The Movie Waffler New Release Review - LIBERATION | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - LIBERATION

Liberation review
During WWII a Danish family faces a moral dilemma when their school becomes home to German refugees.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Anders Walter

Starring: Pilou Asbæk, Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, Morten Hee Andersen, Peter Kurth, Ulrich Thomsen

Everyone imagines that when the time comes they'll be the hero; if push comes to shove, they'll do the right thing, take the decisive action and save the fucking day. Easier envisioned than enacted, though, I reckon, as our inherent sense of self-preservation, along with good old inertia, ultimately disabuses us of getting in harm's way or jeopardising social status. It is grating when people smugly wheel out that adage about evil only thriving when good people do nothing yet there is persistent truth in the cliché. Self-aggrandisement aside, how many of us would admit that, actually, in the moment, we are far more likely to make the decision more convenient to us, despite the unfortunate ramifications our inaction may have for others? (Perhaps ask the commuters on this morning tube journey).

Easy to imagine yourself the hero. Easy fantasy. Comforting, too, especially to a mind conditioned by the simple plot  trajectories of popular narrative cinema. In complex contrast, Anders Walter's (with story by Miriam Nørgaard) Second World War set Liberation (original Danish title, 'Before it Ends', which I prefer for its anxious temporality) is based on true events, which are multi-faceted by nature and wherein morality is subjective.

Liberation review

Seeing their neighbours as fellow Aryans, Nazi Germany was, for the most part, alright with Denmark. The countries made for awkward bedfellows, though. Denmark did co-operate with Germany (the perceived might of the German military would mean loss of life), yet the resolve of certain Danes regarding Nazi race policy stands tall. Problem was, though, that when Russia made further inroads towards Berlin, around 250,000 Germans escaped north seeking asylum in occupied Denmark. This is where the complications set in and where Liberation picks up. Were the refugees casual sympathisers with lebensraum, or, worse, actual nazis? Or are they victims of a government which was dependent upon an Enabling Act effectively outlawing democracy? If Denmark hadn't capitulated and the jackboot had been on the other foot, how many Danish lives would have been lost to the German army?

Such uneasy dynamics characterise the 1945 set Liberation, where we focus in on the microcosm of small town Ryslinge and high school principal Jacob (Pilou Asbæk - a more wholesome Michael Shannon) who has been instructed to harbour 500 refugees in his halls. We open with Jacob instructing his son Søren (Lasse Peter Larsen) how to tie a flag (the best part of being Danish? Well, the flag is a big plus...), establishing not only notions of recouped identity but the influential relations between adult and child, too. The Soviets are getting closer to the German capital, and it looks as if the war is coming to an end: only a few moments into Liberation, Walter creates a palpable sense of relief. It doesn't last, however. Following whispers of a factory bombed by the Danish resistance, the town doctor is shot point blank for his presumed involvement, right in front of Søren. While some Germans may be in need of safety, the most visible enact a nightmare regime on the town.

Liberation review

What ensues is an utterly plausible drama, which takes its time to depict its inexorable descent into chaos, occurring so slowly, yet surely, nobody realises what is happening until it's too late. Rasmus Heise's cinematography is staid, almost monochrome in its bright use of natural light picking out shadowy rooms where Jacob and his wife Lis (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal) fret over their responsibility to the town, to their family and to their own humanity. The town estrange them, seeing the family as Nazi sympathisers, which culminates in schoolkids viciously bullying Søren and their parents deliberately othering Jacob and wife (it isn't just Germans circa 1940 who are capable of tyranny, Liberation suggests).

Walter and Nørgaard often frame events through the experiences of Søren yet avoid trite "innocence lost" motifs, chiefly because the boy doesn't have a better sense of how to react any more than the compromised adults do. What he does have is the instinctive immediacy of a child, where emotion overrides all other sensibilities. This leaves Søren open to radicalisation by the town's more motivated, disillusioned residents: the iconography of the third act, where things really do descend re the people of Ryslinge, deliberately invokes the very Nazis which the Danes are supposedly in opposition to.

Liberation review

The closing credits of Liberation are a testament to the many lives lost during this relocation. In Ryslinge, 62 refugees died, 27 of that number were children. Across the country, 10,942 died and 6,540 were children. Little kids, who would have had little idea of what the war involved and absolutely no agency regarding it. Walter's film is a deeply disconcerting, and timely, reminder that while most of us may fantasise about being a hero we more often end up defaulting to villain.

Liberation is on UK/ROI VOD from January 29th.

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