Even in Nazi-occupied Holland in 1945, some vestiges of a normal childhood remain. Thirteen-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) pedals around his snow-covered village on a bicycle with a baseball card stuck in the spokes, its riffling sound simulating that of an engine.
It’s a commonplace totem of boyhood, one that Michiel will soon leave behind in the suspenseful and touching World War II drama “Winter in Wartime.”
Michiel is the son of the mayor (Raymond Thiry), who appeases the Nazi occupiers in order to protect his citizens, so Michiel is largely insulated from the effects of the war. That changes one night when he’s awoken to see a British bomber in flames streaking over the village, crashing in the nearby forest.
Eventually, Michiel discovers that the plane had a survivor, a pilot not much older than him named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is hiding out in the woods. Michiel decides he’s going to help Jack get to freedom, but as he hatches a plan to do that, his eyes are opened to the realities of life in his little town. He removes the baseball card from his bicycle, ostensibly because he needs to travel silently, but also because he no longer has use for such childish illusions.
Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven’s film is a very simple one in many ways. We know Jack and Michiel and the other members of the resistance are the good guys, we know the Nazis (especially a sadistic commandant with a sweet tooth) are the bad guys. Koolhoven crafts some thrilling sequences as Michiel tries to help Jack escape, evading Nazi patrols in the forest — there’s even a bona fide chase scene involving motorcycles and a horse-drawn carriage.
But the townspeople in between the two extremes aren’t as easy to pigeonhole. For example, Michiel derides his father for fraternizing with the Nazis, even making their job easier at times. But what Michiel initially sees as weakness he soon recognizes as a brave pragmatism. Meanwhile, Michiel initially idealizes his Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen), a resistance fighter, but soon comes to realize he’s not such a hero after all.
The performances are good — Lakemeier reminded me of a young Christian Bale in “Empire of the Sun” in the way he shows how wartime trauma forces maturity on a boy. And the cinematography is striking; Koolhoven’s color palette includes plenty of whites and grays, and the occasional blue, giving “Winter in Wartime” an appropriately icy quality.
It’s lack of color also helps make “Winter in Wartime” feel like an old-fashioned black-and-white movie, as does the simple, clear lines of the storytelling. But sometimes familiarity is a good thing, and Koolhoven combines two familiar kinds of stories — the resistance drama and the coming-of-age drama — in a compelling way.