“Rule one in wartime: keep your mouth shut”
War has a way of involving even the most unsuspecting child thought to be safe from the pain of death and destruction left in its wake. It has a way of hardening the most innocent of souls, quickening the pace towards adulthood by exposing all to hard choices, treason, and unfathomable compromise. In Nazi-occupied Holland, a mayor’s son is caught in the middle of his own quest for morality. Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is just a boy—horsing around with his friend Theo (Jesse van Driel), excitable when playing cards with a deck of nude illustrations, and a desire to be a part of his parent’s lives, even if that means engaging in the simple act of learning to shave—who should be a boy with an ear-to-ear smile never leaving his face. But after the opening events to Oorlogswinter [Winter in Wartime], a plane crash in the woods behind Michiel’s house, the pilot an injured British soldier who ejected in the nick of time, youth is no longer an option.
Based on the novel by Jan Terlouw and directed by Martin Koolhoven, it is Guido van Gennep’s cinematography that captivates from the start. Hearing the whir of a hand-powered flashlight, the beam of light coming and going, we watch Michiel run to a window, scraping away the ice caked on the pane in order to see the commotion outside. It is a fiery hunk of metal cutting through the sky, the explosion made when it hits ground unable to be ignored. Without any words, we see the curiosity of our main character, the boyish want to see chaos and an itch to walk through the crash site and see what he can find. But we are also deftly transported into those woods to spy upon a German soldier walking to see what happened. Soundlessly moving through the trees, he first notices the red puddle at his feet, the drips creating it reason to lift his head high to see his enemy—barely out of his teens if he is—suspended in the trees by his parachute. A gunshot rings before the next morning’s light brightens the frame.
Lakemeier is amazing in the role; showing a childish whimsy and excitement when his favorite uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) arrives as well as a cold steely disposition towards those he feels have wandered from the path of righteousness. It is the boy’s father, Johan (Raymond Thiry) and neighbor Schafter (Ad van Kempen) who are constantly seen laughing, talking, and receiving gifts from the Nazis. This is an abandonment of hope, a whoring of their souls to willfully accept the friendship of their occupiers—his father’s duty as mayor means doing whatever is necessary to keep the peace unrealized. If shaking hands with the Germans allows him to make soldiers turnaround who’ve come to take an innocent man, beaten in front of his family, away, the ends must justify the means. But with a man like Ben to compare them to, a diplomatic approach will never be enough. His uncle fights for the resistance and deserves adulation. It is this belief in guerrilla warfare’s success that will eventually change his life forever.
It’s Theo’s brother Dirk (Mees Peijnenburg) who unknowingly recruits Michiel to the cause. Fearing for his own safety after a planned raid, the older boy gives his brother’s friend a letter with explicit instructions on who to deliver it to if he is arrested. Unable to pass the note along, though, Michiel decides to make a stand. Working up the courage, he reads Dirk’s message and decides to search for its destination, finding a hidden bunker and the British pilot holed up inside. Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower) is devastated to discover his friends have been captured or killed, only agreeing to receive help from this youngster because he has no other options. Sworn to secrecy, it is Michiel who devises a plan to extricate the Allied soldier from occupied territory, patching the wounded Brit up with help from his sister Erica (Melody Klaver) and stealing his family’s rabbit dinner to bribe the ferryman willing to smuggle the enemy of state out.
The tension amplifies as the plot progresses and we come closer to the moment of flight. Getting Jack to the water is much harder than Michiel initially thinks as problems arise once the Nazis find the dead body of the soldier killed in the film’s opening sequence, questions about who can be trusted arising and confounding as assumed allegiances change with every action. A test of true motivations is set when Johan is arrested—his friendly relations with the Germans meaningless when it comes to setting an example. Michiel must sit and wait, refusing to consider Jack’s willingness to trade his life, hoping the heroics of his uncle can set things right. But Winter in Wartime never takes the easy route, constantly altering our preconceptions to keep a consistency of the unknown. We want to believe things will work out because we are used to war films such as this ending victoriously. But just because we know Holland will be liberated and Michiel will once more have a chance to smile again, the journey towards that end is still filled with horrors.
Gorgeously shot, certain scenes are still burned into my mind like the opening scene described above or the slomotion sequence of the morning Johan is to be freed with Michiel’s desperate attempt to ensure its reality. The acting is determined and serious as faces of scared kids risking their lives for their beliefs are never shied away from being front and center. Lakemeier somehow portrays jubilant innocence and aged maturity at the blink of an eye; Bower possesses the power to exude a stern presence and a soldier’s detachment despite his youthful face; and van Wageningen is proving he is one of the best actors working today. The most complex character onscreen, he is both full of compassion and very capable of letting the darkness of necessity takeover. It’s a perfect mix of his Joost from The Way and Captain Argall from The New World, a man who opens Michiel’s eyes to the world’s true nature. Although never showing an actual battle, Winter in Wartime is definitely one of the best World War II films I’ve ever seen.
[1 & 2] Martijn Lakemeier stars as Michiel in Martin Koolhoven drama war ‘Winter in Wartime.’ Sony Pictures Classics.
 Melody Klaver as Erica and Jamie Campbell Bower as Jack in Sony Pictures Classics’ Winter in Wartime.