Director Ole Christian Madsen began his career as an adherent to Dogme 95, the famous minimalist filmmaking movement began by fellow Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. I haven't seen Madsen's previous two non-Dogme films, Nordkraft and Prague, but the remarkable, ultra-stylized Flame & Citron is about as far from the Dogme aesthetic as you can get and still have a movie. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also one of the most exciting films I've ever seen at Telluride: bold, brave and one of a kind.
Flame & Citron tells the story of two heroes of the Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation, but it is far from your typical World War II period piece. Instead, it plays like some unholy, brilliant marriage between spy noir and comic book movie. Filled to the brim with assassination plots, double-crosses, larger-than-life villains, and big, dramatic gestures, this is not for viewers who like their movies timid and sedate. And under that grand façade, the film grapples with tough moral questions regarding war, occupation, survival, and ideology.
"Flame" and "Citron" are the code names for two Danish assassins who brazenly go after high-profile Danish turncoats and, increasingly, the occupying Germans themselves. ("Do they know what I look like?" asks Flame when he learns of a hefty bounty on his head. The response: "They know you're a redhead.") For them, the necessity of their work is an article of faith: the only moral response to occupation is to kill off the occupiers – and those who assist them – one by one. They take orders from an ornery police solicitor who claims to be in communication with the British. He hands them a name and a photograph, and off they go.
The movie doesn't focus on Nazi atrocities. It opens with black-and-white footage of the German invasion, but soon shifts to dark basements, empty restaurants, and opulent Kraut hotels – like David Lynch, Madsen is fond of wood paneling and thick red curtains. These are backdrops built for stealth missions, double-crosses and cat-and-mouse games. It's the kind of movie where a protagonist approaches a woman at a crowded German bar, and demands, "who do you work for?" She somehow knows Flame's real name ("Bent") – is she an agent, a double-agent, a triple-agent, or worse?
Like Lynch's films, too, Flame & Citron is permeated by a sense of menace and unease that is palpable but difficult to explain or describe. The score starts with a pretty, low-key violin theme but sometimes descends to what amounts to a barely audible bass hum. The film is quiet – Flame's noir-ish voiceover narration is basically whispered – but the intensity still builds to a fever pitch that rarely lets up. It's scary, genre-bending stuff, daring and genuinely interesting.
As you may have gathered, the film is not concerned with verisimilitude. Its wartime Denmark looks like it was ripped from the pages of a graphic novel. (The cinematography by Jørgen Johansson is gorgeous.) We're sure that, in the real world, Flame and Citron would soon have been caught and executed – the only precaution they seem to take is occasionally covering Flame's bright red hair with a beret. In some circles, it's considered vulgar to make a World War II film (never mind one "based on true events") that doesn't prize realism; these are the people who condemned Life is Beautiful for its unlikely portrayal of a concentration camp. For my money, Flame & Citron's formal audacity – especially combined with its thematic depth – is far preferable to the reserved, mundane, frankly boring reverence that most WWII films seem content with.
Madsen builds his movie atop two strong lead performances that elevate the title characters to mythical stature. Thure Lindhardt, whom you may remember as the affable Scandinavian Emile Hirsch encountered while kayaking in Into the Wild, plays Flame as a man consumed by his convictions – not a reluctant hero, but one whose conscience leaves him no options. And Mads Mikkelsen, of Casino Royale fame, is perfect as the tortured Citron (real name "Jorgen"), a man so deeply invested in the notion that what he is doing is moral and right that an indication to the contrary sends him into a downward spiral.
Flame & Citron speaks eloquently to the question of why occupations often turn out to be such bloody affairs. For the occupied, pride, ideology and hatred overwhelm even the survival instinct. The assassins' unyielding conviction may have cost more lives than it saved, but in their eyes resistance was a moral imperative and an absolute good.
Madsen puts that notion, among others, through a genre filter that can only be called genius. Dogme 95 could never have churned out anything so striking and impressive. This is one of the year's best films.