The Euro-cultural tradition of canonizing Nazi resisters has met few candidates as challenging as Max Manus, a Norwegian saboteur and key member of the ragtag-guerilla Oslo Gang. Aside from a handful of small, Gestapo-weakening successes (notably, Manus managed to sneakily sink a cluster of German supply ships), this insurgent’s most illustrious claim to fame was the ability to evade death and capture, even as he witnessed these fates befalling the remainder of his comrades in the most grisly of manifestations. Manus is rightfully a national emblem; his exploits can be taken as a mythic metaphor for Norway’s plucky political-economic resilience and Viking heritage, and his memoirs provide a wily, unwholesome template for schoolboy daydreams of municipally mandated mayhem. But the cocky, inchoate underground he belonged to was bungling, self-destructive, and largely ineffectual; any recounting of his story, in other words, must reckon with an unbalanced amount of failure.
It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that the Norwegian-made biographical film Max Manus has bookends of last-man-standing angst to differentiate itself from countless other similarly themed historical action flicks (the muddily paced Flame & Citron and meticulously detailed Black Book among them): The loss of fellow soldiers and ideological brethren is the unavoidable yang to Manus’s razor-edged escape artistry yin. As the movie picks up the rebel’s life during the Oslo Gang’s propaganda-generating incipience in 1940, Manus (Aksel Hennie) is already bedeviled by visions of crimson-stained snowbanks from his gun combat experience in Finland the previous year. We view these memories as enormously influential skirmishes not between Manus and Nazis, but between a proud, nationalist kid and a premature awareness of his own mortality (it’s his Yossarian/Snowden moment, conveniently bundled in jagged, icily inhuman imagery that recalls Inception’s second-to-inner-most dream dimension. But the following series of putatively high-octane set pieces flit glossily and shallowly from one botched terrorist effort to the next; by the time Manus bemoans his lack of confidants (and real life skills) in the third act, we’re wondering where he found the time to metamorphose from a slippery kid with a gun to a self-absorbed twentysomething with midlife social woes.
Considering the actual history embedded in the film, an early adulthood as eventful and storied as Manus’s would presumably be best interpreted with a leisurely episodic narrative that provides room for tangents of self-doubt and painstakingly real-time facsimiles of saboteur tension. Instead, however, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg render a “Max Manus’s Greatest Hits” (or misses, as the case might be) with incessantly dysfunctional rhythms. Aside from an engaging sequence where Manus must leap from an apartment window and land his fractured self in the hospital to cleverly avoid SS interrogation, the movie resolutely keeps us at arm’s length—the innocent-bystander camera angles, unfussy editing, and digital patina are more redolent of Hollywood’s contemporary B drama than a nervously period character study.
The WWII milieu isn’t established with enough detail to be called revisionist per se, though Rønning and Sandberg offer a perspective of German occupation so unhindered by the dread of imminent danger that we occasionally mistake it for fresh. (The re-visitation of “refined” Nazi decadence tropes, wherein the torturing of POW’s is compared to a symphony in so many movements, more comfortingly suggests that they’re not above cracker-thin iron-cross villainy.) Even the staging of Manus’s most unequivocally worthy moment is handicapped with flat-footed cadence that stumbles over the communication of fear; the near-discovery of his wooden, explosive-bearing dingy by searchlights momentarily froths with anxiety, and then we see the bombs being anticlimactically affixed. And very quickly, the hurried succession of impersonally examined wartime missions establishes an eerie and potentially immoral monotony: Neither the futility of the Oslo Gang’s often fatal efforts nor Manus’s irrepressible, Houdini-like survivalism manage to arouse our sympathies.
One could argue that the astounding dearth of feeling in Max Manus is an ontological inquiry upon the saboteur’s life, as well as a subtle persuasion for Manus’s iffy heroism; his occasionally traumatizing luck must have at some level engendered a defensively withdrawn solipsism that discouraged intimacy not only with other people but with the nerve-rattling true grit of his own remembrance. But while this logic forgives the film’s airy, impartial pacing, the lack of a forceful foil to Manus’s aloof, cluttered headspace is deeply felt; more closely following the under-fire development of his personal relationships might have spackled the copious emotional gaps between cut-and-dry reenactments. As it is, Manus barely mourns the torturing of his number two agent, Gregers Gram (Nicolai Cleve Broch); his drunken, half-hearted courtship of brunette resistance liason Tikken (Agnes Kittelsen) is handled passionlessly; and an unlikely confrontation between Manus and his arch-nemesis, the Gestapo commander Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), is so weightless that it reveals how clumsily their rivalry has been portrayed.
Through most of these trials, Hennie admirably plays Manus like an undereducated ruffian who’d rather close his eyes and drift away, but who greets oncoming, unfavorable odds with a wicked determinism anyhow. We eventually empathize with the actor because viewing the film requires the same attitude. Finally, the noticeable lack of punch in Max Manus falls short of the propulsive portraiture this difficult figure demands; the movie itself requires so much effort we have none left for later researching what facts might have been fudged or omitted.