Some brief opening text lays out the setting for director Harald Zwart’s astounding “The 12th Man”. Nazi Germany occupied Norway on April 9, 1940. Three years later in Scotland British forces trained Norwegian soldiers to carry out sabotage missions in their homeland. On March 24, 1943 twelve Norwegian resistance fighters were sent to target German airfields in Operation Martin Red. Only one would come back alive.
This Norwegian historical thriller is based on the extraordinary true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of that doomed operation. The film is based on a biography by Tore Haug and Astrid Karlsen Scott. It’s not the first movie based on a book of Baalsrud’s life. The 1957 drama “Nine Lives” received an Oscar nomination and remains a highly regarded picture.
The grueling role of Baalsrud is played by Thomas Gullestad. Zwart starts quickly with Baalsrud and his team crawling out of the icy arctic waters onto the northern shores of Norway amid a hail of bullets. We learn that a costly mistake blew their cover and a German vessel attacks as they approach the mainland. Forced to scuttle their shot-up fishing boat, the twelve struggle ashore where German troops await them. Eleven are captured, Baalsrud escapes.
One of the first things I noticed was Zwart and cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen’s striking perspectives. Their camera placements and the fluidity of its movements offer one penetrating visual after another. Then you have the shots of the stunning Norwegian landscapes which in context are both beautiful and ominous. These images add a menacing dimension as the wounded and battered Baalsrud trudges through the frigid snow and ice.
“The 12th Man” spotlights Jan Baalsrud’s resilience as he makes his way towards neutral Sweden’s border, fighting treacherous terrain, excruciating cold and the doggedly determined Gestapo. But as he slowly succumbs to snowblindness, hypothermia, and gangrene the true crux of the story comes into focus. The film is just as much about the people he meets throughout his harrowing journey. Jan’s strength and heroism is matched, often exceeded, only by the Norwegian patriots helping him at every step – civilians routinely risking their lives to save his. In many ways they form the emotional core of the movie.
Equally fascinating is when the movie shifts focus to that of a Gestapo officer named Kurt Stage (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers). No one has ever escaped Stage’s pursuit and he takes Baalsrud’s flight personally. He persistently hunts Jan rejecting the skepticism and needling of an ambitious fellow officer (Martin Kiefer). Myers offers a charismatic antagonist pushed more by ego and obsession than duty.
Some may say the film’s biggest surprise is in Harald Zwart’s direction. Perhaps known more for his misfires (“Agent Cody Banks”, “The Pink Panther 2”, “The Karate Kid” remake), but don’t let that dissuade you for a second. His portrayal of this unbelievable true story is riveting both visually and narratively. Whether he is capturing Jan Baalsrud’s intense and sometimes brutal attempts at survival or creating genuine moments of levity with the men and women risking everything to aid him. It makes for truly inspirational cinema.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS