Winter in Wartime (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Winter in Wartime seems to be an ideal film for tweeners and young teenagers to see and then discuss with an interested adult.



One of the most obvious questions you can ask about a film is, "Is it any good?" With some films this question requires a clarification: "Good for whom?" Usually this is not a problem because most films are created and marketed with a specific audience in mind, and it’s pretty clear who that audience is. It doesn’t matter if the intended audience is adorable preschoolers, horny teenagers, or the art house crowd; answering the "is it any good?" question just requires matching the movie with the appropriate audience and then evaluating it in terms of that audience.

This preface is relevant to Winter in Wartime because it’s not at all clear to me who the intended audience is for this film. It carries an R rating in the U.S., which means that not many children the age of the young protagonist (13) will get to see it, yet it has too many hallmarks of a juvenile film to satisfy most adults. The 12-A certificate Winter in Wartime received in Great Britain makes more sense; it means that children under the age of 12 can only see it if accompanied by an adult, while for teenagers there are no restrictions. Winter in Wartime seems to be an ideal film for tweeners and young teenagers to see and then discuss with an interested adult who can help them process the more disturbing material and the ethical dilemmas faced by the film’s characters.

Winter in Wartime views the tail end of World War II in the Netherlands through the eyes of 13-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), who still thinks of war in terms of grand adventure and longs for a heroic role for himself. When a British plane crashes outside his window Michiel and his best friend Theo (Jessie van Driel) run out to explore the wreck, but Michiel is caught and taken to the local Nazi commander for questioning. His father Johann (Raymond Thiry), the town mayor, gets him released but Michiel despises his father for maintaining cordial relations with the Germans, failing to understand that Johan chose this path to try to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

Michiel’s idea of a proper hero is his uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a resistance fighter who arrives bearing a suitcase full of contraband goods, including a radio and stolen ration cards. In the meantime Michiel locates the hiding place of Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), pilot of the downed aircraft, and begins bringing him food and play-acting adulthood in Jack’s underground bunker by smoking cigarettes and playing cards with a pin-up deck. Jack has a serious leg injury (or not so serious, since it seems to improve and worsen according to the needs of the plot) forcing Michiel to enlist the help of his older sister Erica (Melody Klaver), a nurse, to treat it. But Michiel still thinks of Jack as his own special project and is sure he can smuggle him out of the woods, past the German occupying force, and down the road to Zwolle where Jack has connections who can get him back to England.

Winter in Wartime is a boilerplate coming of age film. We see Michiel change from a self-centered child to a young adult through a series of experiences that force him to reevaluate his view of the world and the people in it. The problems with this film from an adult point of view are several. Most obviously it is constructed around a series of trials and obstacles that are overcome so easily that they soon lose their bite and simply become repetitive. The relentless focus on a single character (everyone else is a minor supporting player at best) and the inclusion of many similar scenes starring this central character (I lost track of how many times we saw Michiel peddling his bicycle down a snowy path) quickly become tedious as well.

There are several silly action scenes that surpass anyone’s ability to suspend disbelief, and overall there’s a distressing lack of reality regarding the privations of a population that had already suffered through five years of war. The winter covered by the film is known in Dutch history as "the hunger winter," but everyone in Winter in Wartime looks remarkably well fed. Despite the blue palette nobody looks particularly cold either, not even Michiel after he falls through the ice and is fished out by a friendly German soldier. It’s not just the Dutch who are looking improbably prosperous; although the German army was worn down to the nub by this point in the war, Michiel’s small town is patrolled by an amazing number of healthy twenty- and thirty-year-olds. Finally, the crucial "now I am a man" scene so closely parallels a previous scene that it insults the audience’s intelligence—assuming the audience consists of adults rather than 12-year-olds who are just learning to appreciate film as an art form.

None of these objections would be as serious if Winter in Wartime were clearly presented as a juvenile film. One doesn’t expect as much narrative complexity or adherence to grim realism in films for young teenagers, and the focus on a boy around the age of the intended audience would make perfect sense. Even the highly improbable chase scenes could be excused if the film were meant for younger kids with short attention spans, as a means to keep them interested between stretches of heavier material. However there are also several bloody murders, a sex scene (not that it’s explicit enough to fret anyone outside of the U.S.) and some extreme emotional trauma that make it questionable for unsupervised children. It’s too bad, because Winter in Wartime was a hit in The Netherlands (where it had a 12 certificate, meaning it was not recommended for children younger than 12), and it could serve as a good vehicle to help American children understand the European experience of World War II. | Sarah Boslaugh



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