Director Harald Zwart’s 12th Man is set in occupied Norway in 1943, and it’s a very cold film. An early chase sequence sees baying flares rip across the night sky, turning the fog bank a mustard haze, as a lone figure eludes his pursuers by slinking down into dark, icy water. He runs through gray and white forests, his foot blackening with gangrene. There’s a moment where one character wonders, “Have the Germans stolen our Northern lights?” It’s a fair question, as brightness, it seems, has been lost from the land.
This lone figure is Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), a Norwegian instrument maker and resistance operative who flees Nazi forces from Troms, via Manndalen, and finally to safety in neutral Sweden. Though to say he flees is to downplay the role of almost everyone Baalsrud meets along the way: He’s carried on the broad shoulders of a fisherman, hidden in a hayloft by farmers, and, in one spirited sequence, lashed to a sleigh and dragged along by a reindeer. (“The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place,” the audience is reassured at the start of Zwart’s film.)
Though the national spirit is strong in 12th Man, at times it’s driven home with clumsy sentiment. At one point, Baalsrud is handed a piece of cake to celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day and told, “The eggs are from Olaf. And the syrup is from Ludwig. The cream is from Peder…Seigne baked it. Their eight-year-old made the flag for you.” One wonders if they began making the cake before the war broke out. Still, what remains is a tale of bravery, not just of the lone hero, but of the many ordinary people along the way who decide to help. Indeed, in reality, Baalsrud requested to be buried in Manndalen, obviously feeling a deep kinship with the place and its people.
Throughout 12th Man, Baalsrud is doggedly pursued by Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a member of the Gestapo whose ashen face suggests the man has seen a ghost—and, indeed, he spends most of the film chasing one. His peers, convinced of Baalsrud’s death, look at him as if he were mad. One scene sees Stage testing the water’s temperature to see how long his target could have lasted in the fjords. Waist-deep in the water, the man—stripped of his leather overcoat, his eyes trained on his pocket watch as his body begins to shake—is like a knife, stropped and ready to draw blood.
Stage is a fascinating figure. It’s doubly irritating, then, that his crusade is trammeled by clumsy writing: At one point, someone says to Baalsrud, “They say no one has escaped him before. So for him this is personal.” What a pep talk. Baalsrud surely doesn’t need to hear that it’s personal, and viewers certainly didn’t. We need only glance at Stage’s face. It’s a shame there isn’t more made of him. We’re shown glimpses of a man transfixed by his mission. In another moment, realizing his prey has slipped by right under his nose, he crumples over and grips a gate as if his innards were made of stone. Who is this man that his mission seems to weigh so much on his body and soul?
Where we spend most of our time is on a long journey through a cold landscape—one charged with Hitchcockian thrills. Baalsrud’s precarious cross-country trek recalls The 39 Steps. One set piece sees him channeling Cary Grant in North by Northwest, desperately scrambling to outmaneuver a swooping plane as snowy blasts erupt all around him in thrums of machine-gun fire. It’s ironic, then, that what 12th Man is sorely lacking is tension. What we end up with is less a cat-and-mouse game between an intelligence agent and Nazi forces than a grueling test of endurance as Baalsrud desperately clings to life in the icy wilds. Swaths of the film are given over to periods of glacial inactivity: nights spent stowed under rocks, in caves and cabins, and buried in snow. 12th Man shifts from a gripping chase in its earliest moments to a long game of survival. At 130 minutes, it isn’t a short film, and its most intriguing elements, much like Baalsrud’s rations, are in short supply.