Wednesday, 23 January 2019

We die alone — but we survive together

We die alone — but we survive together

MOST of the time we do not go to the cinema to be humbled. But sometimes that can seem the only appropriate response.

The story of Jan Baalsrud, a British-trained commando in the Norwegian resistance during the Second World War, is so incredible that one is left stunned.

His astonishing tale of escape and survival against all the odds was previously immortalised in Arne Skouen’s 1957 Oscar-nominated film Nine Lives, based on the 1955 book We Die Alone by the British author David Howarth.

Howarth was himself a former member of the Special Operations Executive who had helped set up the clandestine wartime link to German-occupied Norway known as the Shetland Bus.

Using a network of small fishing boats later backed up by three well-armed submarine chasers, the operation ran from 1941 until Nazi Germany’s surrender in May 1945.

This film is based on a more recent book, 2001’s Jan Baalsrud and Those Who Saved Him by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott, to which the director Harald Zwart acquired the rights in 2004.

Set early in 1943, The 12th Man tells how Baalsrud and three other commandos, supported by a boat crew of eight fellow Norwegians, embarked on a top secret mission to destroy a German air control tower at Bardufoss and recruit for the resistance movement.

The mission gets into trouble soon after reaching Norway, where their identity is compromised by a German sympathiser who immediately alerts the Nazis to their arrival.

A German warship promptly locates their fishing vessel and opens fire. Heavily outgunned, the men have no option but to set fire to the TNT on board and jump into the water near the fjord.

Of the 12, only one man — Baalsrud — manages to escape by swimming across to the nearest island in sub-zero temperatures, where he is helped by locals who put their own lives at risk to save his.

A Norwegian production, the film stars Thomas Gullestad, who was placed on a strict diet regimen to play Baalsrud. Usually a romantic lead, the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers here goes strongly against type in his portrayal of the ruthless Gestapo officer, Sturmbannführer Kurt Stage.

Following the film’s Norwegian release in 2017, reviewers noted that the film emphasises Baalsrud’s helpers and the struggle of the resistance in a completely different manner to that of Nine Lives, which has previously been voted the greatest Norwegian film ever made.

The 12th Man is released today (Friday).

Matthew Wilson

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