Winter in Wartime starts with two boys playing at war -- exploring the ruins of a British fighter plane in the countryside, until they are chased away (and then simply chased) by Nazis.
By the end of Martin Koolhoven's film, the central youth in this story, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) has found that, in fact, there is no playing war in wartime -- the business and reality of war are deadly serious.
A Dutch film set in Holland during World War II, Winter in Wartime is alternately a story of youthful adventure and one of adult seriousness. As Michiel learns, there are no rules -- and no one, ultimately, is safe, when it comes down to it. Melodramatic and predictable, "Winter in Wartime" wants to be tough but settles for compellingly familiar.
Michiel is, in fact, as privileged as a Dutch kid can be in a Nazi-occupied town. His father (Raymond Thiry) is the mayor of the town, the person who deals with the Nazi commander and tries to sooth ruffled feathers or calm Nazi anger. The first crisis he has to deal with is his son's mischief with the downed British plane.
Eventually, however, the whole town must contend with the fact that the pilot of that plane is still alive -- or the Nazis think he is. Michiel becomes involved when a local member of the underground entrusts him with a message, just before the Nazis uncover and shoot Michiel's friend.
Still, Michiel thinks that being part of the underground is like playing spy. He ultimately discovers that his now-dead friend was, in fact, involved in hiding the downed British pilot and making a plan to help him get back to England.
Before he knows it, Michiel is the conduit for marooned pilot, first bringing his sister, a nurse, to care for the injured man, then helping plan his escape But gradually the Nazi net tightens - made even tighter by the Nazis' insistence on shooting townsfolk who they suspect of collaborating.
Michiel learns a lesson about the meaning of bravery -- particularly from his father, who he views as a coward for trying to appease the Nazis to keep them from murdering people. Eventually, however, the film gets so carried away with action-packed derring-do and red herrings that it begins to jettison credibility. By the end, with races through the forest between jeeps and horse-drawn carriages - and an escape that involves shinnying along a pipe underneath a Nazi-held bridge in broad daylight, the film stretches the ability of the viewer to suspend disbelief, as it marches into "Oh, come on.." territory.
A similar story -- minus the coming-of-age angle and told much more luridly -- was at the center of Paul Verhoeven's distinctly sensational The Black Book. Winter in Wartime wants to be an adventure story and a chronicle of one boy's bravery, in addition to the youth-into-adult tale. In the end, that's a few too many things for the movie to handle.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine