Though Saving Ryan’s Privates ushered in a new era of war porn, this cinematic wave of trash has given way to a more brooding type of war film; one less concerned with the gritty realism of how awesome it is when bullets perforate flesh, and more regarding how human nature is brought closer to the surface in times of conflict. Black Book was a stellar example, as a standard-looking WWII actioner where Nazis were the least of the protagonist’s problems. Flammen and Citronen (Flame and Citron) goes deeper, abandoning the clearly drawn lines of insane villains and virtuous heroes for a vast ocean of gray. This is a bold choice, considering that the Second World War is the most popular war, movie-wise, thanks to the cartoonishly diabolical philosophy of the National Socialist Party. That is the big selling point, giving the audience pure and brave fighting boys with big chins to root for as they gun down scores of evil, subhuman Nazis in strangely explodable cars. Call it the John Ford approach. The singular genius of Inglorious Basterds was the way in which it blurred the line between the good guys and bad when it comes to cinematic depictions of violence, and just how far skewed our perspective is when it comes to how wars go down. This film is more down to earth – in the trenches, so to speak.
Flame and Citron is not an experimental film; rather it dives into the murky world of Europe in 1944 prior to the Normandy invasion. The approach is subtle, and heavily influenced by Melville’s Army of Shadows. The sharp uniforms of the German army are in full display, but disappear into the fog when it comes to true allegiances. The Third Man captured this nebulous definition of what decency might be, albeit in the postwar period. In this film, the war may be in full swing, but citizens and soldiers alike have already begun to size up ways to turn the cataclysm to their advantage. The general view is that as long as the armies are wearing uniforms, a war can be straightforward enough. Director Ole Christian Madsen aims to dispel this assumption, and there is no better subject than an underground fighter.
Flame has the face of a child and a shock of red hair, and kills without hesitation, walking boldly amidst enemies that are well aware of the 20,000 kronor bounty for his distinctive head. Citron is more than hesitant to kill, consumed by guilt and dread for a future that seems more distant by the day. Both seem to understand that there is no way out of their situation – they are wanted by the Gestapo, feared by countrymen who are collaborators, and may be viewed with suspicion by the Allies. Perhaps a way through can be perceived – but only by way of fire. Flame does not care – he survives by the bravado borne of one who has no intention of surviving. Citron lives with the hope of reconciling with his wife and daughter, and ultimately with himself for the murders of which he has played a part. Living underground, they know only a handful of people, and all they know about the outside world comes from their handlers. They barely exist as people.
The Danish resistance committed acts of sabotage, smuggled arms, and killed Danish collaborators. This latter function is the task of our subjects, and it disturbs Flame and Citron that they are not to touch German officers, in particular the detestable Karl Hoffman, the head of the Gestapo in Copenhagen. So far this sounds pretty straightforward, but unlike most action films, the heroes must deal with the aftermath of their acts of heroism. When they strike three German officers at last, scores of civilians are killed in retaliation. If they exterminate an enemy of the homeland, it is inevitable that others will take their place, or the Nazis will extract information from another source. As time goes on, the price on their heads go up, and Hoffman brings down a dragnet on Flame and Citron. Their dependence upon their handler is critical – but can they trust him? Or does he have another agenda entirely? What happens to the mind of a patriot, killing in the name of freedom for the motherland, when they find their targets were just in the wrong place, or got on the wrong side of someone who had a ax to grind? True sacrifice requires absolute resolve and a willingness to jettison everything one values (including one’s values) for a cause, and the only payoff is a better future for those with whom you identify (the homeland). Flame and Citron want to save Denmark’s future, but the very people they wish to help would alternately offer them shelter and sell them out to the Nazis for reasons even the people do not understand.
So what is the point of sacrifice? There is no easy answer, as those who do so for an ideal are not understood by family, who are more than willing to compromise. The citizens will gladly sell to the invaders; as long as food hits the table, principles mean nothing. Eagles may soar, but weasels do not get sucked into jet engines. The strangest thing about Flame and Citron is that such betrayal of one’s principles is never presented as fundamentally wrong. Director Madsen is careful to avoid the dangerously naïve attitude carried by more prosaic war films – there is no simple way through such conflagrations in a world where choices are often far more limited than we are willing to admit. If Citron had simply stayed out of the war, and protected his family, would that make him a coward or a collaborator? He seemed to think so, and once such a decision is made, there is no going back. Others may feel the braver action would be to stay home and weather the storm.
Even if heroism were easy to define, such a concept would depend upon knowing the truth, about both one’s allies and adversaries. Truth is an elusive thing, much more so when accomplices have shifting motivations. Flame discovers his next target is to be eliminated for reasons irrelevant to the war; is his handler working with the Germans, or for himself? Is his target a double agent? Do the British and Americans plan to betray them to the Germans just to have them out of the way? In the end, there is no mystery to unearth – mysteries actually have solutions. This is an impenetrable cloud, and even if the resistance fighters knew the truth about any of their victims, truth is a moving target, and changes as continuously as molecular motion. Flame and Citron gets this aspect of war correct – it is not a collision of two armies, but of tens of millions of individuals with only the vaguest of notions as to why they occupy a given side, or any side. For this reason, underground resistance makes no sense to some, and is essential to others – a choice as individual as you are.
Flame and Citron explains very little about the characters and their true circumstances, makes plain none of the motivations of the people involved (especially Hoffman, who comes off as more than reasonable), and allows no easy answers for questions that will be asked as long as humans are willing to organize into large groups to kill each other. War is catastrophic for the soldier, robbing them of limbs and sanity for the benefit of those who avoid getting dirty. Nationalism is no less damaging to the citizen, as resistance fighters will find themselves without a country, and bereft of the support of their neighbors. Perhaps this sounds too cynical to be useful, but our species is a strange one, equal parts selfish and gregarious. By the end of this film, you may find yourself wondering what the legacy of these two fighters amounts to. Were their sacrifices worth the effort? The film raises more questions than it could ever answer, just the way essential film should.