Norwegian film Max Manus generated talk around its Toronto International Film Festival release in 2009. Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, it tells the story of Manus (played by Aksel Hennie), a budding resistance fighter during the oft-overlooked German occupation of Norway during WWII. The film moves slowly through Max’s personal history, flashing back to his experiences on the field during the Winter War and showing his development as a saboteur and undercover agent during the occupation period.
Hennie’s performance is the centrepiece of the film, as his portrayal of Max as a young, idealistic man evolves along with the story. As his friends are slowly picked off by the Gestapo, Max must face the consequences of his sabotage missions until he becomes a haunted, nerve-wracked alcoholic. The transition is fluid, played contrapuntally to the Gestapo officer (Siegfried Wolfgang Fehmer, played by Ken Duken) who is looking to capture Max once and for all.
Max Manus is smart enough to avoid some of the easier stereotypes of Nazi films—at least at the beginning. A genuine effort seems to have been made to portray Fehmer as a human being as opposed to a Nazi monster, showing—even if only briefly—his romantic exploits. This falls apart about halfway through the film, though. It’s as if the directors just gave up on characterizing Fehmer and chose to focus on Max’s sabotage missions instead.
Unfortunately, characterization often falls by the wayside in favour of extravagant sets and action sequences. Max Manus cost approximately US $10 million to make, cementing it as the most expensive purely Norwegian production ever, and it shows—both the set design and the costuming are superb, the action sequences well played out.
Thankfully, Manus is never played out to be some sort of Norwegian Rambo—whenever he kills a Nazi, it seems almost as if by accident. In one darkly humorous scene, Manus is escaping by bicycle (how much more Norwegian can you get?) shortly after bombing a government building. He turns a corner, only to find himself facing a truck full of Nazi soldiers. He guns them all down, but only because they’re having trouble getting out of the back of the truck.
The film has more than mere substance: the cinematography is great from the very beginning, intercutting the harsh whites of the Winter War with the dull greys of Oslo and the Nazi’s uniforms. It is clear that thought has been put into the use of colour, as the scenes in Norway have a very different palette from those set in Sweden and Britain. The difference is so pronounced that the first establishing shot of Scotland is actually quite jarring. The colour red gets special treatment in the film, showing up only in blood (and there is lots of it), the Nazi and Norwegian flags, and some dresses worn by Manus’s romantic interest. This all foregrounds what matters most to Max: getting rid of the Nazis, liberating his country, and being with Tikken, the woman he loves.
Inevitably, Max Manus lends itself to several annoying clichés. The use of newspaper headlines to establish the setting for the film is a bit tired and pedestrian, as is the film’s end when it tells the audience of the characters’ ultimate fates during the closing credits.
Max Manus isn’t really groundbreaking or game-changing. There’s no Inglourious Basterds–like historical revisionism here, and the Nazis lose. But by the end of the film, one can’t help but feel that Max has also lost. In fact, one of the best (and saddest) scenes comes near the end of the film, with Max holed up in a boarded house, drinking himself blind and “celebrating.” If The Hurt Locker’s message was that “war is a drug,” then by contrast, Max Manus is about how one gets addicted in the first place. Regardless of whether you enjoy war films, this is an entertaining, definite must-see. It’s certainly one of the best war films of the year, and most likely one of the best of the decade.
Max Manus opens in theatres April 2.