Friday, July 1, 2011

The True Cost of War

Hennie and Kittlsen in Max Manus: Man of War
Max Manus: Man of War
Directed by Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning
With Aksel Hennie, Ken Duken, Agnes Kittlesen
Released by Music Box Films

Unlike America, which hasn’t been occupied by a foreign invader since the war of 1812), such occupations have dominated the histories of most countries in Europe. Of course, Hitler overran most of the European continent during World War II, and several recent films like Flame and Citroen (Denmark), Black Book (Netherlands) and The Army of Crime (France) have dramatized the resistance fighting in those countries; we can now add the Norwegian epic Max Manus: Man of War to that list.

The film introduces Max, a real-life Norwegian hero who died in 1996 at age 81, while fighting the Soviets in Finland. After that battlefield debacle, he returns home to Norway to organize a resistance group against the Nazi war machine. After another unsuccessful resistance attempt, Max is arrested but manages to escape from a heavily guarded hospital, making it across the English channel to get some training in Scotland before returning to lead a group of fighters in the ongoing life-or-death battle with the Germans.

Directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning signal at the beginning that Max Manus will be more than merely a feel-good action romp about how the good guys won. The opening sequence, with Max in horrible Finnish winter conditions fighting the Red Army, unflinchingly presents the brutality and arbitrariness of wartime killing. Max’s return to Norway to join the Resistance gives the filmmakers the chance to show how an initially rag-tag group becomes a formidable force against the all-powerful Nazis, but Sandberg and Ronning admirably refrain from making a “stand up and cheer” thriller.

Instead, the filmmakers again and again present war’s casual brutality, including a scene of a resistance fighter getting run over by a Nazi truck that looks remarkably realistic. Max several times questions the meaning of war, even with right on his side, especially after the death of a close friend in a botched attack.

Even though the group’s successful sabotage exploits (buildings, train lines, ships) are chronicled with enthusiasm, the extreme violence is never skimped on: there’s a startling sequence of Max and his men bombing a building, and the ear-shattering explosions and screaming innocent people pouring out of the building give it a documentary-like quality.

Max Manus doesn’t completely avoids melodramatic clich├ęs. Max meets Tikken, fellow resistance fighter (who would, after the war, become his wife and outlive him by 14 years), too cutely, including his insulting her so much that she walks away. And the Norwegian Nazi leader, aptly named Siegfried, has the kind of matinee-idol looks that make his brutal villainy even more swinish.

Still, there’s much to admire in the film’s anti-heroic stance. When Max and Siegfried meet after Hitler kills himself and the Nazis surrender (Siegfried is in awe of the young man he could never catch), Max realizes they are both victims of the indiscriminate insanity of war. This final “showdown” between our hero and his nemesis is deliberately anticlimactic, with no explosive gunplay or hand-to-hand combat that a lesser movie would give an audience.

As Max, Aksel Hennie’s eternally boyish looks and intense acting create a warts-and-all hero who is appealingly human, while Ken Duken’s Siegfried is a far more complicated bad guy than his handsome if nasty face would suggest (if he looks familiar, it’s because Duken was in Quentin Tarantino’s silly Resistance farce Inglorious Basterds). In an excellent supporting cast, Agnes Kittlesen plays Tikken with a beguiling directness.

Despite some nail-biting derring-do, Max Manus is at heart an artful appreciation for the men and women who risked death by fighting insurmountable odds.

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