Flame & Citron (IFC Films, NR)

film_flame_sm.jpgYou may sometimes feel as uncertain as the characters about who is telling the truth and who is lying.

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It’s a truism that historical films are never really about the period in which they’re set: they’re about the period in which they’re made. So while the action of Flame & Citron takes place in Denmark during World War II, the real subject of the film is the moral ambiguities which are inherent in any armed conflict, including America’s current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there’s one important exception: We’re not the occupied country, so for most Americans both wars are abstractions occasionally mentioned on the news rather than daily realities which force us to make moral choices we’d rather avoid.

Citizens living in an occupied country don’t have the luxury of distancing themselves from the reality of war, and that’s what makes Flame & Citron, based on real events, so compelling. Director Ole Christian Madsen opens the film with what appears to be newsreel footage of uniformed Danish Nazis joining the Germans on the first day of the occupation with a voiceover narration from Flame: "They came out of the dark. They had been awaiting the day." So you can be sure that what follows will not be an uncomplicated, morally uplifting tale.

Instead, Madsen creates something much more interesting: a film noir set in wartime where there’s moral ambiguity almost everywhere you look as well as large measures of heroism, treachery and ordinary human failings. The title characters are members of the Danish resistance group Holger Danske and their specialty is the execution of Nazis and Danish collaborators. Flame (Thure Lindhardt) is a flamboyant risk-taker seemingly oblivious to the fact that his red hair (the source of his nickname) betrays his identity almost as clearly as a name badge, while Citron (Mads Mikkelsen) is a failed family man who pops amphetamines and is tormented by the lives they have taken.

Things get more complicated when Flame becomes involved with the beautiful Ketty (Stine Stengade), despite signs from the beginning that something’s not right with her. Flame and Citron both begin to suspect the motivations of their superiors and their lives are in constant risk: We see several resistance fighters executed and know that there’s a hefty bounty on their heads.

There are no easy payoffs in Flame & Citron and the story is complex; you may sometimes feel as uncertain as the characters about who is telling the truth and who is lying. However, it’s also a supremely rewarding experience for those who have the patience to follow the story as it unfolds, and Madsen accomplishes the difficult task of celebrating the courage of the resistance fighters without turning them into cardboard cutouts. The story works as a thriller while capturing the surreal quality of the characters’ existence in which long stretches of ordinary life are punctuated by flashes of extreme violence.

The acting is uniformly excellent, as is Jørgen Johansson’s cinematography which, although shot in color, suggests through its muted tones and limited palette the feel of a black-and-white film. The technical crew, including production designers Friborg Nanna Due and Jette Lehmann, art directors Jens Löckmann, Anja Müller and Søren Schwartzberg, and costume designers Manon Rasmussen, Margrethe Rasmussen and Rikke Simonsen marvelously recreate the feel of wartime Europe while also including artistic touches which remind you that this is a feature film, not a documentary. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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