The movie screen shows two freshly dug graves sitting side by side in a meadow somewhere in the Danish hills. As the camera pans toward the sky, the clouds begin to break, finally shining light on a movie otherwise heavy with drab shades of brown, gray, green and blue. It is a poetic, albeit depressing, ending to “Flame & Citron,” which follows the true story of two Danish resistance fighters during World War II. But the sun’s rays coming through the clouds tell us that there is still hope on the horizon, despite the struggles that accompany war.
At 46 million kroner ($8 million), “Flame & Citron” has the highest-ever budget for a Danish-language movie — all the more remarkable for a film that portrays Denmark in such a poor light. Contrary to the Häagen-Dazs myth of universal Danish resistance (true only later on in the war), when the Nazis arrived, the Danish government was both cooperative and compliant. Despite, or perhaps because of, this compliance, writer and director Ole Christian Madsen stressed the importance of telling the story of the resistance movement:
Because [the government was] giving everything to the Germans… they were creating this strange gray area where nobody knew what was right or wrong. The prime minister and the government [were] even telling the people in speeches to tell on the resistance guys because they were disrupting the ability of the Nazis. It is not a story to be proud of from that angle, but you have to be proud of the 1,600 people [in the resistance] that fought.
“Flame & Citron” starts with a voice-over recounting the events of April 9, 1940. “They came out of the dark; they had been awaiting the day,” says Bent Faurschou-Hviid, aka Flame, about the Nazis’ arrival and imminent occupation of Denmark. Historical black-and-white images are displayed as Flame, the film’s protagonist and narrator, provides us with a grim and grisly sample of the events to follow.
Played coolly by Thure Lindhardt, Flame belongs to the Holger Danske resistance group, made up of likeminded Danes who become disappointed and angered by their country’s collaboration with their new rulers from the Third Reich. Along with his partner and friend, Citron (Mads Mikkelsen), he goes careening around Copenhagen, assassinating those assisting the Germans.
Unfortunately, when Madsen first began researching the film in 1999, nobody wanted to finance a project that discussed Holger Danske. Even after the movie was finally released in Denmark in March 2008, Madsen found that many people were upset with the way “Flame & Citron” portrayed the past.
“We had a lot of controversy after this film,” Madsen said. “The right thought we were pissing on Danish graves because we did the film with edge and attitude towards resistance fighters. They wanted them to be bigger heroes; they wanted it to be the national story about glory. And the left thought we were [unfairly] tagging the… policy of the government during the war.”
Despite these difficulties, “Flame & Citron” went on to become a huge success overseas and was eventually nominated for 14 Robert Awards (the Danish equivalent of the Oscars), including best director, best actor for Lindhardt and best supporting actor for Mikkelsen, who plays the part of Citron with the same intensity and darkness he exhibited as Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale.” Citron’s difficulties are evident as he struggles to balance which is more important: family or patriotic duty. The loss and heartbreak he experiences takes a toll on his psyche, as Citron begins taking sleeping pills to stay awake.
Flame goes through his own internal struggles, as well. On the one hand, he is a cold-blooded killer looking to make good on his loyalty to Denmark. On the other, he is a gentle romantic partner to his girlfriend, Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade — also nominated for a Robert). As the convoluted nature of war brings a certain complexity to his circumstances, Flame is forced to ask himself certain questions. Is he doing the right thing? Whom can he trust? These deliberations are heard through his narration and seen through his eyes. Madsen also captures the raw emotion of war with close-up shots of Flame’s facial expressions, which convey the sense of him as both a seasoned professional and a somewhat quiet 23-year-old.
The juxtaposition between cold-blooded killer and mild-mannered boyfriend was what drew Madsen into making Flame the main character of the film in the first place. As a child, Flame was obsessed with guns, buying his first Winchester rifle when he was 9, to shoot down weather stations on top of neighbors’ houses. By the time Flame was 15, he was always carrying a gun.
“I had to respect that he was a main character, that he is so special. You could say that the line between being a [useful] tool like Flame and being a psychopath is pretty small,” Madsen said. “But everyone said he was gentle, he was quiet. He was [even] a connoisseur of wine and food.”
With a limited release that started on July 31, “Flame and Citron” brings a subject with which few American audiences are likely to be familiar. Although WWII and the Holocaust have been depicted on screen ad nauseam, the location, the particular edginess of the characters and its film noir style allow the movie to revisit the era.
“A war movie is usually normal people in an extraordinary situation or extraordinary people in a normal situation. But in this case, it is extraordinary people in an extraordinary situation, because they are really quite unique and quite unusual, and that is why I think they had such an impact,” Madsen said.
While the film concludes in the quiet Danish countryside overlooking unidentified graves, the events that lead viewers to that ending are marked with gunfire and bloodshed — fitting for a movie with a narrative that mirrors the dualistic nature of its main character, Flame. Those who are now buried in that field were once in the middle of one of the most brutal wars in history. There, life, like Flame’s, was filled with its own complications and internal struggles. But by the end of “Flame & Citron,” those feelings are gone. All that is left is a calm breeze and the rays of the sun shining down on a postwar Denmark.
Alex Suskind is a frequent contributor to the Forward.
View a trailer of the film below: