The myths about resistance to totalitarianism are again held up to revisionist scrutiny in “Flame & Citron,” an absorbing, shades-of-gray look at home-front intrigue in Nazi-occupied Denmark during World War II. Ole Christian Madsen’s accomplished fourth feature plays out on a much larger canvas than he’s used previously and offers nuance and ambiguity in equal measure with violence and tragedy. At $9 million the most expensive Danish production ever made, the pic has registered a boffo 670,000 admissions on home turf since its bow in March and has sold to more than 25 territories, including the U.S., where IFC should be able to generate decent returns for this grim but entirely accessible drama.
Acclaimed recent touchstones in this recent minigenre concerning resistance, collaboration and the debatable line between political assassination and murder include “The Lives of Others” and “Black Book.” But Madsen also acknowledges the strong influence of the late Jean-Pierre Melville’s recently revived 1969 “Army of Shadows,” and there are more than enough dark corners and unsettling moods in this new film to justify the comparison.
Flammen and Citronen were the code names for two of Denmark’s most celebrated resistance fighters, young men who, as members of a small cell, killed an untold number of Nazis and Danish collaborators before being finally tracked down before the end of the war.
They’re an odd pair: Flammen (Thure Lindhardt) is just 23 and so named for his flaming red hair, while Citronen (Mads Mikkelsen, Denmark’s biggest star and best known as the villain in “Casino Royale”) is bespectacled and always sweaty with stubble on his face. As such, they would seem highly recognizable, but they nevertheless gather with their confederates at a local cafe patronized by top Nazis, including Gestapo chief Hoffmann (Christian Berkel).
The two also have a weakness for women — the married-with-daughter Citronen because he can’t bring himself to kill females, Flammen because he falls for a blonde number named Ketty (Stine Stengade) who may well be working both sides of the street. While this relationship simmers at arm’s length, the men go about their business. Taking orders from boss Aksel Winther (Peter Mygind), they methodically stake out their targets, then boldly approach and shoot. Although they are careful not to be observed, the risk is tremendous, and the film strongly conveys the strain every hit inflicts on the duo’s nervous systems.
Vintage newsreel footage presents the spectacle of Nazis rolling in to occupy Denmark early on, but the action is confined to the period between May and October, 1944, by which time it was clear to the Nazis which way the wind was blowing. With the endgame vaguely in sight, behavior on both sides becomes increasingly extreme; the two assassins are emboldened to greater audacity, while the Germans step up their retaliatory executions.
Showing enough of the city and environs to convey a sense of the oppressive German presence, Madsen nevertheless keeps his focus relatively tight. The leads’ psychology is not deeply plumbed, but certain traits are emphasized to suggest the personal effects of their activities. Flammen seems to get off on killing to an alarming degree, and the more he gets away with it, the more reckless he becomes. The permanently anesthetized Citronen is essentially dysfunctional except in the line of duty.
Performances are low-key but resolute and brimming with nerves and intensity. Lindhardt keeps Flammen’s wild side barely suppressed, while it’s almost funny how Mikkelsen maintains his two-day stubble so consistently, despite Citronen’s general unkemptness. As a brilliant fascist elder, Hanns Zischler brandishes more authority and charisma than anyone else in the cast.
While mostly keeping the style clean and free of visual trickery, Madsen and lenser Jorgen Johansson play rather fast and loose with the zoom at times. Karsten Fundal’s moody score is a plus.