Monday, April 25, 2011

Caitlin's Review of Oorlogswinter

Out of Breath a review by Caitlin Murphy

Perhaps my first comment to my Dutch viewing companion upon exiting the Dutch film Oorlogswinter – “Wow, you guys really like to ride bikes, eh?” – sums up how deeply the film’s characters, story and themes collectively affected me: not very. Though Winter in Wartime was short-listed for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2010 Academy Awards, it’s easy to see why it never made the final cut of nominations.

Directed by Martin Koolhaven, Oorlogswinter is based on the celebrated Dutch novel of the same name by award-winning children’s author, Jan Terlouw. Written in 1972, the story focuses on Michiel, a teenager living in the Netherlands during the final year of WWII, when parts of the country remained under Nazi rule. Michiel idolizes his Uncle Ben, who works for the resistance, and reviles his father, the city’s mayor, who must play diplomat with the Nazis and has no room for inflexible ideals. When a British pilot crash lands in a field near Michiel’s home, the boy accidentally becomes involved in the resistance himself, helping the wounded pilot remain in hiding and eventually escape.

The story obviously has plenty of young male appeal, and speaks directly to a common fantasy: getting to instantly throw off the dull limitations of childhood and plunge into an adult world of heroics, hushed voices and important affairs. Michiel’s movement into this new world is depicted as an embracing of secrets and silence; he removes the card that flips noisily between the spokes of his bicycle, and retires his beloved manually-charged whirring flashlight. In a nice bookend, the film’s final image features Michiel spinning a rubber tube recovered from the airplane crash over his head; as he listens to its whirring sound, he smiles, rediscovering the simple truth that childhood is noisy. As it’s based on a children’s book, the film’s lessons are expectedly simple and clear: innocence can be lost, but also regained; virtue and villainy often walk hand in hand (a Nazi rescues Michiel after he falls through ice); and unwavering idealism isn’t always the most honourable or fruitful path.

There are a total of four credited writers for Winter in Wartime, a number that might not have helped in the already tricky work of adapting a novel to the screen. Some promising attention to detail and nuance early in the film, quickly become subsumed by the demands of plot; the film proceeds at such a hurried, galloping pace that you can almost see the filmmakers ticking off plot points as they whip past you. Typically, the most precious sacrifice made in the transition from novel to film is simply breath. There is no exception here, as major events– the execution of a primary character, the profound deception by another – just don’t have enough space to emotionally resonate or register. Indeed, the film felt a bit like that onslaught one experiences when listening to an excited child tell a story: it’s a frantic, rapid fire succession of “and then, and then, and then…” in which no single “and then” is more stressed than another and overall coherence is largely absent. The novel was previously adapted into a television mini-series in 1975, and I’m guessing that the increased length and protracted nature of that format offered much richer opportunities for adaptation.

There’s something about the wartime setting, especially about WWII, and especially especially about Nazis that leads audiences to assume high drama and vaguely expect a substantial, important story. We can’t help ourselves: we unconsciously prepare to feel deeply solemn, receive profound themes and confront harrowing truths; in short, we gear up for a certain kind of story, even if we can’t really articulate what kind of story that is – it’s the inherent challenge of such a loaded setting. There is a collapsing of genres here – in loose terms, ‘boy’s adventure story’ and ‘war picture’ – that results in a jarring clash. Given the pacing demands mentioned above, the setting becomes too oddly relegated to the status of backdrop.

Ultimately, Winter in Wartime is a competent, but not very artful, rendering of a nationally beloved text; indeed, I suspect the film earned most of its acclaim by hitting a sweet-spot of collective nostalgia for Jan Terlouw’s original novel. Beyond that, it’s never really able to transcend an awkward Hardy Boys vibe, or the need to puff and pant its way through plot. Films like this one are tough: obviously you want to recognize tragic chapters in history, pay homage to a country’s most painful periods (especially when that country is represented by the person you love sitting next to you in a darkened theatre), but when a film falls flat, it falls flat, and no sense of duty to the historical record or national pride can revive it. There’s life, and then there’s art. They have a lot in common, but often much less than we think. Yet another adaptation of the novel is slated to open in 2011. This time, a musical. Oh boy. I can just see the “Dans van de Fietsen” now…

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