Count Winter in Wartime as an Academy Award contender for next year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the award-winning semi-autobiographical novel Winter in Wartime by Dutch author Jan Terlouw, director Martin Koolhoven takes a coming of age story and elevates it to epic proportions, while keeping it grounded on what counts the most: a poignant story of a thirteen-year-old’s war effort during World War II.
Wartime brings with it not just death and destruction, but also difficult choices about right and wrong. For thirteen-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), World War II is a swift journey to adulthood. He is drawn into the war in the Dutch countryside when a British plane crash-lands in the woods, carrying in it a wounded soldier named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower.) His sense of defiance against the Germans prompts him to aid Jack in helping him escape. He is forced to face the harsh realties of adulthood, but his sense of responsibility to Jack and to his core beliefs of what is right and what is wrong. Further complications arise when his father (Raymond Thiry), the town’s Mayor, is arrested by the Germans and his uncle (Yorick van Wageningen) tries to set him free. Things become confused and young Michiel’s yearning to play “soldier” prior to these events, become solidified in his psyche. Unable to trust any adults, he sets off on a quest to deliver a letter, feed a wounded soldier, and rescue his father.
As simple as this sounds, the film is actually complex in keeping war in the gray areas, but ultimately coming to a logical conclusion. The script is very sparse in dialogue, but Koolhoven deftly maneuvers dialogue and visuals to tell the story. Lakemeier is a standout performer in this film, easily conveying the different emotions that he must undergo without coming off as insincere.
Koolhoven joins the ranks of great directors capturing the coming of age of adolescence during wartime. These include John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Koolhoven’s technique brings the viewer directly into the boy’s perspective, always keeping us aware that we’re watching his world change through his own perspective. Never pandering to sentimentality, the film is filled with many quiet scenes between characters – brother and sister, father and son, uncle and nephew. These almost dialogue-free scenes say a lot more than any words can, making this film a true masterpiece of storytelling. Koolhaven closes the film with echoes of Michiel’s lost innocence; in a plane part from the wreckage at the start of the film has taken on a much darker meaning.