This 2017 Norwegian WW2 drama, based on a true story, is directed by Harald Zwart and stars Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Marie Blokhus, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen and Vegar Hoel.
During the height of World War 2 in 1943, a squad of 12 Norwegian Resistance fighters, trained in Shetland, Scotland, depart on a daring mission across the North Sea to sabotage German facilities.
However, upon arrival, the mission is compromised and German forces attack, capture and execute 11 of the men. They miss one – Jan Baalsrud (Gullestad) – who promptly escapes into the sub-freezing Norwegian plains.
Sturmbannführer Kurt Stage (Rhys-Meyers) is the Gestapo officer in charge of the man-hunt across Norway to find Baalsrud before he crosses the border into Sweden. With the Nazis closing in and his wounds getting worse, Baalsrud must do all it takes to stay alive, stay hidden and escape at all costs…
When you take a glance over director Harald Zwart’s filmography, you’ll see the likes of ‘One Night At McCools’, ‘Agent Cody Banks’ and ‘The Karate Kid’. You’d never imagine, following those comedic, almost family-friendly hits, that his most recent offering would be a desolate, dark and dangerous real-life story set in World War 2, scripted in his native tongue of Norwegian.
‘The 12th Man’, or ‘Den 12.mann’ as it’s known domestically, takes all you dare to imagine from other similar Western war/survival movies such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘The Revenant’ and even ‘The Grey’, shakes it up and delivers something far more authentic, subdued and powerful that is nothing short of engrossing.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers may be the only face and name you recognise going into this film, but you soon learn that he isn’t taking this film lightly. Speaking entirely in German, sounding and looking as nightmarish as you’d expect a Gestapo officer to do, Rhys-Meyers plays Kurt Stage as a man who you can imagine has Adolf Hitler’s photograph above his mantelpiece – he’s living and breathing for the Third Reich, and will do anything and everything to carry out his orders, even if that means cutting through his comrades to do so. Stage is a chilling character who is ever-present through the story, leading a man-hunt across Norway to find their twelfth man.
That man is Thomas Gullestad who shows Leondardo DiCaprio how it’s done when surviving the frozen wilderness with nothing but your own inner strength and resolve to carry you on. Gullestad looks like he went through hell to capture the raw humanity of Baalsrud, and from the moment he is tossed into the icy waters of the North Sea, his journey never stops.
It’s relentless, and not just the story as a whole. The environment, the weather, the wounds, the emotion, the sacrifice, the isolation, the desperation, the fear, the panic – it’s a barrage of situations that push Baalsrud to the brink when he has to not only survive the frozen plains, but also evade the surrounding Nazi war-machine. While the story is slow over the two hours run-time, it’s an uncomfortable, immersive and painful two hours of watching and hoping that a good man can make it through alive facing so many obstacles.
Think Tom Hanks made DIY tooth surgery look bad in ‘Cast Away’? Wait until you see Gullestad perform his own DIY gangrene prevention surgery. You think DiCaprio acted tough in ‘The Revenant’? Wait until you see Gullestad near frozen solid, skin blistered and blood-shot eyes surviving avalanches, aeroplane ambushes and Gestapo officers. You will wince, more than once, and so you should. You need to feel as much of his journey as possible.
It grips you from the start and refuses to let you sit back and relax until the final few moments. Zwart doesn’t need to throw in bucket loads of action sequences and fights. He only has to set the scene initially and let his small band of amazing actors delivery a story of humanity that is far more powerful than watching a noisy battlefield of CGI soldiers on the attack.
And on the story of humanity, it’s not just about Baalsrud, but also those who helped him. From elderly traders, local fishermen and even settled families, when one of their own brings danger to their doors but is in need of help, they do all they can to get him to the next marker. This is what made most of World War 2 a war not just fought with bullets and bombs, but with human compassion and resolve when ordinary people overcame the odds to help those who needed it most.
You’ll find no CGI sets and locations here, either. Cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen has a colour palette of cold white and blues, dark greys, black and muted reds. The natural world provides the harsh reality of a Norweigan winter, and you’ll find yourself shivering with expansive shots of freezing fjords, heavy snow-fall and mountain blizzards. Couple that with the drab colours of the Gestapo strongholds, hospitals and soldiers, and you soon find this is a story with no sugar-coated sheen.
Intense performances bring this dangerous and tense manhunt to life across the most dangerous place in the world at the most dangerous time mankind ever faced.
Directed by: Harald Zwart
Starring: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Marie Blokhus, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen, Vegar Hoel