Monday, August 30, 2010

Norwegian Resistance: Max Manus

When the Russians invaded Finland in 1940, Max Manus and his fellow Norwegian volunteers bravely fought alongside their Scandinavia brothers, halting Stalin’s forces a scant 150 kilometers past the eastern border. When the Soviets’ National Socialist allies then rolled through Norway in a mere two months, it put Manus somewhat out of sorts. This became the Nazis’ problem, when Manus found his calling as a legendary resistance leader, whose deeds are dramatized in Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning’s Max Manus (trailer here), Norway’s official 2009 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which opens this Friday in New York.

Manus had little education and few marketable skills. However, on the Finnish Front, he exhibited a marked aptitude for killing Soviets. Though it left deep psychic scars, Manus would soon rely on his deadly talents in his native Norway. Trained by the British, Manus had spectacular early success sabotaging the German shipyards, but the massive transport ship the Donau remained safely operational. Of course, this unfinished business hardly sits well with Manus either.

Pale and unimposing, Manus hardly looks the part of the inspiring resistance hero. Still, the German occupiers clear pick him as their target to freeze and demonize. As they torture and kill his friends in a desperate effort to get to him, Manus is plagued with agonizing survivor’s guilt. Indeed, in Sandberg and Roenning’s film, he is convincingly presented as a bundle of neuroses, sharing the psychological extremes of both the impulsive Flame and socially awkward Citron, the Danish resistance heroes brought to life on-screen last year.

The vaguely David McCallum-looking Aksel Hennie has the perfect spot-on intensity as the driven Manus. Unfortunately the German Ken Duken (a dead-ringer for Starship Trooper’s Casper Van Dien) is a bit bland as the square-jawed villain. While much of the supporting cast is more or less adequate, functioning as moths to Manus/Hennie’s flame, Norwegian actor-director Petter Næss (best known for the Academy Award nominated Elling) has a memorable scene-stealing cameo as the celebrated Captain Martin Linge.

While some historians argue the Manus bio-film overstates his participation in the Winter War, it is certainly an accurate reminder of where the term “Quisling” came from. It is also surprisingly realistic in its depiction of the war’s emotional aftermath for those that survive.

Heroic but unsentimental, Max Manus is a very good war drama. According to the press kit, 1,000,000 Norwegians saw the film in its first six weeks of domestic release (despite a well publicized case of local piracy). It seems that many Norwegians really cannot be wrong, at least about films. Enthusiastically recommended, it opens Friday (9/3) in New York at the Quad.