Meet Me in Stockholm
by Damon Smith

Flame & Citron
Dir. Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark, IFC Films

“Flame” and “Citron” are code names for Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Thure Lindhardt) and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (Mads Mikkelsen), a resourceful pair of real-life underground assassins who waged a corpse-for-corpse war of wills with Nazi occupiers and Danish sympathizers in their native Copenhagen in 1944. Like the French Resistance fighters in Melville’s Army of Shadows or the Mossad strike unit in Spielberg’s Munich, these are men who live in a precarious, morally ambiguous world of intrigue and treachery. They are consumed with disgust and rage at the Occupation, and driven by a personal conviction that their actions are not only justifiable, but necessary. Working from their own research and eyewitness interviews, director Ole Christian Madsen and screenwriter Lars K. Andersen memorialize the pair’s heroic efforts utilizing all the conventions of wartime suspense thrillers: noirish atmosphere, cloak-and-dagger tension, double crosses, and devastating reversals. But they are careful to delineate the ways in which these hunted, haunted patriots (both were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor) are manipulated by friend and foe alike, eventually losing their way in a quagmire of moral conflict.

Survival is a key motif of the war-film genre. What people do to endure, whom they do it to, and how they live with their decisions are themes that have been examined countless times in movies, from Casablanca to The Pianist. Madsen surrounds Flame and Citron with characters doing what they can to evade death. Like most heroes, Flame and Citron are men of unshakable principle, possessed of a messianic fervor to drive out the enemy. But their zealotry leads them into a haze of uncertainty, where ideals of valor and honor come perilously close to resembling those of the fanatic. True to this premise, Lindhardt plays Bent as a diehard utterly committed to the fight (“We can take it to Japan, when we’re through with the Germans,” he proclaims), while Mikkelsen’s Jørgen is gloomy, brooding, freighted with angst. Deformed by the task of killing, they are ultimately tragic figures whose resolve withers when they are afflicted with ambivalence and doubt, only to resurface as wholehearted recklessness.

Nicknamed “Flame” for his shock of carrot-orange hair, Bent is the most wanted man in Scandinavia. The Nazi occupiers, angered and unnerved by his fearless, point-blank assassinations, have put a fat bounty on his head. He and his dour counterpart and driver, Jørgen a/k/a “Citron,” are part of a small cell of insurgents, the Holger Danske Group, taking orders from Aksel Winther (Peter Mygind), a no-bullshit police solicitor whose target list comes directly from London. They operate out of the storage room of a drinking establishment frequented by Nazi officers, including Hoffman (Christian Berkel), head of the Gestapo. Bent is especially obsessed with eliminating Hoffman, who’s responsible for the mass murder of civilians; Winther forbids it, warning that it will only unleash chaos and carnage.

Adding to the stress and storm of resistance are the men’s complicated personal lives: Bent’s touch-and-go affair with sharp, secretive blonde Ketty (Stine Stengade); guilt-ridden family man Jørgen’s strained meetings with his estranged wife. Eventually, fear and confusion overtake the duo, as botched hits, German firebombings, internecine squabbling, a near-fatal injury, and tense encounters with exiled officials in Stockholm, who are coordinating a major military operation with the Allies and want the cell to cease its activities, add to the militants’ fury and consternation. Things unravel further when Ketty is added to the hit list, and Flame learns he and Citron may have been wiping out innocent people all along.

Madsen’s handling of all this history is dutiful, as established by the opening montage of goose-stepping Nazis and Wehrmacht squadrons entering Denmark in May 1944. “Do you remember when they arrived?” a voice intones in a confidential whisper, addressing the collective memory of a nation as the old newsreels roll. “What were you thinking?” The narration is sober and forlorn, conveying a sense of the trauma and morale-decimating helplessness an entire population felt in witnessing the senseless execution of citizens and the advance of brute force. Then Madsen cuts to a shot of Bent dressing, tucking a gun into his boot, eyeing a cyanide pill, gazing at himself in the mirror, perhaps uncertain of his fate but not the integrity of his mission. “I know what I am doing is right,” he says.

The strength of this conviction, equally shared by the two men, is subjected to intense scrutiny over the course of the film. (“Each has his own reasons,” Flame says of their decision to resist with force, echoing the famous dictum in Renoir’s The Rules of the Game.) Given the violent nature of their work, the face-to-face killing of German agents, SS officers, and propaganda-spewing newspaper editors, Bent and Jørgen are positioned as operatives caught in an existential double bind: in literally effacing the humanity of others, they risk destroying their own. Madsen develops this theme episodically, in a series of revelatory encounters, less concerned with backstory or breadth of character than the psychological impact of their actions. Flame, for instance, contends that he doesn’t kill women, but is forced to when Citron, who’s never pulled the trigger, mangles the job. In a subsequent stakeout, Flame is warned by Winther not to engage his target, Gilbert (Hanns Zischler), in conversation, as he’s a man of “great spiritual potential.” He doesn’t heed the advice, and is shaken to the core by the Nazi’s soliloquy about hate and doubt. “You’re a partisan,” the man coolly informs him, “a soldier without a front.” Later, he’s rattled by a similar head-shrinking tactic when he corners Hoffman, who declares that “we’re the same.” Citron’s damaged psyche grows from his failure to fulfill his duties as a father and husband, and the gnawing idea—highlighted when he robs a Nazi grocer of goods but refuses the man’s money—that he’s descended into criminality.

For the most part, Madsen harnesses all this drama with a terse, remarkably understated aplomb that banishes from memory his Dogme excesses in Kira’s Reason. The slayings aren’t glorified; they’re sloppy, and shockingly brutal. Working from a palette of muted grays, cinematographer Jørgen Johansson captures period detail in high exterior widescreen compositions, then melds it with moody lighting schemes and silhouette shots that evoke classic American crime dramas. One exception: in a sequence depicting mass resistance, Flame strides down the boulevard in a blooming trenchcoat as all hell breaks loose, a look of iron determination on his face as he approaches the camera, Jason Statham–style, almost smirking. People are rioting, bullets are flying, there’s a massive explosion. He never turns or reacts; his expression is iconic. (Even Clive Owen flinched when a bomb went off next to his head in Children of Men.) He has morphed into an action hero, a totem of Danish pride. (“Where were you when Copenhagen resisted?” purrs the voiceover.) It’s a confoundingly silly move, all the more so since Madsen has so cautiously rendered his tale, up to this point, as somber, low-key, and serious in its aims.

Apart from this moment of self-indulgence, Flame & Citron remains genuinely compelling in its unpretentious approach, culminating in an elegiac, slow-motion dual-death scene. The film is well-acted and precision-crafted, evidencing all the principles of good Scandinavian design (the National Film School of Denmark, Madsen’s alma mater, does generate its share of talented artisans). Exploring the darker aspects of the “good fight” aligns it with other recent revisionist films about occupation, such as Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Paul Verhoeven’s retro-audacious, resolutely perverse Black Book. On the whole, it’s too muted, too workmanlike, to merit hosannas of unqualified praise. Even so, as a genre picture packing some resonant ideas about war and terror, loyalty and betrayal, it’s worth a look.