NEW YORK — Many arts journals and news outlets “grade” movies with a star system. Five stars to an Oscar winner, one star to another dull superhero movie that forgets to cast Gal Gadot or Paul Rudd.
Movies like “The 12th Man” shouldn’t get stars — they should get “oy”s. It’s two brutal hours of watching a man suffer, in a parade of “oy”s that might even culminate in that Jewish brass ring: “You shouldn’t know from it.” If director Harald Zwart’s intention was to make everyone watching this film feel grossed-out, paranoid and miserable, well, congratulations, it’s a job well done.
“The 12th Man” tells the story of Jan Sigurd Baalsrud, whom I never heard of — but if I were Norwegian I’d probably stand up and take off my hat just reciting his name.
He was a map-maker, world traveler and tinkerer who, during World War II, fled Nazi-occupied Norway and eventually found his way to the United Kingdom, training with the resistance. He ended up participating in something called Operation Martin Red, a mission of sabotage and establishing communications that went south as soon as it started.
Baalsrud’s small group’s fishing boat was attacked, one man was killed, 10 others were captured, but Baalsrud — the 12th man of the title — escaped.
He caught a bullet in his foot and swam across a fjord of sub-freezing temperatures. Salt water can stay liquid without turning to ice, we quickly learn. Who knew?
And this is just the beginning of his woes. By the time the movie ends he’ll survive an avalanche, fever hallucinations, grotesque self-surgery, starvation, spinning into oblivion off a speeding sled, numerous occasions of shutting his eyes and hoping the gun-toting SS officer won’t hear him breathing while hiding just inches away, and so much more. Our guy hides for 10 days under a rock in the blinding cold with nothing but a sleeping bag! Oy gevalt, who needs to see such a movie??!
Well, the fact is that this history film/horror movie is extremely engaging, lead actor Thomas Gullestad is quite effective as the steely-eyed survivor, and one never needs an excuse for a refresher in just how horrible the Nazis were, lest we ever think history can’t repeat itself.
The man hunting Baalsrud was Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), an SS field commander stuck out in the frozen hinterlands and terrified of being anything but a perfect soldier for the top Berlin brass. His obsession with finding the 12th Man seems fanatical — no ordinary man could survive! — but as this movie proves, Baalsrud is no ordinary man. The film doesn’t so much applaud Stage for his tenacity (indeed, they show him ordering the brutal torture of his other prisoners) but celebrates how Baalsrud became a folk hero.
It took 63 days for Baalsrud to find his way across the border to neutral Sweden. An opening title card says that “the most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place.” So it isn’t just the good luck of a pin falling off Stage’s lapel as he does a second sweep of a farmhouse, it also means there lived once a righteous reindeer who risked it all to protect Norway from fascism. (I’m calling it. The best freedom-fighting reindeer in all of cinema can be found right here in “The 12th Man.”)
It’s a little vague what Baalsrud’s report back to the British actually accomplished, but his against-all-odds endurance could not have been more valuable. His survival wasn’t due solely to his iron will against physical pain. It was the bravery and mindfulness of a chain of farmers, boatsmen and plain old citizens who risked their necks to help him.
(They weren’t all trained military geniuses; one sequence shows what happens when someone mishears the name of a location for another that sounds similar. It’s like the “Petah Tikva/Beit Hatikva” gag from “The Band’s Visit” only with more blood and snow!)
Baalsrud is a legend in Norway (and some try – and usually fail – to repeat his hike) and hopefully this movie will spread his name internationally.
Zwart, known more for frothier Hollywood fare like “Agent Cody Banks,” “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and the remake of “The Karate Kid” (that I completely forgot about until looking it up right now) clearly made this as a passion project for the land in which he was raised.
If it weren’t for the cries of a man with a gangrenous foot, the sweeping snowcapped vistas and crystalline fjords would make this a lovely picture. It’s still definitely worth watching, though maybe without the popcorn.