Anne Grethe Bjarup Riis’ debut feature, “This Life,” tells the fact-based story of the Hvidsten group, ordinary men and women from a village in eastern Jutland who received and hid agents and supplies dropped by British aircrafts during WWII, even though the Danish government had decided to cooperate with its German occupiers. Rivaling the big-budget resistance epic “Flame and Citron” (2008), this intimate, affecting historical drama is heading into its 12th week in Danish cinemas and nearing 730,000 admissions. Offshore fest play is a given, with arthouse and ancillary possible in some territories.
As the narrative begins in 1942, friendly innkeeper Marius Fiil (Jens Jorn Spottag) and his hard-working wife, Gudrun (Bodil Jorgensen), celebrate their silver wedding anniversary with the local community in attendance. The conversations and interactions highlight the villagers’ homely, traditional way of life and make clear that the patriotic Fiils have raised their four children — daughters Tulle (Marie Bach Hansen), Gerda (Laura Winther Moller) and Bitten (Mia Vadmand Ejlerskov), and son Niels (Thomas Ernst) — with strong values.
Over dinner, talk turns to the occupation and what is worth fighting for. Although the Fiils and veterinarian Albert Iversen (Bjarne Henriksen, “The Killing”) express a wish to resist, others, particularly those who profit from the German presence, believe it is best not to rock the boat.
In the spring of 1943, Marius agrees to help the Danish resistance by organizing a local network to pick up and conceal the men and materiel parachuted from British planes. At the time, the risk seems negligible and the work a thrilling adventure. His son, son-in-law (Jesper Riefensthal) and daughters Tulle and Gerda all participate, along with the vet, a miller, a mechanic, a radio dealer and some farmers.
But in March 1944, events takes a grimmer turn. A captured agent betrays the Hvidsten group, and they are taken into custody. Meanwhile, the Danish government resigns in protest of the German demand to institute the death penalty for saboteurs and those aiding the resistance.
Although the screenplay by Ib Kastrup, Jorgen Kastrup and Torvald Lervad lacks nuance at times, with dialogue heavily foreshadowing events, it achieves considerable poignancy by underscoring the beliefs of a more innocent era. The protagonists discover far too late just what the Reich was capable of.
Helmer Bjarup Riis’s great achievement is to keep this all from playing as melodrama. She creates and maintains a tone of simple dignity and national pride, worthy of the words written by the prisoners to their families, which are used to heartbreaking effect near the pic’s end. Thesping tends toward the one-note but is nonetheless effective.
Shot with an Arri Alexa, the intimate lensing from Morten Bruus and Claus Sisseck favors closeups while brisk cutting by Jacob Thomdahl, Klaus de Leon Heinicke, Martin Bonsvig Wehding sustains visual interest. Simon Ravn’s haunting score is complemented by a soundtrack of Danish folktunes and popular songs of the era.