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No so Mad Max
am 12. Oktober 2010
Like most other European nations that were occupied by the Germans during WWII, the Norwegians have been traumatised by the experience practically ever since. That is no wonder, since what happened in these countries often had character of a civil war, with some people setting up underground resistance movements and others assisting the Germans in trying to hinder their activities. You would think there's material here for some great films dealing with these ultra sensitive issues. Unfortunately, they don't seem to emerge, and certainly not in this case.
Instead, this is a completely traditional film tribute to a well-known spearhead of the Norwegian resistance movement, Max Manus. In many ways it might as well have been a statue or a coffee table book, since it does very little to go into the more complex aspects of what is probably, at least in some ways, the nastiest form of war there is. Also, Manus' traumatic childhood and youth are only hinted at, and no moral issues are dealt with when he starts courting a married woman with children. There is a lot of talk about Manus' time as a volunteer in Finland during the Winter War, but no mentioning at all of the ambiguous feeling our hero must have had about this two years later when he is fighting the Germans in Norway and Finland has joined the Germany army in their invasion of Russia.
The structure is a typical Hollywood three-acter (1. You chase a man up in a tree. 2. You shake a stick at him. 3. You get the man down from the tree) portraying clean-cut, heroic Norwegian lovers of King and country fighting nasty Nazis. The acting is in parts pretty good, but generally as wooden and skin-deep as you would expect with this kind of manuscript. The story-line is partly over-simplified and partly marred by the inclusion of irrelevant threads, some of the action scenes I simply refuse to believe can be correctly presented (particularly the sabotage of the German warship Donau), the strange out-of-proportion digital effects will be laughed at in ten years time (as we now laugh at those from ten years ago), but worst of all the physical environment is completely unrepresentative of those times. We are talking about the 1940s in an occupied country under heavy rationing. Things were dirty, scruffy, chipped, clothes were worn to shreds, and people couldn't wash so they stank and had bad teeth, yet everything in this film is so super cleansed it could be Disneyland.
By far the strongest scenes are the main character's brief flashbacks to his participation on the Finnish side in the Winter War. Not only are these scenes much more authentic, they also expose him as a far more complex human being than the rest of the movie. Most notably, when his sub-machine gun develops a fault he follows some poor, scared to death Russian conscript on foot through the snow, attacks him and kills him with his knife. Since this happens on the Finnish front it's hardly an act in honour of good old Norway and its king; however, this significant side of Manus' character isn't really dealt with otherwise in the movie. If he really is the killer type the title wants us to believe, he doesn't show it very much.
Talking of misleading the public, I agree with others that the attempts to sell this film as an action packed war movie are pretty deplorable. The picture on the box shows our not so mad Max dressed in white Finnish camouflage, yet the scenes in Finland hardly take up one percent of the film. The trailer for the film is equally way off the mark, trying to give the impression that this is an English speaking movie. It isn't, but to say that the actors speak Norwegian wouldn't be telling the truth either. Except for one or two all they do is mumble incomprehensively. That, of course, is a current trend in most films and is claimed to be realistic, yet it is most certainly not how the beautiful Norwegian language was spoken in the 1940s. Funnily enough, in the extras documentary they all speak much more clearly - so much for the realism of muttering.
I give this film three stars because, all technical criticism aside, you have to honour the people who freed the world of the Nazis, and because the extra material - or at least the bits that work as a documentary on Manus' life - are well worth watching. However, if you want a truer and more thought-provoking image of the Nordic countries during WWII you're better off with the Danish film 'Flame and Citron'.
Still, the real treat awaits those who look further East, to Finland. The movie simply titled 'The Winter War' is like the best two minutes of 'Max Manus - Man of War' stretched into three and a half hour, and even better is 'The Unknown Soldier' (the 1985 version), a pure work of genius.