Reviews Too Late: Max Manus (2008)

by wjw on October 10, 2011

Fearful, apparently, that American audiences might not know that Max Manus was a celebrated Norwegian resistance fighter, the American release is subtitled MAN OF WAR, so everyone will think the film is about a race horse.

Max Manus was the most expensive film ever made in Norway, and is based on Max’s two autobiographical works, It Usually Ends Well, and It Gets Serious.

Max had an adventurous life, leaving sch0ol at 15 to sail to South America.  The film picks up his life in 1939, after he had returned to Norway, joined the army, and then volunteered to fight in Finland against the Soviet invaders.  He returned just in time for the German invasion.

Max immediately joins the fledgling resistance, but his group consists of untrained amateurs who approach fighting the Germans as a lark, a sort of undergraduate toga party, and of course the Germans locate them and Max is arrested.  He evades torture by jumping head-first out of an upper-story window, which doesn’t kill him but which lands him in the hospital, from which he subsequently escapes with the help of the hospital staff.

Eventually he makes his way via Sweden to England, where he’s trained as a saboteur and parachuted back into Norway.  He mainly busies himself blowing up shipping, which involves paddling into a well-guarded harbor at night, then attaching limpet mines to the hulls of ships.  It’s insanely dangerous work, but fortunately Max is able to make occasional trips to Sweden for instructions, equipment, and R&R, all of which is provided by an attractive, if inconveniently married, diplomatic attache named Tikken.

The Germans are on the trail of Max and his unit, most of whom are killed, captured, or tortured.  Max is nearly unhinged with grief, anger, alcohol, and combat fatigue.  He decides to take one last gamble, the destruction of the giant, heavily guarded cargo ship Donau, which is intended to carry German troops from Norway to the Battle of the Bulge.

Since Max survived the war to write two sets of memoirs, marry Tikken, become one of the most decorated Norwegian officers in history, and found a office supply company, there isn’t a ton of suspense concerning whether he, personally, will come out of the war in one piece.  It’s whether his personality survives intact that provides the big question, whether he’ll overcome the horrors of war, the PTSD, and the alcohol that was PTSD’s only treatment back in the day.

This is a Scandinavian film, so it’s just a little bit cool, a little bit underplayed.  Aksel Hennie plays Max as a fairly ordinary guy, not a square-jawed hero.  The budget seems to have gone into recreating Occupied Norway, and has done a good job.

What is there in the current Zeitgeist that’s producing World War II resistance films?  In the last few years we’ve had Flame and Citron, Defiance, Sophie Scholl, Bonhoeffer, probably some others I’ve missed.  They’re far more realistic than the films of a previous generation (Shadow Warriors aside), and tend to concentrate as much on the inhuman psychological pressure felt by our heroes as on shoot-’em-up.

Maybe we’re mentally preparing for our own resistance against the oligarchy and its minions.

I’d rate this one four Lugers.

mastadge October 10, 2011 at 11:34 am

One you’ve missed is Robert Guédiguian’s L’armée du crime, the story of Missak Manouchian and his group of partisans in occupied France. Not as good a film as Flame & Citron, but probably about on par with or a little better than Max Manus.

DensityDuck October 10, 2011 at 7:26 pm

The World War II resistance was, in a lot of people’s worldview, the last time that white Europeans ever did anything that was A: entirely on the right side, B: entirely for the right reasons, C: to people who were entirely deserving (of being blown up and killed, sure, but they were Nazis), and D: successful.

Hardly surprising that there’d be nostalgia for it.

wjw October 11, 2011 at 6:20 am

Good point, DD. Though I’m not sure I’d call it nostalgia, since the audience for the film is too young to remember the Second World War.

I will definitely check out L’armee du Crime.

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) October 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm

And then there’s Quentin Tarentino’s version of “Inglorious Basterds”, a movie about WW2 movies rather than about the war itself. And that is IMNSHO is incredibly insulting to Jews, Allied soldiers, the resistance, and even to Germans.

Jim Janney October 11, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Maybe not so recent, but Verhoeven’s Black Book and Roman Polanski’s
The Pianist. I think we’re seeing directors who were children during
the occupation now making movies about it.

mastadge October 11, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Verhoeven also made Soldier of Orange way back when, which as I recall was pretty great.

wjw October 12, 2011 at 2:25 am

I also recall Soldier of Orange as being a pretty good film, and am deeply annoyed we can’t get it on DVD when every awful piece of crap with Verhoeven’s name on it is readily available.

The Pianist I remember as a film in which the protagonist survived through sheer chance and not from any particular effort or virtue of his own. Which probably applied to Polanski as well.

Jim Janney October 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm

You remember right re The Pianist. Very few survivors from the Polish Underground, alas:
textbook case of why you don’t want to be liberated by the Russians.

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