Wednesday 21 March 2018

Oorlogswinter (Martin Koolhoven, 2008)

I think I'm correct in saying that the very last article I wrote for iet and Freek's Holland Focus was a review of Martin Koolhoven's Brimstone.  I recently noticed the DVD release of that film on a supermarket shelf, and although it's not a movie I want to revisit especially soon (if at all), it prompted me to dig out Koolhoven's previous effort Oorlogswinter.  It's hard to believe that this film is now a decade old (Koolhoven let a full eight years pass between Oorlogswinter and its successor), and if you've never seen it, the tenth anniversary of the movie marks as good a time as any to familiarise yourself with a work that's greatly superior to the bloated, gruelling Brimstone.

Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is a Dutch teenager living under the Nazi occupation of WW2; he resents his mayor father (Raymond Thiry) for co-operating with the occupiers, but is in awe of his Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), who is part of the Dutch resistance.  As the Nazis clamp down on the resistance, Michiel finds himself privy to a piece of highly sensitive information regarding the location of RAF pilot Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), who was shot down and has been hiding out in the woods.  Michiel finds the pilot and supplies him with food and medical assistance - the latter courtesy of Michiel's nurse sister Erica (Diep's Melody Klaver, excellent), who is attracted to the injured British airman.  Jack is desperate to get across the river to Zwolle, and Michiel risks (and loses) a lot in an effort to make the perilous crossing possible. 

With its focus on a boy enduring and fighting the Nazi occupation, Koolhoven's film carries echoes of Elem Klimov's masterpiece Come and See.  Klimov's film - which is one of the greatest war films ever made, and one you should seek out if you haven't already done so - appears to be an obvious reference point, although Koolhoven's treatment of the subject is far more traditional.  Which is almost a given; few films contain the nightmarish, hallucinatory qualities of Klimov's Byelorussian-set shocker.  But Koolhoven pulls off a trick much like one Klimov achieved in Come and See in showing a young protagonist dramatically age as he's exposed to the cumulative horrors of the war.  While Koolhoven's take on this isn't so spectacular or traumatic, the Michiel seen laughing and playing at the start of the film is soon replaced by an overburdened young man, and we do wonder if this visibly careworn figure can recapture any of his boyhood innocence.  Lakemeier is superb here, and he's entirely convincing as a boy growing up far too quickly.

While the film appears to settle down into something formulaic, the latter stages feature some real white-knuckle tension and several developments which haven't been obviously telegraphed.  Koolhoven may have dressed up his film as a routine WW2 tale, but it's perhaps this reassurance of sorts which enables him to pull the rug from under us (more than once) as the movie heads towards its dénouement.  The film gives the overall impression of merely being a solid, well-crafted tale, yet the more thought you give to it the more you notice the interesting flourishes Koolhoven has brought to proceedings.  Hindsight allows us to clearly see that this director has much more talent than his most recent film might suggest, but he needs to employ the kind of restraint which is present here yet is sorely lacking in the unbridled, overcooked BrimstoneOorlogswinter, which is based on Jan Terlouw's 1972 book of the same name, also demonstrates a fine economy of storytelling - a lot is packed into less than 100 minutes, whereas Brimstone took an awfully long time to get where it was going.

It might seem unfair to repeatedly, unfavourably compare Brimstone to Oorlogswinter, as beyond sharing a director there is not much else to link the two films.  But thinking of Koolhoven's career, it is disappointing that he didn't build on all the fine things he did with Oorlogswinter.  Clearly, he sees himself as an auteur, even dispensing with his first name on the opening titles for Brimstone - but the Koolhoven brand presumably (and paradoxically) means little to the English-language market the director was looking to make inroads into.  It's by no means uncommon for a filmmaker to misfire when they move outside of working in their first language, but Oorlogswinter (which, incidentally, features a fair smattering of English dialogue) signalled a director who'd be sufficiently savvy to sidestep such pitfalls.

Nearly one million people saw Oorlogswinter when it was first released in Dutch and Belgian cinemas, but it's still a film that deserves to be seen far beyond its home territory; unfortunately, on more than one occasion it has found itself bundled into a WW2 box set alongside some low-quality straight-to-DVD titles, and it deserves much more than that.  The UK R2 standalone edition of the DVD (which features the original Dutch/English/German audio track, plus English subtitles) can usually be had for a reasonable price.

Darren Arnold

Image: Dik Nicolai [CC BY-SA 4.0]