It’s 1944 and Luxembourg is under Nazi control. Whilst the seemingly endless second World War is taking its toll, the country’s men face a troubling dilemma; they can either sign up to fight under Hitler and attack their allies or bury themselves alive, becoming dissidents who abstain from fighting, living apart from society in old mines.
The DVD menu titles seem to promise an old fashioned war B-movie but The Undercover War is anything but. Neatly filmed and including some impressive scenic images, the movie begins with seemingly random scenes narrated by the film’s protagonist François (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). The beautiful Luxembourg backdrop envelopes his harrowing predicament, soon giving way to an interrupted party and the ultimate invasion carried out by the Nazis. When he returns home from a brief stint at university where Nazi ideology was taught, he turns to life in the mines to avoid fighting an unjust war. François soon rediscovers wars of his own deep underground.
Hostilities are rife when he arrives due to his capitalist heritage whilst teen rivalries are reignited when he meets an old acquaintance. The taut tensions make for engrossing viewing whilst the underlying presence of the illness and desolation faced by the so-called dissidents act as subtle reminders of the hardships caused by the war. The bitterness suffered and displayed by many of the bunker’s inhabitants underlines the gruelling impact of war on the human spirit.
As The Undercover War progresses the rules its characters once imposed become increasingly less stringent. The dissidents gradually leave the confines of their underground dwelling more and more only to discover more trouble awaits them. Deaths and arrests follow whilst the home in which François takes refuge faces breakdown after he is discovered hiding there. In visiting his old life in the dark, François is made alien to the world he once called home.
Offering a fascinating mix of fragility and strength, Leprince-Ringuet’s performance is perhaps the film’s best quality whilst he is made all the more human by the occasional appearance of memories of his controlling father and ‘loopy’ mother. Love comes in different forms in The Undercover War; whilst Lou (Judith Davis) fuels his feud with René (Guillaume Gouix), the unlikely love he finds with Malou (Marianne Basler) offers a glimmer of hope in his otherwise bleak life.
The mere title of the film holds various connotations; although it most obviously refers to the fact that François’s war takes place underground, his struggles are unknown to most people. With one character stating ‘I’m not sure God comes down here’ the desolate picture of lifestyles led by the dissidents is completed. The lack of hope is solidified by the film’s bleak ending proving no good deed goes unpunished.
Blending fascinating insights into the human spirit and the strength of people’s will with director Nicolas Steil’s beautiful shots, The Undercover War makes for compelling viewing. Although it sometimes fails to capture the bigger picture, each characters’ plight is engaging and memorable.
Best line: ‘Knowledge is a weapon’.
Best performance: Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as François.