Film Review: 12th Man

Despite a slow start and some overly graphic scenes, 'The 12th Man' is a suspenseful thriller about a World War II Norwegian resistance fighter and the people who helped him.
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For the first 30 minutes or so, Harald Zwart’s The 12th Man feels like yet another generic World War II film featuring heroic resistance fighters battling evil Nazis, with grisly torture scenes awash in blood and gore.

Admittedly, the WWII fetishists will be lining up for this one (assuming they’re open to German and Norwegian subtitles), and there are snippets throughout that are not for the faint-hearted, including one focusing on our protagonist amputating his own gangrene-infected toes without an anesthetic.

But the film is so much more than that, from the extraordinary real-life story being told to its narrative style to its stunning visual elements. It’s a suspenseful thriller/biopic about a supremely brave man and the extraordinary people who aided him. At its core, it’s a profoundly personal story and a wilderness survival tale, with the political informing the personal but largely serving as backdrop.

Set in the Arctic Circle in northern Norway in 1943, the film centers around Norwegian resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud (charismatically played by Thomas Gullestad in his first major film role), on an anti-Nazi mission andthe last surviving commando among twelve to have escaped the Germans. But Uberstrumbannführer Kurt Stage (the always fine Jonathan Rhys Meyers)is closing in and is as committed to tracking him down as Jan and his supporters are to getting him through the heavily Nazi occupied terrain and across the border to neutral Sweden. Stage is a savagely determined adversary.

Jan’s journey (at various points entailing sleds and skis) across stretches of mountainous, snow-covered, ice-laden frozen tundra is terrifying—it’s literally a life-or- death scenario. Jan seeks refuge in a shallow mountain cave and remains trapped there in a devastating blizzard without food or water for two weeks, barely surviving on icicles before help arrives. Gullestad and Zwart capture Jan’s dread, isolation and existential despair, made all the more vivid set against the blinding white landscape that is at once magnificent and a hellish embodiment of Jan’s experience. In one scene, a herd of reindeer, hundreds if not thousands of them, are languidly moving about. Jan’s flashbacks also combine the horrific with the surreal.

Perhaps the most remarkable characters in the film—and more to the point, those they represent in reality—are the locals Marius (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) and his younger sister Gudrun (Marie Blokhus), who risked their own lives to house and help Jan escape. Repelled by Nazism and devoid of grandstanding, they inspire awe 70-plus years down the pike. An iconic figure in Norway—indeed, the subject of the 1957 Norwegian film Nine Lives and more recently the 2010 best-seller The 12th Man: A World War II Epic of Escape and Endurance—Baalsrud is little known elsewhere and his story is worth telling. Still, as in any biopic, the questions emerge: Is this (scene or interaction) truthful or dramatic license? For the most part, the film has the ring of authenticity and it’s an impressive achievement for Zwart, best known for such comedies and adventures as Pink Panther 2, The Karate Kid andThe Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

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