The midsummer release of Flame & Citron, Danish director Ole Christian Madsen’s edge-of-your-seat, based-on-actual-events thriller, which follows the titular code-named heroes as they wage battle with the hidden forces of Nazi evil during the German occupation of Denmark in 1944, makes perfect sense. While a film about the Resistance would seem more suited to the end-of-year, SS-centric season, Madsen’s ingenious piece of Academy catnip has more in common with Michael Mann’s Public Enemies than it does with last winter’s atrocious Daniel Craig-fights-Nazis vehicle Defiance (never mind that our hero Citron is played by Bond villain Le Chiffre himself Mads Mikkelsen). Madsen’s tour de force is a gangster flick through and through.
And a luscious, evocative period piece that, with its slick costumes, orchestral mood music, sensuous production design, deeply saturated film stock, and grandly lit operatic style, conjures up not just Europe during WWII but Hollywood during the Vietnam era. Indeed, Flame & Citron is what Bonnie and Clyde would have looked like had Coppola helmed that classic. (Madsen’s film even contains a heart-pounding, blindingly bright daylight-set, “blaze of glory” shootout scene.) But echoes of the Coppola sensibility don’t end there. There’s the tightly wound script, which teems with unforeseen twists and turns, spies and double agents that seem to breed like cockroaches, and which doesn’t even begin to spring open until the end. And a top-notch acting ensemble that includes Thure Lindhardt as the baby-faced killer Flame and the Kyra Sedgwick-lookalike Stine Stengade as his duplicitous love interest Ketty (last seen playing Mikkelsen’s love interest in Madsen’s Prague). But above all, Flame & Citron contains the crucial family aspect of The Godfather. Madsen’s film isn’t a Nazi flick any more than Coppola’s trilogy is about the mob; like the Corleones, partners in ruthless bloodshed Flame and Citron take lives to defend family honor—only in this case “family” happens to be the homeland herself.
Of course, once you become a “made man” it’s not possible to become “unmade”—you can only go in deeper. There’s a brilliant scene in which Flame is about to murder an informer, hesitates, then covers his victim’s face with his hand. Then fires! In that single instant, in the intimacy of Flame’s pressing his flesh to his victim’s, one realizes those orders from above have become personal. And herein lies the philosophical struggle. Assigned to eliminate the Danish traitors and informants who choose Hitler over country, the righteous freedom fighters are fueled by the same nationalist zealotry as the Nazis they loathe (yes, the fate of the Jews is an atrocity but also an afterthought). Flame and Citron fall down a slippery slope in which eliminating only male Danish Nazis becomes killing female informers becomes eliminating high-ranking German officers—which can really piss off the SS! As both men painfully learn, all it takes is the tiniest seed of doubt—in this case planted by Hanns Zischler’s Colonel Kurtz-like Colonel Gilbert—to unravel the strongest of soldiers, even ones who don suits and ties in lieu of uniforms.
Are the orders to kill really coming from the good guys or the bad? In the fog of war, any thinking that leads to questioning becomes the most self-destructive weapon of all. Ideals are a distant luxury; battle is about survival, nothing more. When Flame asks “Why didn’t I see it?” upon uncovering the double agent antics, we understand because we didn’t see it either. Madsen has created that rare film that puts the audience in the protagonist’s shoes on a visceral level, forcing us to react to the events occurring on screen from moment to moment alongside the characters, giving us no time to figure things out. The irrationality of making clear choices in an unclear world, the ambiguous nature of morality in an amoral time, is exposed. Now the only question that remains is who will play Flame and Citron in the requisite Hollywood remake.