Why is it that contemporary films dealing with the Holocaust always place their characters on the right side of history, Oskar Schindler rather than the thousands of German industrialists who happily let the six million march to their deaths? The young hero of Winter in Wartime, growing up in Nazi-occupied Holland, never doubts what side he’s on, and while there’s considerable uncertainty surrounding the loyalties of the secondary characters, and even though Martin Koolhoven’s film is more coming-of-age tale than straightforward Holocaust drama, the adjective that most readily comes to mind in describing the film is the same one that J. Hoberman used to dismiss Steven Spielberg’s celebrated Shoah epic: “tasteful.” Of course, Koolhoven’s work is also continually engaging, frequently suspenseful, and visually accomplished. It’s just that it’s unlikely to challenge the way we think about either history or cinema or to leave us with the lingering unease we expect from a Nazi-themed drama once we safely effect our escape from the theater.
Set in a small town in the Netherlands in January 1945, the film follows 13-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), the son of the berg’s Nazi-collaborating mayor, as he tangentially crosses paths with the Resistance and eventually does his part for the cause by caring for a wounded British soldier hiding out in an underground lair. Tensions abound throughout the film: between Michiel’s father and the boy’s beloved Uncle Ben, who appears to be a member of the Resistance; between Michiel and his nurse sister who tends to the fallen soldier, and whose budding romance with the Brit threatens her brother’s sense of proprietary rights over his find; and, of course, more generally, between the occupying Nazis and the occupied Dutch. Koolhoven and his screenwriters—no doubt taking their cue from the source novel—navigate these tensions by keeping the film’s point of view tied almost entirely to Michiel’s, giving us snippets of conversation as they’re observed by the boy, the viewer’s acquisition of knowledge linked to the growing consciousness of the protagonist. This sense of controlled perspective, skillfully and consistently employed, accounts for much of the film’s power, frequently reanimating the familiar by doling it out in cubistic glimpses via youthful eyes.
Unfolding against a strikingly photographed winterscape of town squares, forests and empty fields, the relentless whiteness of the setting echoes the blank-slate moral universe that results from wartime occupation. Koolhoven fills this denatured canvas with exciting chases, cruel double crosses and surprising moments of tenderness—as when Michiel’s father sees the kid fooling around with his razor and teaches him to shave, temporarily shelving the boy’s resentment at his old man’s cozy attitude with the Nazis. But there are too many moments when the director overplays his hand for dramatic effect, most notably a slow-mo, cross-cut sequence with the kid rushing to the town square to prevent a public execution and a final twist that feels more like cheap narrative manipulation than game-changing revelation.
Still, for most of its running time, Winter in Wartime is nothing more or less than a skillfully directed, good-looking coming-of-age tale. That it deals with the Holocaust—albeit indirectly—means that we inevitably except more (ethically, intellectually, spiritually), but even as it consistently fails to trouble or provoke, it would take a hardened viewer indeed not to recognize Koolhoven’s film as being quite simply a rather good time at the movies.