The real basterds

Killer WWII ‘noir’ crammed with corrupt souls and dead Nazis

Sep 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

What happens when the righteousness of your actions isn't quite as righteous as you thought? The Danish assassins in Ole Christian Madsen's Flame and Citron believe they're acting in service of a noble cause. After all, they're hunting down and killing Nazis and their collaborators. (Think of them as the real-life "basterds.") But as Jean-Pierre Melville demonstrated in Army of Shadows (to which Madsen owes no small debt), vengeance can be a slippery slope toward moral compromise and confusion.

Based on the true stories of Danish resistance heroes Bent Faurschou-Hviid and Jorgen Haagen Schmith, Madsen's gripping noir is filled with familiar wartime tropes: lonely resistance fighters, clandestine meetings and double-crossing agents. But even more than a satisfying historical thriller, Flame and Citron presents its conflicted idealists as psychologically complex men who feel their humanity slipping away as their paranoia grows.

Bent and Jorgen are partners, known by their code names Flame and Citron. But they are very different men. Redheaded Flame (Thure Lindhardt) is a cold-blooded killer, executing Nazis, informers and collaborators with uncompromising precision. He defiantly refuses to cover his hair, even after the Germans identify him as a redhead, and has no life but revenge. Citron (the great Mads Mikkelsen) is older and twitchier, a pill-popping saboteur who acts as Flame's getaway driver and struggles with his disintegrating family life. Equally nervous and courageous, Jorgen hardens his ethical misgivings to carry out missions he knows are necessary to the cause. 

Or are they?

When their commander orders them to kill a trio of unlikely German targets — one, a sympathetic journalist — Flame and Citron begin to have doubts about the morality of their actions, and who's really in charge of the resistance. Betrayal, seduction and infighting soon plague their secret organization, and the only people Bent and Jorgen can be sure aren't being manipulated by the Gestapo are themselves.

Madsen, working with the biggest budget in Danish film history, does a terrific job of creating a lush and believable landscape filled with authentic period details. Similarly, the atmosphere is thick and moody, the acting top-notch, and the shootouts and escapes masterfully choreographed. It's cinema at its handsomest. But Flame and Citron never raises your pulse. Madsen errs on the side of taste and restraint, never letting us get intimate with his characters or their situations. For all his thoughtfulness and expertly composed action sequences, the movie offers little in the way of visceral thrills. Inglourious Basterds can be justly criticized for its historical and ethical insensitivity, but one thing Quentin Tarantino knows how to do is pull an audience in and make it care. 

Of all the occupied nations in Europe, Denmark was probably the most heroic when it came to resisting the Nazis. History robs Madsen of a satisfyingly dramatic ending for his two folk heroes (they died apart), but Bent and Jorgen's sacrifices deserve more than a reserved examination on how war corrupts the soul, and righteous causes lose their way.

At the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].