Flame & Citron
A Woman in Berlin
The Hurt Locker
World War II is a subject that refuses to quit. With a body count in the tens of millions, it also forever changed the lives of millions more, as survivors criss-crossed the world to find new homes, languages, and cultures. Their stories remain the tip of an iceberg for those who want to see, hear, and read them, and a goldmine for producers, directors, and writers who burn to tell (and sell) them.
Flame and Citron is one: a harrowing real-life tale of two Danish resistance fighters recruited to oppose the Nazis who have occupied their country. Despite their initial idealism, nothing turns out as expected; issues come only in several shades of gray, as sides are chosen and chosen again. Almost disguised as an action-packed thriller, it’s really an engrossing morality tale about the nature of war and man. This Danish-German co-production is stylishly contemporary and operatic in its approach – dark in color, with intense closeups, gorgeous long shots, stark sets, costumes, and art direction, and often accompanied by music that owes everything (appropriately) to Wagner’s Gőtterdammerung. There is a great deal of violence, which escalates as the two Danes become—despite their misgivings—heroes of the resistance army, and assassins-at-large in the process.
The filmmaker’s closeup lens probes deeply into their character and motivation, and subtly accrues the telling details that draw viewers into the noose that tightens around them, delivering tension, twists and gore in equal measure. Propelled by the spectacular performances of Thure Lindhardt as Flame, Mads Mikkelsen as Citron, and outstanding featured players, plus masterful filmmaking from director Ole Christian Madsen, Flame and Citron is that rare bird: a character-driven film that also delivers a visceral charge right to the last frame. It’s deeply satisfying on both counts. Because the Danish resistance is not as familiar as the European Holocaust, or the war in the Pacific, it feels particularly fresh, and keeps you guessing until a long post-finale scroll brings the story up to date.
A Woman in Berlin, (based on a controversial memoir by “Anonymous,” published in 1959), is stylistically more conventional than Flame and Citron, but reports from the other side of the WWII divide—the last days of Hitler’s Berlin, and the Russian occupation that followed it. It, too, reveals that black-and-white issues turn gray under the realities of war and occupation.
One thought to take away from both these excellent films: almost every country in the world is familiar with the horrors of invasion and the chaos that comes with it. After seeing Flame and Citron and A Woman in Berlin, the geographical isolation that has long protected North America from invasion seems more enviable than ever. But it has also fostered a lack of empathy that can make “Speak softly and carry a big stick” something of a defining stance. On the one hand, it has kept things tidy at home. On the other, it has obscured the terrible damage the stick can inflict.
Update: after seeing The Hurt Locker (a deeply disturbing edge-of-your-seat film), in which the US is the invader in Iraq, it’s obvious that the here-and-now is still shades of gray. But—judging from the quote by Chris Hedges that precedes the film, as well as the film’s final scene—the filmmakers’ conclusion seems to be that living with the giddy adrenaline rush of high-risk occupations (defusing intricate bombs planted to destroy anyone who approaches them), renders the risk-taker unfit for the mundane tasks of civilian life. In creating two hours of blighted streets, corpses, bombed-out buildings, and the horror of a country destroyed, there is one burning question that seems to have escaped their scrutiny: what, exactly, were we doing there in the first place? It remains unanswered.