Public Enemies: Flame and Citron, Ole Christian Madsen’s Awesome WWII Thriller

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After the last fretted and beautifully-stylized episode in Flame and Citron, Ole Christian Madsen‘s name appears beside the Danish word for director: Instruktor. Even untranslated, it makes an apt descriptor for Madsen, who turns the true-life story of Danish resistance fighters during WWII into a compelling, noirish lesson on survival, heroism, and their heart-and-soul toll on the two heroes (superbly played by Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen).

Once an advocate of Dogme’s au naturel manifesto, Madsen sumptuously recaptures 1944 Copenhagen as a gloomy, pastel-tinted capital that’s rife with Nazis, collaborators, purgatorial carnage, misinformation, and curlicues of smoke that sit idly, if not seductively, in a tense atmosphere.

Like so many fact-based dramatizations, the narrative stage is set using archival footage of the Krauts goose-stepping into Copenhagen. Adding to the pall of enemy triumph is a voiceover that murmurs a requiem of sorts: “Where were you when they came?” The voice belongs to Bent Faurschou-Hviid, an ideal-driven lad whose nom de guerre — Flame — comes from his red hair rather than the cool, impassive mien that serves him well during the point-blank assassinations.

Jørgen Haagen Schmith, or Citron, is the tormented opposite, a man whose wife and daughter become a neutral party in slow retreat from his increasingly war-ravaged person. While one’s a radical by choice and the other by circumstance, both are convinced that they are “doing the right thing”: offing Occupiers and Co. one by one.

Flame and Citron report to a self-serving commander who casually offers pastries with their new high-profile targets. Madsen uses the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy of the Resistance hierarchy — with command stationed over in unoccupied Stockholm and London — to ratchet up the unease and, alas, there aren’t any fact-checkers to verify sources. Soon the gun-and-run missions upgrade from Danish informers to occupying Germans, causing the local Gestapo head Hoffmann (Christian Berkel) to place a hefty sum on their now-infamous heads.

Invariably, “who do you work for” becomes more than a conversational starter, with each order or look etched with possible deceit; soon enough, the double-crosses begin to pile up bodies. Jørgen Johansson’s polished, restless, occasionally up-close camerawork emphasizes the internal back-and-forth of the twosome, whose righteousness suffers a hit when it’s revealed that they’ve been duped — particularly Flame, whose new femme-fatale lady, Ketty (Stine Stengade), loves him to death but deals with more sides than a diplomat. Again, who works for who?

That unresolved question sustains the life-and-death tension and links the film to its influential precursor, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, which also sheathed fact in favor of washed-out colors, thrilling dramatics, and moral relativism to capture the numbered days of those in the French Resistance. Similarly, Flame and Citron may be the face of the Resistance, but they’re also armed marionettes being tugged from afar by those who deliberate on top-secret tactics while fine-dining on lobster.

Uncertain of who to trust, the two soon make their own agenda for the “mother country” and the committed basterds — not to spoil it too much — come to a glorious end. If anything, the movie is exceedingly handsome; throughout, the sartorial choices are well-shot and smart: tilted fedoras, windblown trench coats, and three-piece suits that have Melville’s name all over them — a chic name to emulate.

View the trailer below.