Lighting a Flame: Thure Lindhardt fights for the Danish resistance in WWII as Flame in "Flame & Citron." (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

WWII as Genre Busted by 'Flame & Citron'

Dennis Harvey August 20, 2009

There have been a fair number of films about WWII resistance movements lately, from sober Sophie Scholl (about Germany’s White Rose sect of anti-Nazi students) to Paul Verhoeven’s daft Dutch thrill ride The Black Book. Landing somewhere in the middle stylistically, if not geographically—is Flame & Citron, Ole Christian Madsen’s film about the two most famous Danish freedom fighters. One of the most expensive Danish films ever made, it’s an elaborately mounted historical drama that plays like an espionage thriller.

Opening this Friday at area theatres, the movie was understandably a big hit at home—not just because nobody likes to think their entire country went cuckoo for fascism at one time, but because the central roles were played by major local stars Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen. (If you haven’t seen them in various Danish films, you might well recognize them from recent international appearances as, respectively, Chartrand in Angels & Demons and James Bond’s crotch-kicking nemesis in Casino Royale). They give intense performances here, at times almost too intense—must Flame be lighting a moody cigarette in every other shot? Why is Citron perpetually drenched in flopsweat? Of course, there’s nothing like the burden of playing national heroes to induce a little performance anxiety.

Denmark was invaded by the German Army in April, 1940, ostensibly so the Axis could "protect" its neighbor from British and French forces. Unprepared and overwhelmed, the officially neutral government put up no real resistance, hoping to hang on to as much autonomy as possible by "tolerating" the occupation—in fact Denmark had a sizable ethnic German minority and its fair share of Nazi sympathizers. Many Danes were appalled, however, and a few actively sought to undermine the "protectorate government" that existed until 1943 (when the Germans imposed martial law) as well as punish those citizens actively collaborating with the Nazis.

That latter task was the primary focus for the Holger Danske resistance group, whose deeds and best-known agents are portrayed here. Bent Faurschou-Hviid a.k.a. Flame (so named for his fiery red hair) was a hotelier’s son who’d witnessed Nazi brutality up close during an apprenticeship in Germany. Jorgen Haagen Schmith (dubbed Citron for his sabotaging German vehicles at a Citroen factory) was his elder by a decade. Working largely as a team—though Flame was the primary hitman, with an enormous bounty offered for his capture—they assassinated Danes in league with the invaders.

While it certainly doesn’t shrink from the violence involved, Flame & Citron is largely about the moral quandaries and sheer fugitive unpleasantness of having "traitor liquidator" as your job description. Young and fanatical, Lindhardt’s Flame can afford not to think too hard about matters of conscience—at least until he falls for Ketty (Stine Stengade), a beautiful covert operative of some sort who says she’s on "your side." But the consequences could be disastrous if she’s not. Mikkelsen’s Citron has more or less abandoned his wife and child, for their own safety—though as his spouse (Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt) points out during one rare meeting, he wasn’t at home much before the war, either.

These two men have to believe the sacrifices they’ve made, of themselves and others, are justified by the greater good of thwarting fascism. Then a horrible possibility arises: Have they been tricked into killing innocent people all along?

It says something interesting about the way we—or at least Europeans and art house patrons—perceive heroism these days that Citron and Flame are portrayed as brave but also broken, martyred in mental health as well as the physical kind for their cause. Contrast that with Tom Cruise’s "good Nazi" would-be Hitler assassin in Valkyrie: a character that seemingly demands ambiguous shadings, played by an actor mortally afraid of them.

Flame & Citron
is no Valkyrie—it’s a movie you can take seriously. It’s also a great story, one that I hope eventually invites other dramatizations…because I’m not so sure this is a great movie. Madsen (of Kira’s Reason and Prague) has given it the kind of stylistic self-importance that shouts award bait, but actually can hobble even a true story’s credibility.

Everything is so glossy, art-directed and "subtly"focus-narrowing—i.e., when our protagonists sit at a restaurant, their table’s aglow from an inexplicable pinspot—that characters living fugitive lives somehow seem wildly conspicuous at every moment. There is no doubting the level of craftsmanship at work here. (Madsen won’t let you.) But is it, perhaps, the wrong kind of craftsmanship for this particular tale? Discuss.