Winter in Wartime: Interview with Director Martin Koolhoven

Attraction of a war movie?

War is sharp-edged and bigger than life. It‘s mythical and tragic. And in Holland the Second World War is a pervasive theme; if you want to tell a big story and you don‘t want to create a fantasy world, you‘ll end up in WWII. A war movie has the ‘smell‘ of realism along with all the grand themes to explore.

The Book?

As a boy, I loved the adventure and suspense. That‘s the book‘s double meaning: Terlouw wrote it to tell young people how terrible the Second World War had been, but afterwards, the people I spoke to about it seemed to remember it especially as a thrilling boys‘ book. I also liked the fact that it takes place in winter. Of course this is a figurative reason, but I really wanted to make a film in the snow. I wanted to show the ‘Hunger Winter‘ of 1944 like I never saw before in movies.

You don’t explicate the historical background much.

Viewers already know about the war and the resistance, including young people. I didn‘t want to explain anything the public already knows. When Uncle Ben opens a can of sardines, you see Michiel‘s reaction; you don‘t need to be told explicitly that he hasn‘t eaten anything like that in a long time. More than any other art form, film draws you closer to a person or character. You witness what he‘s witnessing. Which makes you – I think – a richer human being.


What’s the film’s main theme?

The loss of innocence. In the beginning of the film the boy wants to become an adult, and by the end he is in an adult – but the question is whether he‘s so pleased about it.

The screenplay is written by Paul Jan Nelissen, Mieke de Jong and yourself


We worked on the script for some time, but I thought some things were not coming along right. For instance I was not pleased with Michiel‘s parents. Their characters were sketchy. When Mieke joined us, everything evolved rapidly. The characters became more alive and Mieke‘s writing style added to the atmosphere I had in mind. The ending remained a problem, especially the last confrontation, which did not work well on paper. We worked on it by improvising with the actors, and it came together.

What kind of boy did you have in mind for Michiel?

You have to believe that in the beginning of the film Michiel is still a boy at play with his friend, but by the end he dares to make harsh decisions. During the casting I saw many boys who were just too old or too young. At the beginning of the shooting Martijn was still a boy, but during the shooting – just like Michiel – he grew physically and mentally. We made use of that.


How did you find Martijn?

We tested hundreds of boys. We needed a young actor who could hold his own opposite disciplined trained actors, so we did the rest of the casting after we chose Martijn. They had to fit him. Martijn had just joined a Rotterdam youth theatre group and had only been acting for two months. Yet he was the one. He was very good at improvisation, and wasn‘t self-conscious. That‘s tough for a boy his age. But he had trouble showing anger, so the casting team worked on anger with him so he could take that emotion to his scenes. They succeeded well. When they showed me the results, I was very surprised. Martijn is an intelligent, sensitive and spontaneous guy. That‘s what I was looking for. Someone to look straight through. You see what he‘s thinking and feeling.


How did you work with cinematographer Guido van Gennep?

My idea always was to shoot two takes: Michiel close, followed by what he is seeing. But in that way you are keeping a film ‗small‘. For instance the execution scene to me had to be a grand and breathtaking scene, like an ‗Italian‘ scene. These two styles are miles apart, so we had to search how to get them together. Guido and I both love spaghetti 6

westerns, Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and others. They succeeded in combining a sloppy hand held style with hyper stylized, opera-like scenes. So we spoke a lot about how to do this. This was my second film with Guido, and we often had different ideas. Sometimes that caused friction, but it also brought in interesting solutions. I‘m very pleased with how we worked together.


What kind of ideas did you have in mind about the look?

The loss of innocence theme shows in the art direction and costumes. I told production designer Floris Vos that everything should be historically accurate but fit with our own special reality. No use of the brownish colors of most World War movies, but using a fresh feeling instead. The snow landscape helped. And the light interiors, like the mayor‘s home. Floris and I have collaborated on six films, so I talk with him in a conceptual way and leave the completion to him, because I fully trust him.


Why did you shoot in Lithuania?

In eastern Lithuania, at the Russian border, the snow and the landscape look like Holland. The area has been drained and pastured, like Holland. But it‘s strange working there, because it‘s a former communist country with a different mentality. The size of the crew was gigantic. There were drivers to drive drivers. In Holland we‘re used to working with a small crew but in Lithuania there were some hundred men constantly around me. Even during a simple scene, like when Michiel is walking through the woods. There were crew members for the heating, people who took care of the horses, shit diggers. And they were even working with less people than usual! During the communist era there was a lively film industry. It collapsed, but now Russian and American productions are shot there.

Pino Donaggio’s Music?

I‘ve been a fan of his music since I was a teenager, when I first heard his music in Brian de Palma‘s films. He brought elegance, class and romance to a harsh thriller, Dressed to Kill. The theme for the striptease in Body Double sounds very ‗eighties‘ now, but I thought it was great and still works. Later I discovered he also composed the music for Don’t Look Now and the films by Dario Argento. And he‘s also the composer of ―You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,‖ which sold eighty million records in performances by Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield. Though I still like the original version he sings the best, ―Io che non vivo.‖ I like the lyrical pathos of Pino Donaggio. For that, one has to originate from the land of opera. Only the Italians know how to create an emotion by using just a few tones. I was searching for this feeling for Winter in Wartime. It‘s incredible that we were able to convince him. He told me which directors he had to cancel lately since he‘s so busy. Big names. I just sent him the screenplay and he liked it. During our first meeting I told him what I wanted with the music. The whole film is about the boy‘s loss of innocence, and I had the idea for a boy soprano voice to be used in the musical theme. That was his inspiration for the soundtrack. It was really great to hear some of the music for the first time. I recognized it as real Pino Donaggio-music, but at  the same time it suits my film perfectly.


Sony Pictures Classics Release

A film by Martin Koolhoven

Produced by Isabella Films & FU Works

Based on the Bestseller by Jan Terlouw

Awarded with the Golden Calf at the Netherlands Film Festival