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Near the end of World War II, 14-year-old Michiel becomes involved with the Resistance after coming to the aid of a wounded British soldier. With the conflict coming to an end, Michiel comes of age and learns of the stark difference between adventure fantasy and the ugly realities of war. Written by
Pusan International Film Festival
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An involving story, well acted, and confidently directed
Based on the autobiographical novel by Dutch author Jan Terlouw who spent five grim years under Nazi occupation and was arrested several times, Martin Koolhoven's Winter in Wartime is the coming-of-age story of a teenager who becomes involved with the Resistance when he helps a wounded RAF soldier hiding from the Germans. Written by Paul Jan Nelissen and Mieke de Jong and set in January 1945 in a small town in Holland (but filmed in Lithuania), the film is seen from the perspective of 13-year-old Michiel who, in addition to dealing with the normal problems of a teenager, must handle his complex feelings towards his father, the town's mayor, euphemistically called a "neutral" or, more directly, a Nazi collaborator. Michiel is played by Martijn Lakemeier who, despite having acted for only two months prior to the film, does a highly creditable job playing the bright but naïve teen.
Though his father, Raymond Thiry (Johan Van Beusekom) has the wounded look of someone just caught stealing, he loves his son and the scene where he teaches him how to shave is genuine and quite touching, though Michiel has little respect for his dad's cozy relationship with the German occupiers. The story becomes more involved when Michiel's Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) shows up and assumes the role of a mentor to the boy, a status abdicated by his father. Though Ben is protective of Michiel and tries to keep him from getting involved, the boy inadvertently becomes part of the resistance when he finds a British soldier, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), hiding in an underground bunker deep in the forest and brings him food and together plan his escape.
To add more tension, Michiel recruits his sister Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse, to care for the wounded flier, a meeting that develops into a personal relationship. As the film moves to an unpredictable climax, it becomes challenging for Michiel to fully grasp where people's loyalties really lie, and this lesson is learned the hard way as part of his maturing process. Winter in Wartime avoids the usual Nazi stereotypes and presents the Germans as human beings, though Koolhoven's even-handedness becomes hard to swallow when "friendly" German soldiers stop to help Michiel and Jack repair the broken wheel of a horse-drawn carriage, not asking who they are or where they are going.
Though the film is set in occupied territory in the middle of a war, it lacks a gritty look and feel. Koolhoven makes choices that constantly undermine the film's realism such as Michiel running in slow motion towards a firing squad to try and prevent an execution and a lush musical background of soaring violins that does not seem appropriate to the circumstances. In spite of its flaws, Winter in Wartime is an involving story, well acted, and confidently directed. Though they will learn little about the full extent of Nazi brutality, the film should appeal to students seeking to better understand historical events they have only read about in history texts.
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