Nicolas Steil’s WWII drama “Draft Dodgers,” about the underground resistance in Luxembourg as viewed through the eyes of a troubled yet clear-thinking young man, has all the elements for a substantive, enveloping saga. Yet the film stumbles at every turn, undone by a dull, repetitive script and dreary cast. Market prospects are thin at best for Luxembourg’s Oscar entry, which was released locally more than half a year ago and made no splash at fests.Intro voiceover explains in academic terms how, in the early 1940s, young Luxembourg men are faced with a terrible dilemma as their country is annexed and occupied by Nazi Germany: They must join the army and be sent to near-certain death on the Russian front, or venture underground and endure a brutal struggle for survival. Francois (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) makes his choice — for resistance and a life literally underground, in a mine shaft — after his collaborator father is killed by the resistance and his mother loses her mind.
Steil and co-writer Jean-Louis Schlesser habitually repeat what’s been already been stated, such as Francois’ disgust toward his father and locals’ distrust of him as the son of a collaborator, blunting the dramatic impact of a youth caught in a dilemma not of his own making.
Francois’ turn from university work (depicted in chilling detail as students are lectured to by a pompous professorial Nazi) is less exciting than it should be, and the motley crew he finds in the makeshift mineshaft HQ is so weighed down by sickness from their unhealthy living situation that scenes play out as if under a shroud.
The film is soon split between Francois’ affair with Malou (Marianne Basler), married to a Nazi collaborator, and life underground, where political rivalries lead to murder. Like a picaresque hero, Francois manages in both cases to find some advantage, or at least come away unscathed, but “Draft Dodgers” never delivers the witty or ironic tone needed to boost these scenes.
Leprince-Ringuet lacks the charisma to carry audiences along as his Francois manages to elude death on several occasions, and his efforts to win the affections of young Lou (Judith Davis) away from her beau and Francois’ best friend, Theo (Arthur Dupont), don’t earn the viewer’s sympathy.
Tech package is pristine, as d.p. Denis Jutzeler manages some striking lighting effects from night into day. The soundtrack is accented by superb use of fragments from Bach’s “Joy of Man’s Desiring” and a somber chamber score by Andre Mergenthaler and Michel Wintsch.