Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Dutch Winter in Wartime

Wars always spell the death of innocence for children swept up in their wakes. However, WWII offers a particularly upsetting lesson in human nature to one Dutch pre-teen. In fact, this tale of German occupation is defined more by intimate familial betrayals than grand historic battles. Both loyalty and defiance have painful consequences in Martin Koolhoven’s Winter in Wartime (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Young Michiel Van Beusekom is an ardent anti-Nazi. He is also just a kid, but he harbors ambitions of joining the underground nonetheless. When picked up by the National Socialists for a minor bit of youthful zeal, Van Beusekom refuses to rat out his neighborhood friend, Theo. This demonstration of character earns him the trust of Theo’s older brother Dirk, a foot soldier in the Dutch resistance, who indirectly involves the boy in a major intrigue. Unfortunately, when Dirk falls in an ill-conceived mission, Van Beusekom becomes the sole lifeline for an injured English pilot hiding in the forest.

At least Van Beusekom has one role model in his underground endeavors: his dashing if regrettably named Uncle Ben. In contrast, he is openly resentful of his father, the town mayor, who obsequiously glad-hands the occupying authorities in order to keep the relative peace. Of course, things are always more complicated than they appear to a thirteen year-old. Van Beusekom will learn this lesson in no uncertain terms.

Based on the partially autobiographical young adult novel by Jan Terlouw, a former scientist and one-time Deputy Prime Minister of Holland, Winter dramatizes its share of wartime atrocities. Yet, it is the complex family dynamics that really distinguish the film. Raymond Thiry gives a remarkably nuanced and humane performance as the elder Van Beusekom. Though technically a supporting turn, it really is the key to the film. Still, Martijn Lakemeier is also laudably natural and convincing as the young protagonist, while the legitimately English Jamie Campbell Bower (a Harry Potter alumnus, no less) adds energy and charisma as the stranded RAF airman.

While Winter could certainly be compared to a host of WWII resistance films and miniseries (like Army of Shadows and Dresden for starters), Koolhoven’s execution is exemplary. This provincial town seems completely real and the surrounding countryside feels bitterly cold. Sensitively lensed by Guido van Gennep, it is a truly artful production. Highly recommended, Winter opens this Friday (3/18) in New York at the Quad Cinema.