Winter in Wartime is a 2008 Dutch film adapted from a 1972 novel of the same name by Jan Terlouw. It was highly successful in it's native Netherlands, out grossing the likes of The Dark Knight and Twilight. It is estimated approximately 9000,000 people in the Netherlands saw it in a cinema, and a further 60,000 in Belgium. It was chosen by Dutch critics as the best Dutch film of the year and won numerous awards throughout Europe. Also it was shortlisted with 8 other films for that years Oscars in Best Foreign Language Film.
This did pay here in NZ and at a local cinema, but it had a very short run and I missed it. In short the film is about a young Dutch boy who attempts to help the Resistance during the WW2 by aiding a downed English pilot. The boy, Michiel, is resentful towards his father, the town mayor, who he feels panders to the Germans too much. He has an uncle ( Ben ) who in is touch with the Resistance who he idolises. The film is set in January 1945 and is a coming of age story which sees Michiel's loyalties tested.
The novel it is based upon was apparently a children's book. But I get the feeling it was aimed more at teenagers since the main protagonist is 14. It won a Dutch literary award and was adapted into a television serial in 1975, and plans are afoot to turn it into a musical. The author is Dutch and has worked as a scientist, politician, and has written 24 children's books. Before watching the film several nights ago I had actually heard of the book but didn't really know too much about it. And the thing that made me sit up was I'm fairly sure this is the only Dutch language film I've ever watched!
Now as much as this film has been honoured there are several flaws with it I felt. They are not though in regard to the fine script, acting, cinematography etc, but in the historical feel. One review I read praised the cinematography, and whilst beautifully done, it is inadvertently the flaw. The film is meant to be set in the last winter of the war, and anyone who knows the period would be aware that Holland was still occupied by the Germans....and starving. Sure other countries were as well but in early 1945 Holland's plight was particularly severe. This is an important thing against the backdrop of the film to remember.
The Allies never actually pushed the Germans out of the country, and even after the German surrender Holland was in a bad state. Again if you know your history you will be aware the Allies had to mount an immediate airlift to feed the Dutch population. In many respects this airlift was a fore runner to the better known Berlin Air lift in 1948-1949. My gripe here is not that the film ignores the food shortages, as it does refer to them, but the actors don't look hungry, are remarkably healthy looking, and clothed far too well.
Remember that by 1945 Holland had been occupied for 5 years, and yet the actors in the film are far too well clothed. I think more attempt should have made to provide clothes that looked worn out and patched up because quite literally in 1945 they were! For me just putting up a subtitle stating the year wasn't enough, and hence the historical feel of the film was totally lacking. Besides the clothes being far too new and clean, I thought the actors looked too fresh face and healthy. Again this was a mistake. Surely make up could have been applied to show malnutrition and clothes that were too big fitted to give the appearance of starvation? Small things that would have given the film a more authentic feel.
Take notice!! Everything in this shot is far too clean for 1945!!
Also, and this really glared to my mind, the German soldiers were far too well dressed. Their uniforms were far too clean even for occupation troops. For instance in one scene there is a public execution. The firing squad's helmets look as if they were brand new from the factory, and quite literally gleamed and sparkled in their newness. Again this was poor, I mean just throwing it in a puddle of mud would have aged them a bit visually. I also think the German soldiers ages were wrong. To many of them were of the age, where at that time of the war, they would have been at the fronts and not in Occupation duties. I mean as you are losing a war you don't have your fit and healthy troops occupying a country of half starved people do you?
So yes this is undoubtedly beautifully filmed. But it is all far too clean. There is absolutely no historical accuracy visually, and for me I couldn't buy into the film because of it. But for that massive failing the rest of the film is excellent. I think the tension of the occupation is well realised in regards to how each individual reacted to it. We see the mayor trying to placate both sides and cop the criticism for it. Some people openly side with the Germans to save their own skins, which we see. And then we see the worst of the worst, as Michiel's adored uncle is actually a stooge for the Germans.
Not hungry or malnourished enough to be credible.
So what the film lacks in visual authenticity it more than makes for in tension. I think the script went into enough detail to replicate what life was like under an occupying power. The use of illegal home made radios is there, as is the food shortage and the risks people were prepared to go to to eat. At one stage a simple rabbit is seen as a boon just as a small piece of meat. Also the dreaded raids and round ups are seen, as are firing squads. But maybe more chilling was the constant threat of reprisals the population lived with if a German soldier was killed. We see Michiel forced into action as the Germans intiate a roundup for executions ( that includes his father ), after the body of the German killed by the airman is found.
Funnily enough I worked for a Dutchman who fought in the Dutch Resistance, and was shot through the leg at Arnhem as a mere 13 year old. His stories of life under the Germans play out accurately in the film. I've also read biographies of Audrey Hepburn who lived in Holland throughout the war. Hepburn is a good example of the food shortages as she was a teen at the time, and her life long slim physic was a direct result of malnutrition during the war. Her young body wasn't getting the minerals it needed and she subsequently suffered. It is a fact she found it difficult to conceive which was directly attributed to her wartime food shortages.
Again..just TOO clean.
What I trying to do here is show how by making the film too clean the producers have failed to replicate the feel and air of the era. I think some canny use of makeup, shoddy, patched , ill fitting clothes ( to make the actors appear emaciated ) would have really given the film the punch it lacked. Also the German soldiers were the wrong age and far too clean as well. The problem for me is the cleanliness was too glaring to be over looked. If you are going to make a period piece then for goodness sake make it look like the era in question. Doing it in narrative isn't going to cut the ice, and for all the good of the film, I think it seriously let down by its lack of visual authenticity.
But I will state here very clearly at least the German weapons were accurate as were there vehicles up to a point. But more importantly the crashed British aircraft was made to look like a crashed Mosquito. So whilst the grittiness and bleakness of 1945 is lacking, their are a lot of historical accuracies that had attention paid to them.
I like the film's intention in bringing to more modern audiences what life was like in Holland during the war. The narrative does it very well but it is backed by visual inaccuracies which mars the film too much. But for younger audiences I suppose it can be over looked. The essence of the plot is one of coming of age under trying times when loyalties were life and death. I think as this is aimed at a younger Dutch audience, then more reality should have been created to show what life was like VISUALLY.
A lot to admire, and yet for historical purists like myself, somewhat teeth gritting in being too clean. Just a bit of thought and care could have made this more impressive than it is. But still there is more than enough to make this a well worth while watch.