When you’re young, good and evil seem like simple concepts. For Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), the boy at the center of the thought-provoking Dutch drama Winter in Wartime, the distinction couldn’t be more obvious.
As the Nazis occupy his small town through the harsh winter of 1945, Michiel learns just how blurry his youthful moral clarity can become.
Michiel begins the film as a fairly typical teenager, goofing around with his best friend while cavalierly irritating the German soldiers. He’s protected somewhat by the status of his father (Raymond Thiry), the town’s mayor, who maintains a subservient friendliness toward the occupiers.
Michiel is disgusted by this and idolizes his mysterious uncle (Yorick van Wageningen), who has ties to the Resistance. When he learns that a wounded British soldier (Jamie Campbell Bower) is being hidden in the nearby woods, Michiel impulsively joins the cause, with shattering consequences.
Michiel has the classic teenage combination of idealism, bravery and stupidity, which leads him to admirable actions that can only turn out badly. Newcomer Lakemeier has a natural grasp of his character’s contradictions, and watching him lose his naïveté is both heartbreaking and exhilarating. He may not grow up completely by the end of the film, but he has learned a great deal about living in the real, difficult adult world.
Director Martin Koolhoven, adapting Jan Terlouw’s 1972 novel, maintains the constant tension of a world where every stray word or glance could lead to tragedy. He relies too much on melodramatic shorthand (slow motion, swelling music), and a last-act plot twist is a bit hard to swallow.
These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise powerful and distinctive film, whose stark landscapes reflect much more than its physical setting.
Winter in Wartime: 3 stars out of 4
Rated R Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes
In Dutch and German with English subtitles