“Jeff,” you say, despite having no reason to imagine I would answer and no reason to address me by my first name, “I have seen roughly 4,000 separate Second World War dramas. Holocaust stories, resistance fighters and plain ol’ GIs battling Nazis. Do you suppose Norway has a story to tell me too?”
Well, good news: Norway sent this movie, Max Manus, which they thought you’d like. It’s essentially exactly like the other movies you’d seen, but in Norwegian. Thanks, Norway!
Based on the real-life, titular resistance fighter, Max Manus is a colour-by-numbers war movie… in Norwegian! There’s the reluctant but plucky protagonist, whose name might be in the movie’s title (it’s Max Manus, played by Aksel Hennie); his jolly best buddy, Gregers (Nicolai Cleve Broch); the gradually melting ice queen love interest, Tikken (Agnes Kittelsen); and, of course, the requisite moustache-twirling Nazi antagonist, Siegfried (Ken Duken). There are Nazis, the war takes its toll and SPOILER ALERT: the Allies win at the end, but there is a Cost.
Max Manus’s faults are many, including a familiar list of errors that underpin so many war dramas and biopics. A revolving door of forgettable characters passes by as years pass with the dizzying speed necessary to cram the complexity of war into digestible parables. And good men die, damn it. There are several tense escapes on bicycles, though, which adds an odd dimension to at least a few scenes. Thanks for promoting greener getaways, Norway!
It’s also worth noting that while I’ve watched a lot of movies in the Second World War genre, this was the first that felt compelled to explain the Second World War’s back story with a newspaper montage: German econonomy collapses, Hitler ascends, stuff starts getting bad. Whew, caught up. Thanks for the recap, Norway!
In fact, in a movie based on a beloved Norwegian resistance saboteur, the only real tension in the otherwise hilariously predictable film comes in a surprisingly tense canoe-mounted bomb-planting run on a German shipyard. Even a motif that sees Manus revisit his traumatic battlefront memories while dreaming eventually grows slightly absurd — just how many times can a leading man lose consciousness? But hey, way to make canoes badass, Norway!
Am I being glib? I am. Sorry, Norway. But the truth is that, with annual attempts to remind us of the grim realities of war successfully turning one of history’s greatest horrors into a genre quagmire, a lifeless retread like Max Manus is only about as much fun as the sum of its failures. Seen from that angle, Norway’s highest-ever grossing domestic film is a rollicking success — why add innovation when you can just do it in Norwegian?