Carefully written, sensitively directed and beautifully acted, Winter in Wartime is a poignant film by Dutch director Martin Koolhoven about the courageous, terrifying and life-altering experiences of an adventurous 13-year-old boy growing up in German-occupied Holland during World War II. Part coming-of-age film full of boys’ book splendor, part war epic on a domestic scale and part history lesson without artifice or special effects, it tells a big story on a small, realistic level that has a haunting impact long after the final scene.
The terror, anxiety, hunger and hardships of 1945–and an impressionable kid’s normal search for fun and mischief in a dark time–it all seems insurmountable, even to a boy whose father is the mayor of a rural village. Watching his neighbors dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and herded off to work camps, surrounded by the marching thud of jack-booted German soldiers, young Michiel (played by the engaging youngster Martijn Lakemeier) labels his liberal father a coward for maintaining neutral relations with the Nazis to maintain peace and protection for the town; he saves his loyalty and hero worship for his dashing uncle Ben, a hero in the Dutch underground.
Michiel resolves to defy his father’s warnings and secretly aid his country by doing what he can to help the resistance. Delivering coded messages on his bike and keeping mum about his friends’ plans to blow up the German ammunition depot, he risks his life to sabotage the Nazis at every opportunity. When his friends are arrested and killed, Michiel makes his most dangerous decision alone–to befriend and help a wounded RAF pilot named Jack (played by Jamie Campbell Bower, the romantic sailor in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd) hiding in an underground shack in the snowy woods. Aided by his sister, a nurse, and his uncle Ben, Michiel manages to bring enough food and medicine to the pilot, who is nothing much more than a boy himself, to restore his health. Before they can get Jack to a ferry that will lead to a way back to England, things begin to backfire. Michiel watches in horror as his father is used as a scapegoat for the death of a German patrol and lined up before a firing squad; meanwhile, his sister falls in love with the injured pilot, and the plans to rescue Jack are betrayed.
Violently forced to realize he can no longer trust anybody, including his favorite uncle, Michiel makes a life-or-death decision that would be punishing for any man three times his age. By the time the liberation of the Netherlands finally arrives, a boy has matured physically and emotionally, learning sobering life lessons that redefine tragedy.
Based on true events in the best-selling autobiography of celebrated Dutch writer Jan Terlouw, Winter in Wartime wrests images of a child growing wise before his time with realism and sympathy. We know about Anne Frank’s diary and Paul Verhoeven’s masterpiece Black Book, but director Martin Koolhoven has shed new light on what happened in Holland with a powerful and touching film about a chapter of the Second World War that remains largely unknown in America.
Winter in Wartime
Running time 103 minutes
Written by Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven, Paul Jan Nelissen
Directed by Martin Koolhoven
Starring Martijn Lakemeier, Yorick van Wageningen, Jamie Campbell Bower