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Movie: Winter in Wartime

By Gene Santoro 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: March 30, 2011 
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Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter)
Directed by Martin Koolhoven.
2008; opens in the U.S. March 18, 2011.
103 minutes. Black and white, with subtitles.

January 1945: the heart of what the Dutch call Hongerwinter, when nearly 20,000 starved to death after the Germans embargoed food imports to retaliate for the Resistance's September 1944 national railroad strike. From his room, decorated with model planes, 14-year-old Michiel looks out across this snowy backdrop, shot in crisp period-piece black and white, to see a blazing British fighter crash into the woods outside his village. It fires thoughts of romantic adventure with the Resistance, like he imagines his older friend Theo and his uncle Ben have. It also begins his descent into war's hell, where he discovers nothing—his family, friends, or world—is quite what it seems.

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Michiel increasingly despises his father Johan, the village mayor, for trying to deal with the Germans while insisting he is saving lives. He adores his uncle Ben, who badgers Johan for information about other Resistance members in the area, but is brushed off with the same reasoning. After Theo is arrested for Resistance activities, Michiel searches out Jack, the downed British pilot Theo hid in the woods. He offers—boldly, naively—to guide Jack to his contact, and freedom. From here on, the plot's suspenseful twists quicken. Michiel's world has been peopled by clearly defined good guys and bad guys. But as he bumbles through his teen dreams of heroism, he plunges into war's blurry smear of muddy grays.

Dutch wartime history is, like most occupied nations', murky and tangled: until 1944, most people avoided resisting or collaborating and merely strove to survive. Perhaps that's one reason Dutch directors seem especially good at making movies depicting war's ironic, pitiless paradoxes: witness Paul Verhoeven's award-winning Black Book (2006). Director Martin Koolhoven is less surreal and provocative in his vision, but no less focused on the interplay between human foibles and heroism. Like two of his earlier films, this coming-of-age melodrama is based on a best-selling novel by politician-scientist Jan Terlouw; as a boy, Koolhoven was, like millions of Dutch kids, a Terlouw fan. His movie version is finely paced, entertaining, thoughtful, and visually captivating, propelled by sinewy plotting that moves its spare but appealing characters across the inscrutable bleak landscape toward an uncertain future lit only by hope.


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