Winter in Wartime
How To Make WWII Uninteresting
Starring: Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen
Review by Robert Patrick
Filmmakers continuously draw from the monochrome pool of barbed history that is World War II. It’s a repetition compulsion fueled by an acrimonious past that binds us all together. The timeline of atrocities finds itself wrapped around the wrists of every continent; the history of this great tragedy cakes our emotions and crystallizes the human memory. Because of the universal hardscrabble that is mankind’s brooding past, the big WWII is an easy topic to choose when making a high calibur drama.
“Winter in Wartime” is a snowy kaleidescope of gray overcoats and gaunt expectations; people wade through their lives, faces whittled with despair, as they plug their shoes into the frigid snow. The film focuses on a child’s experiences living in an occupied village in Holland. The Nazi venom has oozed into the political pores of thirteen-year-old Michiel’s hometown, and everyone, especially Michiel’s family, is affected by the albatross government of the socialist regime. Like many movies before it, “Winter in Wartime” sweeps you up in the fragility of innocence. Superb efforts were “Closely Watched Trains” and “Ivan’s Childhood”. More recently, however, these films dealing with children in war torn Europe have become more sedated and accessible, making the brutish rule of Nazi occupation seem no more hardbarked than a spry neighborhood bully; annoying but not overtly terrifying or unmanageable. At first there was “The Boy in the Striped Pajammas”, which felt more blindly inspirational than caustic and vehemently real, and now there is “Winter in Wartime”, a film that feels like a Hallmark movie. There’s something about director Martin Koolhoven’s opus that seems more potpurri than pragmatic. Why, at the end of this film, am I feeling not quite jilted but irreproachably confused by the anemic authenticity of this picture. I know the story is based upon a semi-autobiographical novel, but the director presents “Winter in Wartime” with more sheen than academic knowledgability. To present a story of this magnitude, there needs to be some sort of operating table realism that puts the clawhooks into your chest. As it stands, the narrative feels forced from the first frame to the last.
I don’t question Koolhoven’s passion to bring “Winter in Wartime” to the screen, but I do question his ability to project his vision adequately. I feel like Koolhoven is attempting to play something as dramatic as Beethoven, but while attempting this his fingers miss half of the keys. There are no pure moments in “Winter in Wartime”, there are only pratfalls created by dubious concidences and awkward plot devices; at one point a carriage, carrying an injured British airman, attempts to sneak by German troops and, conveniently, loses a wheel to a rock. Much of what happens here is so cliche that it tightwalks being deplorable. There are even scenes of slow motion yelling (as you can see in the screen capture above) that aren’t so much dramatic as they are distracting. I also don’t understand why a resistance fighter can be shredded by Nazi gunfire, keel over in the fresh snow, and then be dragged away with not so much as a pool of blood from his vicious exit wounds. Unless he is a helium baloon and not a person, I’m not sure what this states other than laziness to details.
I suppose the lack of complex adult personalities in “Winter in Wartime” could, reasonably, be equated to our adolescent narrator; the experiences shown in the film are through his eyes and not the grown-ups. This sort of existential wanderlust was appropriate in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”, but in Koolhoven’s opus it really just comes down to poor execution, not a textualized commentary about the interpretive gap between adults and children in varying levels of stressful situations.
“Winter in Wartime” is a sad, but ultimately easy to swallow, look into the dark past of Europe in WWII. There is inexplicably little to feel in a movie about something so seemingly emotionally supercharged. I can simply try to equate it to someone singing karaoke to a classic song and not really understanding the meaning behind the words; as an audience, you recognize the composition, of course, but you don’t feel the visceral nature of the song’s original power.