Flame & Citron (Denmark/Czech Republic/Germany, 2008)

September 08, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Flame & Citron Poster

It is a tradition in war movies that resistance fighters are represented as heroic - individuals contesting with a totalitarian menace. This is especially true of World War II, where history lauds those who stood against the Nazis all across Europe. Ole Christian Madsen's Flame & Citron doesn't exactly smash those worshipful myths but it injects an element of pragmatism. Conflict with Hitler's troops was not always rooted in altruism and there were times when the resistance fighters weren't more laudable than those they opposed. Flame & Citron is interested in exploring the reality underlying the legends.

The story is based on the exploits to two real characters and, according to the director in interviews, his development of the narrative was influenced by the 1969 Melville film, Army of Shadows. The setting here is Copenhagen near the end of the Nazi occupation. D-Day is fast approaching when the movie begins, so the Nazis of Flame & Citron have the nastier, more panicked edge they adopted after the tide of war turned against them. Flammen (Thure Lindhardt) and Citronen (Mads Mikkelsen, the villain of the James Bond movie Casino Royale) are unlikely partners in the resistance. The former is a flame-haired youngster who kills without compunction (as long as it's not a woman) while the later is his driver, an older, nervous-seeming type who has never taken a life and is torn between his wife and daughter and his "cause." Flammen and Citronen work for Aksel Winther (Peter Mygind), who claims to get his orders from London, but his murky motives are suspect. The two men are involved in the resistance to punish Danish traitors, not to kill Germans, yet many of those on Winther's list are non-Danish Nazis. The situation is complicated by the entrance of Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade) into the equation. She is supposedly a courier working for the resistance, but is that all she is? In true femme fatale fashion, she is not what she seems at first, or second, or even third.

The movie often feels more like film noir than a war picture both in the way it is shot and in the manner in which the characters are handled. It also bears a passing resemblance to Paul Verhoeven's recent Black Book, in that both films challenge the traditional concepts of "good" and "evil" when addressing the Nazi occupation of a sovereign country. Movies made toward the middle of the 20th century, when the war was still fresh in the memories of many, tended to paint characters in terms of black and white. The passage of time, however, has allowed filmmakers to add a multitude of shades of gray to their palette. Flammen and Citronen are indisputably the production's protagonists, but there are scenes in which their white armor becomes stained with blood. In one instance, Citronen, driven by despair that he might lose his family, robs a Nazi storekeeper at gunpoint. Later, a hit goes terribly awry when supposedly reliable information results in the death of a child.

The film ends bleakly but its conclusion provides closure. Any ambivalence on the viewer's part may be the result of Flame & Citron flouting the conventions of how most war movies finish. Ultimately, however, this isn't about Nazis or the Danish resistance or the things people did to survive in an occupied territory as much as it is about the romanticizing of figures like the title duo. Seen through the prism of legend-influenced history, many blemishes are erased. Flame & Citron reminds us that assassins like these may have earned an heroic status by standing up against the Nazis, but they killed innocents along the way. In the end, neither was able to face the reality of this "collateral damage."

Flame & Citron was one of the below-the-radar films from the 2008 Toronto Film Festival that received good word-of-mouth. IFC acquired the rights but was slow to release the movie and the limited number of prints have resulted in spotty distribution. Fortunately, for those who do not live near an art house in a major city, the great equalizer of home video will eventually make this atypical and moody noir war film available for viewing everywhere.

Flame & Citron (Denmark/Czech Republic/Germany, 2008)

Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2009-07-31
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Danish and German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1