The Undercover War

The Undercover War


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

With so many films about the Second World War, you'd think it would be tricky to locate a new aspect to focus on, but Nicolas Steil is to be credited for finding one, turning his attention to the role of Luxembourg and, specifically, réfractaires. These young Luxembourgers were faced with a grim choice after their country was occupied by Germany in 1940 - be drafted to the Russian front where they would be forced to kill or be killed by their allies, or resist, a choice that could well result in the deportation of their families to death camps. Surprisingly, perhaps, the resistance took two forms - the active sort that we often associate with groups in France and a more passive type, becoming a réfractaire - essentially young men who hid away in the iron mines so that they could not be drafted.

Steil mixes his examination of this passive resistance and the way often it led to more active anti-Nazi action, with a coming-of-age tale. François (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) has it tougher than most. His father, a collaborater, has been killed and, faced with university lecturers preaching Aryanism and the fast-approaching prospect of the draft, he is taken by an old friend of the family to hide-out in the local mines.

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There, under the tutelage of two squabbling older soldiers, he meets other youngsters who have been underground for months - many of whom are sick as a result - and soon finds himself caught up in the sort of petty yet dangerous politics and emotions that tend to spring up when young people are kept at close quarters for any length of time. They view him as bourgeois and none more so than a former 'prole' friend of his who managed to get a girl they both fancied. Sexual tensions will also come to be provided by a chance encounter with a collaborator's wife that turns steamy.

In terms of its character examination, Steil's film is interesting. It has a surprisingly non-judgmental attitude to everyone involved, including the collaborators, showing how a climate of fear can lead very ordinary people to do dark deeds. He also illustrates well, the sense of a populace being doomed whatever they choose.

The problem lies in the staging and the plotting, both of which make the film feel like a solid TV show rather than a feature film. In fact, better justice could have been done to the material in a televised series, as the plot frequently takes large, unexplained leaps that give the impression of whole scenes having been cut. François is thrown from one plot device to the next, with not enough regard given to linking these episodes together. The direction, too, is quite stiff and neat, with scenes down the mine, in particular, feeling culled from a stage play rather than organic. Worth a look for the subject matter - and not a bad choice of film to show older teenagers who have likely not heard of this aspect of the war - but lacking bite.

Reviewed on: 15 Jan 2011
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The Undercover War packshot
A young Luxembourger dodges the German draft by hiding out in an iron mine.
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Director: Nicolas Steil

Writer: Jean-Louis Schlesser, Nicolas Steil

Starring: Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Arthur Dupont, Judith Davis, Thierry van Werveke, Marianne Basler, Pierre Niney, Guillaume Gouix, Carlo Brandt, Swann Arlaud, Pierre Derenne, André Jung, Michel Voïta, Luc Feit, Hervé Sogne, Yoann Denaive

Year: 2009

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Luxembourg, Switzerland


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