Directed By: Martin Koolhoven
Cinematography: Guido van Gennep
Winter in Wartime is an understated film that is best summed up as ‘hit and miss’. In some regards it does well in offering a delicately told story – albeit not remarkably original – that is refreshing to consume in comparison to the hallmark glitz and gloss of the Hollywood wartime dramas. However, where the film starts to make encouraging strides to a war drama that is truly dramatic instead of pure action, it fails to go the distance. The end result is that you leave the film thinking more about what you missed rather than what you enjoyed.
Essentially Winter in Wartime is a coming of age tale of the young Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) living in a small Dutch town in the closing months of Second World War. The 13 year old hero of the story finds himself on the precipice of adulthood, dangling his toes over the edge, desperate to be a part of the greater drama that is circling around him. When an RAF pilot is downed in the forests outside the village, Michiel finds himself caught up in tending to the pilot’s injuries and ultimately assisting him in evading the Nazi’s and attempting to escape back towards home.
Michiel is the son of the town Mayor Johan, a conservative and pragmatic man willing to appease the Nazi’s in return for peace for his townsfolk. But young Michiel cannot sense the fragility of the situation and views his father with disdain for cooperating with the Nazi’s. Despite this friction, Michiel and his father share a close bond, best demonstrated in a gentle scene where Johan teaches him how to shave with a straight razor, despite being completely beardless and probably a few years shy of his first stubble.
Michiel’s Uncle Ben arrives to stay with the family, much to the delight of young Michiel who adore’s his uncle, even asking his mom if Uncle Ben can stay in his room. Ben is a resistance fighter, smuggling in contraband such as tinned sardines and a radio. In the eyes of Michiel, Ben is a hero resisting the Nazi’s and living a life full of adventure. Ben stands as the antithesis of Michiel’s own father, Johan.
Winter in Wartime does flourish in a few areas. Firstly, without any big name actors (from a Hollywood perspective) the performances are great – particularly of young Michiel himself. Many times I find a great story is let down by less than convincing performances from unknown actors. But it seems that with European cinema this not often the case. The characters – whilst not all developed brilliantly come across as believable and genuine as opposed to being stereotypical and forced.
The cinematography and look of the film has a far more art house feel than the typical hues and feel from Hollywood. When watching Valkyrie – a big budget Nazi war story with Tom Cruise – one is very conscious of the fact that it’s a Hollywood production. There’s a rawness to the look and feel of Winter in Wartime that captures the harshness of the time. Everything has a blue-grey look with very little bright colour shown in the snow-covered landscape. This visual direction has an effect on the viewers sub-conscience, starving them of colour and reinforcing the overall themes of repression and struggle.
I loved how Winter in Wartime is a war time drama that steers away from the big action and explosions we’ve come to expect. The story focuses on Michiel and his internal struggle to play a part in the world around him, whilst at the same time having to confront the realities of personal betrayal.
Having said this, one leaves the film feeling it could have been far more gripping and emotional. I felt there wasn’t enough attention given to Michiel’s father, we neither love him nor hate him, but rather just view him for the appendage character he is. There were other areas where the potential for the suspense of the moment to be capitalised were missed. It felt that the key moments of the film came and went without leaving too much of a lasting impression. Ultimately where there wasn’t action there needed to be more interpersonal drama and tension. Unfortunately Winter in Wartime misses the chance it had to be a truly great film, instead settling for visually beautiful but ultimately forgettable.