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Keeping a Friend Close as Enemies Get Closer

MOVIE REVIEW
Flame & Citron (2008)

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The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

The eponymous anti-heroes of this stylish and exciting thriller from Ole Christian Madsen were never mentioned in any history lesson that I ever took. Otto Von Bismarck, Winston Churchill and even the Venerable Bede were all present and correct during my studies but not "Flame & Citron." The latter might console themselves from beyond the grave with at least being well known in their native Denmark.

Rather a shame, really, as their war time exploits would have been just the thing to liven up the dullest of lectures. This film may well help to widen their fame and inspire at least some of its audience to Google the duo’s names in a bid to learn more about them or perhaps just to confirm that some of the more outrageous elements of the film are at least based in truth.

The film begins in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen at the tail end of WWII with Flame (Thure Lindhardt) and Citron (Mads Mikkelsen) – or to give them their less exotic names Bent Faurschou-Hviid and Jørgen Haagen Schmith – already well established as assassins for the Hollen Danske Resistance. Working with the assistance of “anyone who wasn’t afraid,” the pair targeted Danish collaborators, including newspaper editors who chose to publish Nazi propaganda. The killing of German nationals was verboten as any such action resulted in appalling repercussions against Danish citizens.

The two hitmen were so distinctive looking that it must only have been the loyalty of the Copenhagen populace that prevented the considerable reward for their capture from being collected on the first day. Flame was thin and pale with a shock of red hair, a God–given symbol of defiance which he refused to shield under a hat and which earned him his nom de guerre.

Flame was only 19 when war broke out; an intelligent man from a privileged background who could have gone far had world affairs not set him on a different course. On one occasion, the film informs us, Flame chose to show mercy to a female target who then went on to betray the lives of two other Danes. He vowed never to make the same mistake again, and by the time depicted in the film, the blood flowing through his trigger finger appears to have been ice cold.

Citron was, by contrast, an older family man who – war or no war – failed to give his wife and child enough support to keep them all together. He popped amphetamines to keep him awake at all hours and was consequently puffy-eyed with a consistent film of nervous sweat enveloping his face. At the start of the film, Citron, the wheelman on their missions, is still a virgin in the killing stakes.

The Danish resistance was nominally controlled by a cabal in Stockholm who in turn took its instructions from British High Command. They wanted Flame and Citron to call a halt to their killing spree, sit tight and wait for liberating forces. Their reward would be a commission each and the chance to fight either alongside the British or against the Russians depending on which army arrived in Copenhagen first.

Neither of the duo had any real interest in leadership or in towing the line, and they found themselves operating as "illegals," carrying on the fight outside the chain of command. Flame in particular was on a personal vendetta to rid Denmark of the Nazis by killing them one by one. Top of his hit list was Hoffmann (Christian Berkel), head of the Gestapo in Copenhagen and a man with all the brutal qualities that such a role would suggest.

The situation became more desperate and dangerous for the increasingly isolated pair when a traitor was suspected in the ranks of the resistance and several of its members ended up dead. Knowing whom to trust became impossible with even Ketty (Stine Stengade), a young artist who became Flame’s lover, perhaps not being what she seemed.

Flame and Citron, respectively played by Messrs. Lindhart and Mikkelsen (best known for his portrayal of the suave villain, Le Chiffre, in "Casino Royale") make a great on-screen partnership. While not exactly in the Butch and Sundance mold – they are far too cold and aloof to reach such levels of affection – were the film to attain cult status, their physical traits and dress might well be mimicked by guests at movie-themed fancy dress parties. It is to the credit of the actors that they manage to engage sympathy for men who are essentially killers and add a degree of coolness to actions which – regardless of their motivation – are still rather grubby acts of violence.

It is clear that there are two histories being told here. There is the apparently meticulously researched truth behind the events which allows the period and the people involved to be cloned from the memories of those who were actually there. There is also the stylistic influence of a century of moving pictures. Flame and Citron slip through the shadowy alley ways and corridors of a noir dream. Rat-a-tat Tommy guns are emptied into motor cars as well as their occupants. The femmes are fatale as, no doubt, were the long term affects of the cigarettes that they chain smoke so seductively.

That is not to say that the film is clichéd, but more that it is very much fact put through the movie blender to produce something which is part downbeat, gritty history and part rousing action movie. It all works very well with a twisting storyline that grips your attention and several well-crafted set pieces. The scene where Citron, dressed only in his PJs, fights off a legion of German troops is a particularly memorable highlight.

The relative anonymity of the lead characters may well have worked to the film’s advantage. Perhaps it prevented Hollywood from picking up the story and casting it with unlikely star leads (see "Valkyrie" for details.) It also means that the moral ambiguity of the characters and the inevitably grim denouement are kept intact ensuring the film remains true to the memory of those it depicts.

FLAME & CITRON

Opens on July 31 in New York and on March 6 in Britain.

Directed by Ole Christian Madsen; written by Lars K. Andersen and Mr. Madsen; director of photography, Jorgen Johansson; edited by Soren B. Ebbe; music by Karsten Fundal; production designer, Jette Lehmann; produced by Lars Bredo Rahbek; released by IFC Films (United States) and Metrodome Distribution (Britain). In Danish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Thure Lindhardt (Flame), Mads Mikkelsen (Citron), Stine Stengade (Ketty), Peter Mygind (Winther), Mille Hoffmeyer Lehfeldt (Bodil) and Christian Berkel (Hoffmann).

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