A coming-of-age story told against the background of the last months of World War II in the Nazi-controlled Netherlands, Martin Koohoven’s s film is based on a young person’s novel by Jan Terlouw, who actually experienced the occupation. “Winter in Wartime” is a solid, unhurried piece of work that doesn’t provide the adrenaline rush its subject would seem to invite, but may be all the more powerful for its deliberation.
The adolescent hero of the piece is Michiel von Beusekom (newcomer Martijn Lakemeier, giving a performance of remarkable control), the son of Johan (Raymond Thiry), the town mayor. He has mixed feelings about his father, whom he obviously loves as a son but despises for his attempt to maintain a friendly relationship with the Germans for his constituents’ sake. Michiel is far more drawn to his uncle Ben Yorick van Wageningen), who’s connected with the resistance.
Michiel’s direct involvement with the war begins when Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg), the older brother of his pal Theo (Jesse van Driel), entrusts him with a message to deliver to the local blacksmith in the event that he doesn’t return from an assault on a Nazi weapons stash. When the blacksmith’s killed trying to escape the Germans, Michiel himself goes an isolated forest cabin where he finds Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), a wounded British paratrooper to whom the boy immediately offers his help. And he enlists his sister Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse, in the effort, which gets even more difficult when the Nazis find the body of a German soldier Jack had killed and take reprisals for the death.
Much of what follows in “Winter in Wartime” won’t be unfamiliar. The Nazi habit of punishing locals for the killing of their soldiers comes into play, and the easy distinctions people draw between collaborators and heroic resistance fighters are blurred by betrayal; and Michiel is directly affected by both. Romance inevitably blossoms between Erica and her patient—causing no little consternation for her brother, who becomes proprietary over his role as Jack’s protector.
But while the elements might not be terribly surprising, they’re used quite effectively by Koolhoven, who generates considerable tension even at the chosen slow pace. And he doesn’t paint the occupiers in simple colors; the Germans come across as oppressors, of course, and some of them are simply nasty. But in one scene some soldiers help repair the broken wheel on a carriage Michiel is driving, and another rescues the boy after he’s fallen through the frozen surface of a lake.
The last scene also points up one of the movie’s major virtues—its atmosphere of frigid bleakness. It was shot during the winter in Lithuania, and the cold is palpable. While the shoot must have been sheer misery for the cast and crew, it certainly pays off in an atmosphere that enhances the narrative. The locations are beautifully caught in cinematographer Guido van Gennep’s gray, subdued widescreen compositions.
In addition to Lakemeier, Koolhoven draws excellent performances from the rest of the cast, with Thiry especially effective as the boy’s conflicted father. But it’s the young star who’s the linchpin of the picture. Through him one can actually see an adolescent struggling to understand and deal with adult things, and the film can successfully dramatize how difficulty the process of maturation is. It also raises questions about the nature of heroism that older viewers, as well as youngsters, can benefit from.
The conclusion of “Winter in Wartime” will hardly melt your heart, but it won’t insult your intelligence.