by writer/director Martin Koolhoven
“Every Dutch film maker should do a movie set in World War II at some point in his career,” I said half-jokingly in one of the first interviews I gave after it become apparent what my next movie would be. Of course, every filmmaker should make the movies they want to, but what is absolutely true is that I always knew that at some point, I should do one. There are many reasons for it. First of all, it is a very important piece of our history. Stating that we should never forget this period has become a cliché, but when you see recent studies about current-day knowledge regarding the Nazi’s and their ways, stating the obvious doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. My generation (I was born in 1969) still has a great connection to it. My father was born during the war, while my grandfather was in a concentration camp. After the war my grandmother had no idea whether he was dead or alive, until he just walked back into the room. He had walked all the way home from the camp in Germany and saw his then three-year old son for the first time. My grandmother had made my father say goodnight to a photo every evening, so when he saw the unwashed, underfed figure standing in the doorway, he happily shouted "Daddy!" I was told it was the only time my grandfather cried. I believe most Dutch people my age have stories like this. If it wasn’t his or her grandfather, it was somebody else near to them. In Amsterdam it is almost hard not to know somebody who has lost at least half of their family. So even while the war ended a quarter of a century before I was born, it is part of my DNA, I guess. So to me it is a logical thing to turn to. I just had to find a story that was personal.
Another reason for wanting to make a movie about the Second World War is because of the strong tradition it has in Dutch cinema. It is nice to see what different directors do with the genre. Like many composers did their own personal version of Stabat Mater or like different painters gave their interpretations of Biblical tableaux, the WWII movie has become a benchmark in Dutch cinema. The setting is perfect for telling stories, because of the dramatic context. Vital decisions become even more dramatic, because the stakes are high. We don’t have to explain why—people know. If you make the wrong decision, people can die. If, like me, you want to make a movie about the process of growing up, war can always be used as if it is a pressure cooker. What normally takes a few years can now happen in a matter of days, making the process more visible.
I also felt that a new generation of filmmakers should attempt the subject matter. Before Winter in Wartime, all Dutch WWII movies were done by people who had recollections of the time for themselves. I really believed I could do things differently. Both stylistically and substantively I had a different approach. The style is much more direct and modern, which gave the film a very different feel than other European WWII movies. The other thing I tried to avoid was the simplistic, black-and-white approach older war movies often had. My grandfather once told me he had survived the war because every day a German soldier gave him food. I could not do a movie in which all Germans were bad. And since my movie is about growing up, I wanted to show that one of the things you learn in life is that things are not that simple. What you thought was bad can actually be good and vice versa. But also: not all things are black or white. There is a whole world of different shades of grey in between.
In the end, I decided that my WWII movie should not be so much about the war, but about people. More specifically, it is about Michiel, a fourteen-year-old boy who can’t wait to grow up. It is as much a celebration of spirit as it is a somber account of how coming of age means losing your childlike innocence.
I wanted to make a movie that made the viewer and the main character almost one. You are Michiel, seeing the war through his eyes. I wanted the audience to be there right in the middle of it and to make Winter in Wartime, before anything else, an emotional experience.