Movie Review

Flame and Citron

Nazi killers in less-‘glourious’ detail

Mads Mikkelsen (left) and Thure Lindhardt in the Danish World War II film “Flame and Citron.’’ Mads Mikkelsen (left) and Thure Lindhardt in the Danish World War II film “Flame and Citron.’’ (Ifc Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 4, 2009

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The World War II resistance drama “Flame and Citron’’ is reportedly the costliest Danish movie ever made. What’s most distinctive about the film, though, isn’t in the budget. Despite the blazing red hair of one of its title protagonists, this long, tense historical drama is obsessed with shades of gray. Through a fluke of release-schedule timing, it arrives as the anti-“Inglourious Basterds’’ - a story about heroic Nazi-killers in which heroism itself sinks under bewildering crosscurrents of motive and uncertainty.

A bummer? Yes, but fascinatingly so, even if director Ole Christian Madsen eventually loses his way. “Flame and Citron,’’ co-written by Madsen with Lars K. Andersen, is based on two real figures in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen: Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Thure Lindhardt), nicknamed “Flame’’ for his carrot-top, and Jorgen Haagen Schmith (Mads Mikkelsen), known as “Citron,’’ or “Lemon.’’ Both are members of the Holger Danske underground faction, but they function on their own as a lethal assassination team, shooting Danish collaborators and German officers targeted by their group’s dour leader, Winther (Peter Mygind), who takes his orders from higher-ups in Sweden.

“Flame and Citron,’’ then, is concerned with the bureaucracy of organized violent resistance - an interesting angle. The two heroes would prefer to be freelancers, and they ache to take out Hoffman (Christian Berkel), the SS’s man in Copenhagen. Winther won’t allow it for fear of reprisals, or perhaps he’s playing a deeper, more sinister game. As Flame gets romantically involved with Ketty (Stine Stengade) a courier whose allegiances are as changeable as her hair color, the moral signposts that have guided him vanish into the murk.

Lindhardt plays the part as an avenging idealist - Flame is young, assured, deadly. Other people’s humanity keeps tripping him up, though: Sent to kill a German officer (Hanns Zischler), the assassin is talked out of the hit by his target, whose ability to see all sides of the equation is unexpectedly seductive. Who’s being set up here? The film repeatedly poses that question and pointedly refuses to answer. By its silence, it suggests that in wartime everyone can be both user and used.

Madsen makes the most of his budget, and he keeps pulling his camera back for long, visually sumptuous overhead shots. The big picture eludes his characters, though, and to a lesser extent the filmmaker. “Flame and Citron’’ is torn between honoring and subverting the rules of the WWII resistance genre, and it insists on seeing the two leads as heroes even as events spiral beyond their control. The movie’s problems are present in miniature in the character of Citron, who’s played by Mikkelsen, a fine actor and matinee idol, as a sweaty nervous wreck with a crumbling marriage. We learn too much about him and it’s still not enough.

Likewise, at over two hours, “Flame and Citron’’ feels packed with events and frustratingly unfocused. Instead of building, it unravels; the anti-Nazi righteousness we want from our movies devolves into paranoia, wrongful death, and a bleak landscape in which allegiances can never be pinned down. There’s a horrid truth there, and it’s one the movie backs away from. Madsen senses what Quentin Tarantino knows: We need our comic book heroes precisely because reality refuses to play fair.

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FLAME AND CITRON Directed by: Ole Christian Madsen

Written by: Madsen and Lars K. Andersen

Starring: Thure Lindhardt, Mads Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 130 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: War-related violence, brief nudity, sexual situations)

In Danish and German, with subtitles

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