Max Manus is a superior war movie, a tale of resistance and danger set amid the struggle by occupied people against the Nazis during World War II.
In the U.S., we're acquainted with stories of the French resistance, which seems unspeakably romantic because, well, it's French. Or we hear about the Spanish Republicans, fighting Franco in the years before WWII.
But Max Manus reminds us that there was a strong, self-sacrificing resistance movement in Scandinavia as well, whether in Denmark (last year's Flame and Citron) or Norway, after Quisling turned his country over to Hitler's forces. Directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg, Max Manus celebrates the courage, heroism and humanity of the title character, a Norwegian fighter so slippery the Nazis couldn't catch him, though he pulled off daring acts of sabotage right under their noses.
When first seen, Max (Aksel Hennie) is a high-school drop-out who has volunteered to help Finland fight off the invasion by the Soviets. But he returns home from that successful campaign to find that, in fact, Norway's government has opened its doors, rather than fight for its freedom against Germany.
So Max joins a group of fellow former students, who are excited about the idea of being resistance fighters but have no sense of just who they're up against. They leaflet and plaster flyers in broad daylight, then casually steal explosives to perpetrate an act of sabotage to make a statement.
But they've been so careless that the Nazis know exactly who they are and what they're up to. When Nazis arrive at Max's doorstep to take him away, Max leaps through a window to escape, winding up in a hospital with a broken leg. The Nazis still want to execute him - so he finds a way to escape through another window, this time getting safely away to Scotland, where he begins training to return to Norway as leader of a full-fledged and fully operational resistance cell.
He and his team -- "the boys," as he refers to them -- become expert at their mission. They use canoes under cover of darkness to plant explosives below the waterline at the main harbor, sinking several Nazi ships. They destroy draft registration records to flummox Nazi efforts to conscript Norwegian youth for the front lines. Each time, they put their lives at risk -- and some of them don't return.
They spend interludes in Sweden, where Max and his pal Gregers (Nicolai Cleve Broch) meet Gregers' friend Tikken (Agnes Kittelsen), another expatriate with whom Max first has friction, then develops feelings. But there is always another mission, another piece of Nazi infrastructure to destroy, even as the Nazi commandant Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken) hunts them, killing their friends and collaborators.
Max Manus is not just about the derring-do and narrow escapes. It is also about the strain of living an underground life and the courage to fight for one's beliefs against seemingly impossible odds. It is also, in a way, about survivor's guilt: the feelings Max gets that he has somehow betrayed his colleagues when they die and he escapes.
It also examines the nature of heroism and duty. Max approaches his task with an almost selfish patriotism: "They took my country -- I want it back," he says on a couple of different occasions, when asked why he is risking his neck. That kind of zealousness seems fine when it is offered in opposition to the fascist repression of Nazism; on the other hand, when we hear it today from the Tea Party types, it sends a certain chill.
In any case, a strong cast, a bold visual sense with dynamic camera work and a propulsive story -- they are the keys to a riveting film. Which is what Max Manus is from start to finish.