Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Good Traitor: Representing Free Denmark

Ambassador Henrik Kauffmann hoped to be something like a Danish Henry Adams, representing his government-in-exile in DC. However, when the government failed to exile itself, he basically assumed that role—and it was a good thing he did. Kauffmann’s extraordinary diplomatic career is the focus of Christina Rosendahl’s The Good Traitor, which opens this Friday in theaters and on VOD.

The Hon. Kauffmann was a natural ambassador, because he and his wife Charlotte always enjoyed entertaining. Unlike many of his Foreign Service colleagues, Kauffmann also readily identified the looming National Socialist threat. He tried to leverage his well-heeled wife’s family connections to the Roosevelts, but FDR will not give him the assurances he is looking for.

Unfortunately, the German invasion happens sooner than even Kauffmann or his hawkish deputy Povl Bang-Jensen expected. In an even worse development, the Danish government remains in place to negotiate compliant terms for the occupation. Horrified by their collaboration, Kauffmann essentially declares his diplomatic mission the highest functioning branch of the free, independent Danish government. Several important embassies back him up, but he really needs Roosevelt to recognize him, especially when the compromised government proclaims him a traitor.

Kauffmann’s cowboy diplomacy makes for a ripping good yarn, which has the added advantage of being completely true. The chutzpah is awe-inspiring, but it was all for a just cause. Far less interesting is Kauffmann’s torch-carrying for his sister-in-law and his wife’s boozy, jealous resentment. Regardless, it is nice to see Bang-Jensen get his due as well. Frankly, Kauffmann’s colleague deserves a film of his own, focusing on his tenure at the UN, where he refused to reveal the names of Hungarian Revolution witnesses to his organization, to protect their relatives behind the Iron Curtain. He was found dead, "under mysterious circumstances,” shortly thereafter.

This might be Ulrich Thomsen’s best performance since
Festen. As Kauffmann, he is flamboyant and roguish, but also tortured and conflicted. He is a more human paragon of diplomacy than Wagner Mauro’s Sergio de Mello, while still being a charismatic leading man. Denise Gough and Zoe Tapper are a bit too melodramatic for our taste as the rival sisters, but Mikkel Boe Følsgaard adds depth with the conviction of his work as Bang-Jensen. The way the film presents FDR is hit or miss, Henry Goodman bears a decent resemblance to president and he credibly humanizes him in several key scenes.

The history behind
Traitor is absolutely fascinating and there are indeed applicable lessons for today. It is a classy period production that even features some vintage era tunes from the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. Very highly recommended, The Good Traitor releases this Friday (3/26).