The 12th Man (Den 12. Mann)
Norway (2017) Dir. Harald Zwart
How does one define a hero? Is it someone who acts selflessly in a crisis to ensure safety of others? Someone who fights for his family, friends, or country, in the process slaying many of the opposition? Someone who stands against a toxic regime on principle and seeking justice? Or is simply a survivor against all odds?
In many ways, the subject of this true story that occurred during World War II embodies all of these qualities yet Norwegian soldier Jan Baalsrud never considered himself a hero at all, despite his incredible achievements – instead he deemed the people who helped him survive and escape the Nazi stronghold the true heroes of his mission.
Portrayed by Thomas Gullestad, Baalsrud’s incredible story begins in 1943 as the Nazis have occupied Norway. Twelve Norwegian resistance fighters return to their homeland having been trained by British commandos disguised as fisherman, with eight tons of TNT to blow up a major German military camp. However, a mole among their contacts leaks their plan to the Nazis and the boat is attacked upon arrival.
Eleven of the squad are captured, with one killed immediately and Jan being the only one to avoid capture. Carrying sensitive and important information detrimental to the Nazis’ plans, Jan must reach the safety of neutral Sweden without being caught, though the Nazi general Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) has convinced himself Jan couldn’t survive the sub zero temperatures anyway.
Baalsrud is such a legendary figure in his native Norway that his story has already been told on screen in the 1957 Norwegian film Nine Lives, which Baalsrud didn’t like because of the above-mentioned notion that those who helped him escape were the true heroes. Harald Zwart seeks to readdress this balance with his remake to ensure this ideal is put cross with a greater emphasis on those who risked their lives in keeping Baalsrud alive.
Some might find this humbleness a little trite but as much as Baalsrud deserves every ounce of respect and awe for his remarkable survival, he does indeed owe it to a brave group of farmers in the snowy mountains networking with other resistance fighters to get Baalsrud to Sweden in one piece. Baaslrud may be the one with the medals and the honorary OBE while these ordinary folk got nothing except harassment from the Nazis as their reward.
Yet this is not to undermine or downplay what Baalsrud had to endure during this three-month period in the wintry wilderness with the Nazis breathing down his neck and death knocking on his door every night. When we first see him fleeing the Nazi ambush at the seaport, Baalsrud only has one shoe, the other bare foot is already blue from its brief contact with the freezing snow.
For the remainder of this treacherous journey, this will be Baalsrud’s greatest handicap, not just impeding his movements, but the eventual onset of frostbite and later gangrene forces him to cut off two of his toes in one of the grislier scenes in the film! Wandering from remote farmhouse to remote farmhouse, food, change of clothes and ablutions are infrequent but the people are keen to help, out of solidarity and patriotism.
Whether it is a single midwife, a small family, or brother and sister Marius (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) and Gudrun (Marie Blokhus), Baalsrud is give a much help as possible to rest in comfort then continue his journey avoiding Nazi capture. However, the injured foot, emaciation from lack of sustenance and madness incurred by his many days in solitude play havoc with Baalsrud’s mind and body, making progress ore difficult at each step.
Zwart goes big with the few action sequences of the Nazis chasing Baalsrud across the snowy mountains, taking on a Bond-like energy and invention with some of the daring escapes. Baalsrud clumsily trying to outrun a Nazi fighter plane on skis feels excessively incongruent but probably happened, though a later scene with him being pulled on a sled in the midst of a reindeer stampede is a majestic sight to behold.
Tension is never far from any situation, coming at us from two different directions. One is the obvious near misses of Baalsrud almost being caught during a Nazi inspection of his hiding place, which Zwart manages to get so much mileage out of and it never feels overused. The other is General Stage’s dogged need to prove Baalsrud couldn’t possibly survive the elements otherwise, he’d have to admit to the Fuhrer he lost a dangerous enemy to the Nazi cause.
Like many other war films, there is no grey area in portraying the Nazis here; from the onset they are presented as cold, vicious, and unrepentantly arrogant in their sense of superiority. However, Stage is a curious character as he is fighting a battle of survival of his own, knowing that if Baalsrud isn’t captured, it is his arse on the line thus his back-up plan of proving the weather is insurmountable needs to work. As it transpires, Stage was eventually convicted of war crimes and executed in 1947.
Irishman Jonathan Rhys-Meyers spoke no German before this film, learning his dialogue in just two months which nobody would notice. Similarly committed to his role is Thomas Gullestad, reportedly losing 30 pounds in eight weeks to ensure maximum verisimilitude in depicting Baalsrud’s weakened state in the latter half of the film. These commanding performances are bolstered by an excellent support cast as well as the stunning images courtesy of Geir Hartly Andreassen’s sublimely gorgeous cinematography.
World War II is full of stories of tragedy and horror but also heroism and hope. The 12th Man unequivocally belongs to the latter category whilst educating many of us about a side of this brutal conflict we may not be familiar with. Harald Zwart doesn’t completely abandon his Hollywood sensibilities in bringing us this amazing story, but in staying closer to his native European roots avoids compromising its inherent substance.