READINGS & MEANINGS
Manus: portrait of the price of victory in war
With a birthday falling on the anniversary of D-Day, and a relative fallen in the liberation of Normandy, I have been fascinated with the subject of the Second World War. Indeed, I seem to become more so with each passing year.
The most fatal episode in the history of humanity remains an inexhaustible source for new movies and books, notably Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (to be reviewed in a future column). It is amazing how much there is still to be learned and debated. The celebrations last month of the 65th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day) were an occasion to reflect on the enormity of the events that marked a generation.
Last year I wrote about the
superb Danish film Flame & Citron, which recounted the exploits
of that country’s most renowned resistance fighters. Although
made in the same year, it is only now that a film about Norway’s
most famous resistance hero is appearing in select Canadian theatres
after first screening at the Toronto film festival last fall.
Max Manus is both a rousing
and wrenching account of the angry, intrepid young man who fired the
imaginations of his compatriots as a daring saboteur during the Nazi
occupation. The Norwegian subtitle of the film is Man of War, and it
is an almost primal warrior spirit that drives the tousle-haired Max
Manus, magnificently portrayed by Aksel Hennie, to death defying feats
of bravery. He could have been a Viking in an earlier age.
Our first image of Max is
not fighting the Germans, but as a volunteer in the 1939-40 winter war
when Finland struggled against annexation by the Soviet Union. Scenes
from this of relentless battle as Max single-handedly takes out an enemy
machine-gun position, then regards his slain fellow soldiers, bloodied-red
against the white uniforms and snow, recur as flashbacks throughout
the movie that frame his combative yet emotionally wounded nature.
Returning to his country as Hitler’s Germany invades on April 9, 1940, Max is disgusted when his homeland submits to occupation within several months, installing the collaborationist regime of Vidkum Quisling that lasted till May 1945 and has become a synonym for treason ever since.
The movie’s stirring
tagline is, “They stole his country. Now he wants it back!”
Max teams up with other determined
young men who form what becomes known as the “Oslo gang.”
From printing anti-Nazi pamphlets to secretly gathering weapons, they
progress to increasingly dangerous acts of sabotage. The charismatic
Max quickly emerges as a leader. Hot-headed and reckless of his own
safety, he particularly attracts the attention of the Gestapo, notoriously
evading capturing by jumping through a second-floor window then escaping
from a guarded hospital bed.
So begins a deadly cat and
mouse game between the fearless Max and the fearsome if handsome Gestapo
chief Sigfried Fehmer (Ken Duken), whose techniques of torture and vicious
reprisals against the local population are meant to show that resistance
But it was not, however horrific
the human cost. Max and his close friend Gregers Gram managed to get
to Scotland where they received special training as part of the Norwegian
free forces and joined the Lingekompaniet commando unit. Parachuted
back into Norway in March 1943, they reunited with underground comrades,
notably Gunnar Sønsteby, and pulled off some spectacular successes.
Crucially that included the destruction of the central employment office
archive in Oslo, impeding the Nazis from rounding up young men to be
sent to the eastern front. Their most famous and militarily important
achievement was the sinking of the huge transport ship Donau by attaching
underwater limpet mines to it while docked in Oslo harbour in the winter
of 1945. This prevented many thousands of German troop reinforcements
from reaching the western front at a critical time.
As gripping as these tense
action sequences are, the movie to its credit is not just a series of
macho exploits. The strains increasingly show on the man of war as the
complex moody side of his character comes into view. During periodic
escapes to Stockholm he develops a relationship with his contact at
the British embassy, the beautiful Tikken Lindebrække (Agnes Kittelsen).
But neither alcohol nor sex can assuage the mounting burden of the losses
inflicted on those near and dear to him. When Gregers Gram is gunned
down in a Gestapo trap and others are murdered in desperate raids to
flush him out, Max becomes inconsolable.
The day of victory comes, but at what price? Rather than join in the celebrations Max morosely holes up in a darkened apartment drinking himself into a stupor. It’s as if survivor’s guilt combines with self-pity. Here he is with no education, few prospects, and only memories of the dead.
There is an extraordinary
moment of reverie when he imagines himself toasting war’s end
with a roomful of fallen friends and comrades.
Tikken helps Max to pull
himself together. They would later marry. He would become a businessman
and live into old age until 1996. But the tormented experience of war
would never leave him.
Before riding along with
King Haakon VII and the royal family upon their return from exile in
Britain on June 7, 1945, smiling to the cheering crowds, Max had visited
his arch-enemy, the imprisoned Gestapo boss Fehmer, who was to be executed
by firing squad as had been so many of his victims. In a seeming gesture
of respect for a vanquished adversary, their eyes met and they exchanged
a handshake in parting. Perhaps this remarkable scene is intended to
convey how war strips bare everyone’s humanity, even that of the
worst foe. There is no glory in it. For those who killed and cheated
death, the joys of liberation were bittersweet.
Directors Joachim Rønning
and Espen Sandberg drew on Max Manus’ autobiography in crafting
this ambitious production. The most expensive ever in Norwegian cinema,
it has been hugely popular in Norway and deserving of the accolades
it has received.
As with Flame & Citron,
it is reassuring to see these authentic stories of wartime sacrifice
being revived for a mass audience. Films like Max Manus succeed by bringing
to light aspects of the Second World War that are sobering and instructive.
Powerfully dramatic without being exploitative, they are an antidote
to the caricature and parody of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious
Basterds which invented war atrocities for entertainment.
Max Manus has been playing
in select Canadian theatres. It will be available on DVD as of June
*An update to a previous
column on music documentaries: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, which
tracks the legendary Canadian rock group’s rise over four decades,
and which won the audience award at this spring’s Tribeca film
festival in New York, will receive a one-day theatrical screening on
June 10, hopefully followed by a DVD release.
Also, the football (soccer)
World Cup begins in South Africa June 11. My top film of 2009, Invictus,
about South Africa’s improbable victory in the 1995 rugby world
cup, is now available on DVD. Its legendary director Clint Eastwood
turned 80 on May 31. Still going strong, his next film is Hereafter.
He’s the subject of a new book by Richard Schickel, Clint: A Retrospective,
who also produced, wrote and directed The Eastwood Factor, a 90-minute
documentary that had its world premiere May 31 on the Turner Classic
Schmitz is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.