Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is a Dutch boy, about 12 years old. It is 1945 and the Nazis have occupied Holland. Life goes on in the small town where Michiel’s father is mayor, but one has to be careful about what one says. It seems everyone is either hiding an enemy of the state, or collaborating with the Nazis, so you can’t afford to be too open with your neighbors.
On the side of the resistance we have Michiel’s uncle Ben, who comes to stay with the family. Ben has interesting things in his suitcase — ration cards, a homemade radio, a pistol — obviously he’s got something to do with the resistance. And Michiel’s friend’s older brother Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg) approaches him with a letter and a story prefaced by “if I don’t come back....”
Meanwhile, Michiel’s father, the mayor of the town, plays collaborator to the Nazis, which earns him a little sway with the occupiers at the expense of the respect of his children.
It wouldn’t be much of a movie if Dirk didn’t get arrested by the Nazis, which allows Michiel to open the letter — without showing it to his uncle (“the first rule of war is that you don’t tell anyone anything”). The letter leads leads him to a wounded English pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), hiding in a bunker in the middle of the forest. Michiel adopts the pilot as his contribution to the resistance, bringing him food, comfort, and when necessary, medical assistance. The plan will be to eventually smuggle the pilot to another town, 40 kilometers away, where he can catch the underground railroad back to England.
Stealing Focus from Children
R for some language
Winter in Wartime is not a bad movie until the plot developments rain down hard and heavy. When they do, they yank the movie away from being about what life is like in a small occupied town, and turning it into some sort of action movie for the art-house crowd.
Winter in Wartime sets itself up as a film about a child witness to war. There are some excellent movies in the genre that have gone before: Forbidden Games, Hope and Glory, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Empire of the Sun. When they are excellent, it’s because they are true to their essence. They are about the loss of innocence, the Eden-like acquisition of the knowledge of death.
The young actor Lakemeier sells all the moods of childhood, from defiant capability to pouting helplessness. The winter landscapes are stark and cold; the movie takes you there, although the film print I saw looked a little too crisp, as though scanned up from a digital source.
Winter in Wartime, however veers off into more traditional plot developments that have more to do with screenwriting school than with the essence of children and mortality. In many war movies there is a scene where the civilian protagonists are in danger of being discovered. In Winter in Wartime that scene turns into a shootout, a chase scene, two elaborate stunts, a vehicle crash, and finally a mercy killing. The sense of gaping wonder gets shot, run down, and crushed under the demands of the trio of credited screenwriters.
War’s Effect on Children, and Vice Versa
To some degree this movie is about whether a young teenager can play a role in war — in this case the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupiers — or whether children should stay back and let the adults run things. That’s an interesting question that I haven’t really seen in a movie before. Michiel is obviously old enough to travel, deliver messages, scramble through the countryside, and hide from soldiers. But he lacks the wits to know how to handle fragile information in a world of secrets.
The last scene of the movie seems to say that it’s possible to grow up in wartime and yet become a child again. For me, that seemed too facile, another cheat from the screenwriters playbook. I think with what Michiel went through, he must aged far beyond his years; and aging is a one-way street. Once eaten, the fruit of knowledge can’t be uneaten. Perhaps I’m wrong about child psychology, and if so that could be an interesting discussion, but I think it’s more likely that the three screenwriters just liked the nicer ending better.