Based on the 1975 young-adult novel by Jan Terlouw, 'Winter in Wartime' is essentially a tragic and difficult lesson on manhood, a term I'm using very broadly and not specific to any particular gender role. The plot is really a coming-of-age tale as Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier), with his boyish looks and rosy cheeks, is confronted with the habitually horrifying realities of the adult world. He's clearly incapable of completely understanding or appreciating the many complexities involved in human relations, especially during a time of war. The safety of one's family and their fellow neighbors often takes precedence over a call to arms. For the protection of all, keeping quiet and appearing humble is often the wiser decision than raising a fist, which is what Michiel has trouble grasping.
His father (Raymond Thiry) is the mayor of his small provincial town where the Nazi Army has decided to reside during the last winter of World War II. As its elected representative, he clearly demonstrates a sense of responsibility for everyone's welfare, with an attempt at maintaining the status quo. He's seen at one point conversing laughingly with officers and appearing compliant to the army's illegal occupation of the Netherlands. Michiel interprets this as a sign of weakness and believes his father a coward for not being more openly dissident. Not like his Uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) with ties to the resistance, a male figure who Michiel looks up to with prideful adoration and a worshipping glee. He's seen trying to coax the boy's father to take a more active approach.
The entire film is through the eyes of Michiel, so everything we witness is from his immature perspective. What he observes as a chit-chatty and neighborly attitude between his father and enemy soldiers, we understand as a man straining his being to ensure the safety of others. We can sometimes see the worry and stress upon his face, probably wishing such an unwanted position to be some else's burden. But Michiel seems completely unaware of these signals, ones which we take for granted as obvious. Even as he attempts to help a wounded British pilot named Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), he fails to notice his older sister's (Melody Klaver) almost-immediate affections for the Allied soldier. The boy who sees his actions as the courageous duties of manhood is practically blind to genuine courage and bravery — not realizing his mistake until tragically too late.
In a big and unfortunate way, Michiel, still caught in those middle stages between child and adult, is basically play-acting his unique notions of what constitutes those principles. His heroic fantasies are disastrously challenged by the reality of war and all the painful horrors that frequently come attached. 'Winter in Wartime' is a harrowing drama, sumptuously filmed and exceptionally directed by Martin Koolhoven, which touches upon a universal truth rarely discussed, let alone seen in a motion picture. During this stage, boys begin developing their models of manhood, slowly replacing romanticized ideals with those of the real men in their lives. Between his father and uncle, Michiel must decide what it really means to fearlessly face dangerous hardships and survive.
One of the most touching sequences in the film is seeing Michiel being taught how to shave by his father, in effect being trained how to handle an open-blade straight razor — a dangerous weapon when wielded by the wrong hands. It's an important moment in a young boy's life, a rite-of-passage of sorts within our modern civilization — a metaphorical bridge between child and adult. It's at this point also that we can see a small hint of change within Michiel, as if possibly realizing that compassion and sympathy for others are also important, virtuous qualities which make up a hero. The experience offers an enduring impact in his life, and the film leaves a lasting impression in ours.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony Pictures Classics releases 'Winter in Wartime' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. The first is a Region A locked, BD50 disc while the second is a DVD copy of the movie. Both are housed on opposing panels inside a blue eco-vortex case. At startup, the disc opens with a couple of skippable trailers, followed by the usual main menu with full-motion clips and music.
Taken from a freshly-minted master, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode arrives with a beautifully-detailed image, revealing plenty of wonderful texture in the snow, costumes and facial complexions.
Whether indoor or outdoor, the picture is very well-defined and distinct for most of the movie's runtime. A couple scenes don't quite match the sharpness of others, but for the most part, it pleases.
The photography is intentionally drained of color, creating a solemn atmosphere, but primaries come through boldly and accurately. The transfer displays a very crisp contrast level, making the white of snow brilliant and the town feel oppressively desolate, which only adds to the film's subject matter. When darker objects, however, sit in front of such high-contrast backgrounds, the video shows some very noticeable ringing around the edges. Blacks are fairly deep and strong with excellent shadow delineation, but it's not always consistent, losing a bit of its luster in a few sequences.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack accompanying the video is slightly more impressive, with several excellent moments of heightened activity. The front soundstage is wonderfully spacious, with a great deal of warmth and rich clarity. Vocals are very well-prioritized and lucid, allowing us to hear every tonal inflection of Michiel's emotional journey. The mid-range delivers every piece of the action with succinct sharpness and terrific room-penetration. Low-frequency effects are surprisingly weighty with an accurate punchy response, providing depth and presence to the music as well as the couple sequences of action. Rears also offer some appreciable instances of immersion as sounds pan flawlessly from one speaker to the next, creating a highly enjoyable lossless mix.
Sony brings the emotional war drama with a forgettable set of supplements.
Martin Koolhoven's 'Winter in Wartime' is an emotional coming-of-age tale set during the last winter of World War II. It's a touching and tragic film about a boy learning the complexities of bravery and courage, ones which challenge his previous heroic fantasies. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong audio and video presentation but a poor selection of special features, making it a nice package for fans and worth recommending to others for the film alone.