his father, the Mayor of their village.
His angst is fueled by that malevolence, as he fails to see the deeper significance of his father’s quandary – the elder tires away relentlessly making nice with the Nazis so that the youth may live to survive the war. And if Michiel doesn’t quite see this, it’s not because he’s a weak character – the film makes him into a pretty adept boy who will soon have his initiation into adulthood – but it has more to do with the rocky relationship inherent in father-son tandems.
So his rebelliousness comes from two sources – his father’s (perceived) aid of the Nazis and a yearning to fight against otherworldly oppressors – and it leads him in a wayward path to discovering and indeed helping a British Royal Air Force pilot who’s crashed some miles outside of the village. When Michiel stumbles upon him, he’s crafted himself a tidy shelter (that RAF training put to good use!) that’s been hidden just enough to keep it out of eyesight of those pesky Nazis.
The rest of the film is a kind of nail-biting suspense-escape hybrid, molding genuine surprises (there’s moles afoot!) with one’s that aren’t so much (the father’s in danger? say it isn’t so!), but it all makes for a decent time in war-torn Netherlands.
What Winter in Wartime does do pretty well is encapsulate authentic emotions in small, memorable scenes. One in particular cements the relationship between the father (played with stoic believability by Raymond Thiry) and the son, as he gives the beardless Michiel an early lesson in shaving. It’s as good a transitory passing of the torch as you could find in a film like this, where intensity isn’t measured by the size or sounds of explosions, but by the chance breakdown of an escape carriage in the middle of a Nazi March.
But scenes like this have a certain deus ex machina quality to them that makes them seem more staged than they should. It isn’t they’re bad, per say, it’s just that they’re predictable. And while that predictability might seem inherent to the whole escape genre – Something Always Goes Wrong – one wishes it was handled a little more adroitly than it is here.
Take a latter, better scene, for instance, where Michiel falls into ice while biking around a frozen pond. His bike lost, his mind panicking, it’s a genuinely scary moment. We don’t see it coming (so if I’ve spoiled the scene, apologies) because his biking isn’t exactly a tense moment. What makes it all the more interesting is that his savior isn’t one of the town locals, but one of the town occupiers – a Nazi reaches in the water and drags him out earnestly, and even gives him a ride into town.
That gesture doesn’t paint the Nazis as a sympathetic lot, it merely paints them as human – goodwill, warts and all. They’d just as soon put you in front of a firing squad as they would save a child from a icy, wet grave.
And while Winter in Wartime does have some of these juicy scenes that make us truly contemplate the waning years of World War II – you see, it’s not only a literal wintry season, it’s also the winter years of the war itself – the majority of the film follows a fairly predictable path. The cinematography is standard – cold, blue tints matching the cold, blue winter – as is most of the acting (father and son aside). So what we end up with is less a feeling of genuine emotional discovery and more of that of a familiar face seen from a younger, more inquisitive perspective; it’s not perfect, but it’s ultimately enough to let you put your faith in yet another tale from the gamut of World War II.
3 1/2 stars out of 5