It seems Europeans will never run out of World War II tales. Too many people were involved, and the struggle transformed the entire world. The story refuses to go away. Martin Koolhoven‘s Winter in Wartime, a Dutch production from 2008 just now getting its North American look-see, is adapted from a book by Jan Terlouw about the adventures of a fourteen-year-old boy in a small town in the Netherlands under German occupation.
It’s January, 1945 — only four months before the war would end, but no one could foresee that. The ground is covered with snow and food is running out. Young Michiel (played well by Martijn Lakemeier), son of the town’s mayor, has fun with his friend investigating the wreckage of a British fighter plane, but the prankish mood soon turns grim. The downed RAF pilot, Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), has escaped the crash and is hiding in the woods near town (shot on location in Lithuania), and by coincidence it falls to Michiel to help him make his getaway. This takes place as Michiel’s beloved Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a fighter in the resistance, has arrived to hide out with his family.
The film’s perspective is a little different than other WWII dramas we’ve seen from the Netherlands — Black Book, Soldier of Orange, etc. — because it’s told entirely from the boy’s point of view. So it’s more or less a coming-of-age drama with Nazis as the bullies. The first thing Michiel does after befriending Jack is to take the cardboard out of his bicycle spokes — no use making unnecessary noise when trying to avoid sentries. Michiel begins to notice things about certain townsfolk, like the Nazi sympathizer next door. The boy is in for a few surprises as the narrative plays out.
Director Koolhoven’s storytelling is a bit too obvious and heavy-handed. His mise-en-scène is too weighty, and Michiel’s numerous predicaments (he’s accident-prone) pop up in uncomfortable close-ups. Even composer Pino Donaggio‘s score seems corny and overblown, with syrupy choral passages and lumpy cues. We can safely attribute all that to the kid’s “innocent” point of view. So what’s left? A child’s World War II where discovery counterbalances the terror.