In the 1960s there was a popular poster and bumper sticker that proclaimed, “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.” Political repression isn’t good for them either. Those are the messages carried by two new films opening on March 18, “The Gift to Stalin,” from Kazakhstan, and “Winter in Wartime,” from the Netherlands.
The poster’s sentiment always struck me as simplistic, albeit true. Unfortunately, “Winter in Wartime,” directed by the veteran Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven and adapted from a popular young-adult novel by Jan Terlouw, is often as pat as a bumper sticker. The film is set in January 1945. The Germans have all but lost the war, but the occupation of the Netherlands seems as sternly administered as ever in a village near Zwolle. The mayor, Johan van Beusekom (Raymond Thiry) struggles to maintain a neutral stance towards the Germans, but his 14-year-old son Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is itching to do something for the underground like his beloved uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen).
Then fate offers the boy an opportunity that carries repercussions far beyond his juvenile imaginings. Through a series of events he finds himself the sole person aware of the existence of Jack, a downed RAF flier (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is hiding in the nearby woods. Everything hinges on how Michiel comports himself. He is understandably reluctant to involve anyone else in events but must find someone he can rely on when the Englishman’s wound become dangerously infected. Then the Germans discover the corpse of one of their soldiers, shot earlier by Jack, and assume a local killed him. They take hostages, including Johan, and the moral stakes become as seemingly fraught as the plot.
Koolhoven sets up this situation deftly. He is strong on background detail: the roads constantly filled with refugees traveling back and forth with no apparent destination ahead; the dark, cold, wintery woods surrounding the village; the sheer drabness of the town itself. Taken purely as a suspense film, “Winter in Wartime” is workmanlike, if a bit overwrought. The film is also clever and observant in the depiction of Michiel, his motivations seen as a mixture of admirable concern and childish war game. In particular, his seething resentment when Jack becomes involved with Michiel’s sister Erica (Melody Klaver) is nicely observed. There are also moments that suggest a world in which everyone is a bit compromised; the most effective of them being the discovery that the town’s most ardent Nazi sympathizer is hiding a young Jewish girl and her mother.
But the moral and emotional complexities of the situation are too often pushed aside for the nuts-and-bolts elements of the plot, and a big plot twist towards the end stretches credulity. The result is painless to sit through but a lost opportunity.
By contrast, “The Gift to Stalin,” directed by Rustem Abdrashev, is more effective, if only slightly less predictable. Sashka (Dalen Schintemirov) is a little Jewish boy who is basically dumped in the middle of nowhere, one of a trainload of deportees from Moscow to Kazakhstan in 1949. His parents are in the Gulag and his grandfather dies at the outset of the film while reciting the Shema. The boy is more or less adopted by Kasym, a one-eyed railroad worker who is a veritable mountain of a man with a face like a sun-cracked desert floor. Sashka becomes the center of a makeshift family unit consisting of Kasym, a Polish political prisoner Ezhik (Waldemar Szczepaniak), and the beautiful Verka (Yekaterina Renikova), and he falls in with a ethnically diverse gang of kids whose mischief-making is fairly benign.
This little Eden is threatened constantly by the local military representative (Alexander Bashirov), a vulgar and vicious cop (Bakhtiar Kozha), and the increasingly paranoiac behavior of the nation’s Supreme Leader a continent away. But the most dangerous threat comes from a project designed as a 70th birthday gift for Stalin, a nuclear bomb-testing site.
Unlike “Winter in Wartime,” “The Gift for Stalin,” for the most part, makes no effort to assume the child’s point of view of events. Indeed, much of the film’s power comes from Sashka’s inability to grasp what is going on around him until events have spiraled out of control. The audience, on the other hand, will recognize the iconography of emptying boxcars, barking attack dogs and men in uniforms for the echoes of the other camps that they are. And Abdrashev makes effective use of the ironies implicit in Sashka’s innocence in reaction to the often sinister goings-on around him.
This is the kind of film that, in the hands of a more literal-minded filmmaker, would be alternately coy and treacly, but Abdrashev keeps a certain discreet distance from the obvious emotional fallout one would expect with such material. Aided by a framing device of the adult Sashka speaking from his home in Jerusalem, Abdrashev maintains a coolness that keeps the film from being cloying. The final plot development is not unexpected, but it originates from a cumulative power that is not inconsiderable. The result is an interestingly different slice of tragedy.
“The Gift to Stalin,” directed by Rustem Abdrashev, opens Friday, March 18 at the Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., (212) 924-3363 or www.cinemavillage.com.
“Winter in Wartime,” directed by Martin Koolhoven, opens Friday March 18 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Broadway and 62nd St., (212) 757-2280 or www.lincolnplazacinema.com, and at Quad Cinema, 34 W. 13th St., (212) 255-8800 or www.quadcinema.com.