Sony // 2008 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 14th, 2011
In 1945 Holland, a boy must choose between good and evil.
"You're a real bastard."
Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is a 13-year-old boy living in Nazi-occupied Holland. Through a series of complicated circumstances, Michiel finds himself in the position of aiding a wounded British paratrooper (Jamie Campbell Bower, Sweeney Todd) hiding out in a small cabin in the woods. As time passes, the situation grows increasingly complicated and Michiel has difficulty attempting to figure out which of his friends and family members he can trust. Has the young boy stepped into a situation he's incapable of handling?
One of the most interesting things about Martin Koolhoven's Winter in Wartime is the manner in which it depicts a country existing on the fringes of a massive global conflict. The full effects of the war can't really be felt in WWII-era Holland, though the ominous presence of the Nazis is certainly a source of concern for the locals. Every now and then something alarming will occur (the Nazis march into a neighbor's house or arrest a citizen in the middle of the street), but their actions are vague and infrequent enough that no one really goes into a panic.
Michiel is in a particularly difficult position, as he is old enough to carefully observe what the adults around him are doing but not old enough to be invited into their private conversations. It's a time of immense uncertainty, and there's often no easy way of telling which side one particular citizen may be on. Perhaps a person is co-operating with the Nazis because he wants to, or perhaps because he feels has to, or perhaps he's only appearing to co-operate with the Nazis while secretly plotting against them. One senses that there's nothing Michiel would like more than to know which side he's supposed to be on, who the "good guys" are and how to go about defeating the "bad guys" in an effective manner.
When Michiel makes the decision to aid the paratrooper, it's not because the paratrooper is British or because Michiel has any strong political views. His first motivation is that the young man is wounded, and helping him seems to be the right thing to do. His second motivation is the basic fascination of having a secret project of sorts to work on; in a way Michiel regards the paratrooper as his own personal pet in the woods. Through his interactions with his new friend and through conversations with his father (Raymond Thiry) and Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), Michiel slowly begins to get a grasp on the slippery truth of what is what.
Though Winter in Wartime takes place during WWII, the film hews closer to the suspense/thriller genre. Koolhaven demonstrates a real knack for fusing observant naturalism with immensely polished cinematic technique. That fusion makes for an intriguing viewing experience, as the film frequently shifts gear from an arthouse-like exploration of these people and the world they live in to a brisk, tense thriller. In a way, the intense moments are made more effective by the manner in which they spring forth out of a considerably more sedate film. This is clearly the effort of a top-notch craftsman; don't be surprised if Koolhaven is recruited to helm some sort of American prestige project in the near future.
In many ways, Winter in Wartime feels like a WWII movie for the No Country for Old Men era; an emotionally involving but cynical look at the world that wraps everything in aching shades of gray and delivers unsettling catharsis. When the war ends and people celebrate in the streets of Holland, Martin stares bitterly out the window. He is too overwhelmed by the harsh realities of what he has seen to participate in a parade. And yet, the closing scene is one of surprising optimism and warmth; a tender little dialogue-free moment that concludes the proceedings on precisely the right note.
Winter in Wartime marches onto Blu-ray sporting a very handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The film's cool, wintry palette (dominated by assorted shades of white, blue and gray) is a pleasure to absorb, and the level of detail is pristine throughout. Blacks are deep and inky, flesh tones are warm and natural and the occasional bursts of bright color are striking. Audio is also impressive, highlighted by a fantastic score courtesy of Italian composer Pino Donaggio. It's such a pleasure to hear the kind of intensely emotional music Donaggio provides; it's similar to and on par with his best work for Brian De Palma thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s (and so many of the film's best moments owe much of their impact to the power of the score). Dialogue (usually Dutch, but sometimes English) is clean and clear and the spare sound design is distributed in an immersive manner. The only extras are a brief making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.
Winter in Wartime may be a somewhat inconsistent film, but it delivers several cinematic moments of remarkable power and acquits itself well enough the rest of the time. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, too.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Dutch)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy