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    Flame and Citron

    Resistance is brutal

    "Flame and Citron" is about more than the daring resistance fighters who chased Nazis in Copenhagen — it's also about the nightmare of becoming even the bad people's worst nightmare.


    Usually, in any well-constructed script, there is a conversation that clearly states what the movie is all about. What is our character's basic problem? What are these people trying to overcome? Usually, they'll come out and say it in a sentence or two — it might not be obvious, but it's there.

    Original title: Flammen & Citronen.
    Directed by: Ole Christian Madsen.
    Written by: Lars Andersen, Ole Christian Madsen.
    Cast: Thure Lindhardt, Mads Mikkelsen, Stine Stengade, Peter Mygind, Mille Lehfeldt, Christian Berkel, Hanns Zischler.
    Cinematography: Jørgen Johansson.
    Edited by: Søren B. Ebbe.
    In Danish with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Lincoln Plaza
    Broadway between 62nd and 63rdLandmark Sunshine Cinema
    143 East Houston St

    "Flame and Citron" has no such conversation. The main characters — two resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Denmark — barely stop to analyze what they're doing as they do it. And is that a problem? Not for them — they're just extremely focused. And not for us either, really — we know why they're killing Nazis: because they're Nazis! Nazi-killers never have to explain themselves much.

    But normally, movie characters do. A typical movie that doesn't explain its basic conflict is either simpleminded or confusing. "Flame and Citron" is an exception, though. It is emphatically about something, and that something can be boiled down to one word: ruthlessness. It's a movie about ruthlessness.

    Flame and Citron are the code names for two Copenhagen assassins — one has flaming red hair that you'd think he would dye in the interests of inconspicuousness. Or at least not call himself "Flame." Still, somehow, the two manage to strike their victims and walk away calmly, without drawing attention.

    Flame and Citron  
    "People will only be looking at the body. Nothing else," Flame says to himself as he puts on a dark suit, straps a gun to his ankle and protects himself against possible capture with a cyanide pill. "They won't see you leaving. Not at all."

    Our two silent assassins travel around Copenhagen methodically carrying out their hits, first on Danish collaborators, later, pushing the boundaries, on the German SS themselves. When orders come down from London — meaning, from the Danish leadership in exile there — they don't ask too many questions; they just take out the target.

    We are informed at the end of the film that these two characters are based on real people, who were awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom after the war. And yet, the movie suggests, a shiny medal doesn't convey the muddiness of what they had to do.

    Flame and Citron start to face creeping doubts about who is really pulling their strings. Everything they do is underground; every order they receive is passed along thirdhand. Do they have any idea which side they are actually fighting on? Whose enemies they are killing? What does that make them?

      "Resistance fighter" conjures up in our minds stereotypes of femmes fatales furtive men in berets — but we rarely think about the up-close reality of killing people.
    This element of confusion nicely upsets your own sense of right and wrong — and yet, you could say it's just part of the intrigue you would expect from a good, inventive spy thriller. There's also a deeper psychological level that's never talked about but it's unmistakeably there.

    How does a person, even one of the good guys, become a cold-blooded killer? "Resistance fighter" conjures up in our minds stereotypes of femmes fatales carrying coded messages and furtive men in berets blowing up railroad bridges — but we rarely think about the up-close reality of killing people. You can be as committed as you want, as sure of your rightness, and still, killing a human being, especially a single human being standing in front of you, with a face and a voice, is largely against human nature. Even soldiers struggle with it.

    Our "heroes," Flame and Citron, are put to the test, not only as heroes but as humans. Their missions, in addition to bringing them further and further up the Nazi command and into the teeth of danger, also bring them increasingly face-to-face with people — and not necessarily evil people but ambiguous, unpredictable people. Their first hits involve sneaking up with a gun, giving a quick pop, and vanishing instantaneously. But in time, their ruthlessness cracks. Some people they can kill; others they can't, even when they risk being exposed. There's one moment that tells the whole story of the movie — as Flame points his gun at the head of a woman in her bathroom, he makes one small gesture that gives a glimpse of the killer's psyche in combat with its own human psyche. It's a tiny thing, but stunning.

    Flame and Citron  
    Through much of "Flame and Citron," I respected the undertaking while being nagged by unease. World War II, as huge as it was, has become such an abstraction to us today. We like that we can draw such an obvious, undisputed line between the good guys (conveniently, us) and the bad guys. World War II has come down to us with what some of our people now extoll as "moral clarity." World War II has become the symbol of us not having to think too carefully about who we are, and World War II movies are our choicest vehicle for loving ourselves.

    What sets this film apart is not its plot twists and double-crosses — it's the pervading sense of doubt about the existence of heroes at all. Occupied Copenhagen is no city of haloed angels and horned devils — it's full of messy mortals, acting on their own impulses and weaknesses, their own senses of right and wrong. It is an irrepressibly ambiguous place. Only a few — whether Nazis or patriots — have cultivated the double-edged quality of ruthlessness, and their commitment has come at a severe price.

    JULY 31, 2009

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