Harald Zwart/ Norway/ 2018/130 mins
In Cinemas Fri 4 Jan 2019 and on DVD Mon 7 Jan 2019
The 12th Man is a largely faithful adaptation of the book, Jan Baalsrud and Those Who Saved Him. It concerns the true story of Norwegian commando, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), during his tortuous journey across the icy plains, freezing straits and snow-covered hills of Norway. Hounded, bleeding and starving, across the country as he fled the German occupiers in a frantic dash toward the Swedish border.
Harald Zwart may be better known in English speaking countries for less than stellar films such as the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, or Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, but it seems that given the right material, he can knock it out of the park. As The 12th Man is a brilliant WW2 film that manages to capture the bone-deep and bitter cold of the Scandinavian winter whilst also showcasing it’s natural beauty, with some excellent cinematography.
One aspect of Zwart’s film which moves the story beyond the basic premise of The Revenant meets The Heroes of Telemark, is the strict attention it pays to the people of Norway. This may be Baalsrud’s story, but the film makes no bones about showing that without the heroism of local patriots, he would surely have died many times over. By highlighting the actions of these people, the film broadens the story as despite the failure of his mission, Baalsrud becomes a living folktale through his sheer continued existence in the face of the oppressive Nazi presence.
Yet despite the hopefulness of the story, it’s far from a wholly uplifting experience. Much of the film concerns the pain and deterioration of his body over the weeks and miles he travels. shedding blood, toes and fingernails; and suffering from nightmarish fever dreams in his moments of respite. Although the outcome is never in question, as the film is book-ended by scenes of the withered but determined commando at liberty in Scotland, the film still manages to elicit tension, and moments where it seems all is truly lost.
As Baalsrud, Gullestad manages to present a gripping figure to watch, spending most of the film exhausted, agonised and in constant pain. Despite that, he has a charm and disarming affability, that shines though in the quieter moments. It’s also a testament to the actor’s commitment to the role, that he slimmed down to a disturbingly low weight during production, as well as spending many early scenes running through snow barefoot. Complimenting him is an enjoyably snarly turn from Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Kurt Stage, the obsessive SS officer trying to hunt down the titular 12th man. It’s a commendable performance for a somewhat predictable role; all the more so as Meyers performs his dialogue entirely in German, with a believably solid accent.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but certainly for war film aficionados, The 12th Man is well worth the time seeking out, and in years to come, could well become regarded as a classic.