Winter in Wartime was a very enjoyable movie that had me invested in the young main character very soon. Directed by Martin Koolhoven, its not the thriller as some other stories set in war-occupied zones are, but it had its heart-tugging drama and I agree with many war-film aficionados, it is a very excellent wartime story. The film follows the true story of Jan Terlouw, who spent the war in Nazi-occupied Holland. Spoilers ahead.
The plot opens as 13 year-old Michiel comes face to face with the reality of man’s nature. Set in the Netherlands in early 1945, the film begins with Michiel and his friend Theo as they raid an RAF Mosquito crash site. Michiel is the mayor’s son, which is significant to the story. Michiel gets snapped up by German local authorities, but gets sent home.
Michiel’s youthful idealism and his simple naivety cause the viewer to immediately connect to his youthfulness. I found myself wishing he would simply stay in his naive fantasy world of youth and not venture out so as to avoid the pain of seeing the world as it is. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. His mysterious Uncle Ben comes to live with the family, he’s a resistance fighter who capture’s Michiel’s imagination and respect.
Sadly, this means Michiel sees his dad as a weakling, trying to play the neutral peacemaker. But neutrality is always the contemptible position, it is never the right way. Because neutrality is impossible, and everyone knows it, Michiel sees his father as a sell out and a compromise of principles. The poor boy wants to respect and love his father, but he can’t see through the compromising neutrality.
Neutrality leads to appeasing the Nazis, which leads to danger. The score is powerful here as the story is set up, and the angst of a child who’s heroic father falls from his hero status is a heart breaker. Its always a major reality-check in life to realize your father is not super, he’s just a man. Michiel learns this in a terrible fashion.
Later, Michiel discovers Jack, one of the two crewman of the Mosquito, hiding in the woods. He enlists his sister, a local nurse, to help tend to Jack. He and his sister seek to smuggle him across river and to safety, but it doesn’t go well. Michiel’s father gets rounded up by the Germans as part of a retaliation for the loss of a solider. We learn that one of the British pilots killed the missing German soldier after the plane crash. But just before the arrest scene, there is a tender moment between Michiel and his father as he helps his young son learn to shave. It is almost a cheap shot right to the heart, but works well to set the stage for great angst. The arrest and Michiel’s attempted visit at town hall show that even when there is a lack of respect for principles, there is a father-son bond that is unbroken. Michiel wishes to rescue his father, but instead, shows up too late. He sees his father shot before a Nazi firing squad. So much for appeasement, but how terribly tragic it is. Reality is cold, and our heart bleeds for young Michiel.
Another stream of Michiel’s experience is that he receives help and mercy from the Nazi soldiers. This challenges his sense of clear good and evil, and throws a monkey wrench into his idealistic view of “us and them.” It connects him to those he so wants to view as monsters. They are people, human souls, and one yung German even saves his life when he falls through the river ice. Others are quick to help repair his wagon. Michiel sees they are people, not necessarily monsters. The film adds a thick layer of moral conflict. This is a very good layer absent in many war films. It communicates very well that ultimately, one of war’s greatest tragedies is that real, living, loving, caring people kill real, living, loving, caring people.
The execution of Michiel’s father is a turning point in Michiel’s life. When Michiel tries to get Jack to the ferry boat and away to freedom, his plot to send the Brit out of danger is obviously uncovered, and the Jack senses danger. Sure enough, the Germans are waiting on the opposite shore and coming up behind them. They escape under fire. In the chase, Michiel’s beloved family horse, Caesar, breaks a leg in the escape, and must be put down. Here we face yet another of life’s humbling and tragic ‘coming of age’ challenges – the reality of being merciful to a beloved animal. In an “Old Yeller” moment, Michiel must do the most merciful thing and deliver the fatal shot to a beloved animal. I speak from recent experience, that last shot is the hardest of all. Michiel tries, but is unable. Jack shows his friendship by taking that responsibility upon himself. The horse now down, they escape.
Uncle Ben takes over the escape and evade mission for Michiel, after Michiel hides the Brit in the family shed. He says “Who is in charge? You? You don’t know what you are doing, do you?” Michiel’s response is a defeated look and silent affirmation of that failed inexperience. A final blow to Michiel’s lost youth is delivered when Michiel discovers Jack in the sack with his sister, Erika.
But that’s not all. There is a final and enormous betrayal that brings all the pieces of the tale together, and completes Michiel’s reality-epiphany. Uncle Ben is a traitor. In the end, Michiel is called upon to face the reality that within his own family, traitors exist and must be dealt with. He passes the test.
In the end we discover the tale of one boy who is merely a child, thrust into the world where no child should have to discover all these realities at once. It is like Klimov’s “Come and See,” a coming of age story in the most brutal sense. As a parent, my fatherly heart aches at the thought that my precious children will discover the realities of life all at once – evil, betrayal, deception, selfishness, pride – and discovering such realities, understand that these sins infect us all.