Luxembourg, the teeny mittelEuropa country of 400,000 people does not have much of a film industry, but director Nicholas Steil has proved extremely savvy with the subject of his debut film, a Swiss-Luxembourgish coproduction. By making a WWII film with a genuinely fresh setting, he has guaranteed The Undercover War’s international release (although confusingly, it has also used Draft Dodgers as an English-language title).
A voiceover at the start sets us up: Despite being a neutral country, Luxembourg was invaded by the Nazis in 1940. In 1942, a policy of forced conscription was brought in for men of fighting age: either to take their chances in the Nazi army, or to disappear and risk their families being sent to concentration camps. When young Francois (rising French star Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) drops out of university and chooses to disappear, his choice is all the harder since his father is a notorious local collaborator. But the sympathetic family doctor (Charles Muller) squirrels him away in a disused section of a local mine, where Francois finds nine other men living deep underground, waiting as patiently as they can for the end of the war.
With this set up, the obvious way for the movie to unspool is as a psychological study as the men cope with being cut off from the outside – the boredom, the cold, etc. With the recent parallels of the Chilean miners, it’s even oddly timely. But as soon as it becomes clear they have electricity, fresh food and medicine, the stakes become, and remain, strangely low. Some of the men, especially oik Rene (Guillaume Gouix), even come and go as they please at night. The others don’t even really dislike Francois because of his father – they dislike him for being bourgeois. Watching men bicker about class war in such a setting is alienating. These peculiar lapses in judgement hold the film back, even if it conforms closely to reality. The timespan the film is meant to cover is also unclear. It ends on D-Day, but it’s hard to tell precisely when it starts.
The passing time is beautifully photographed by Denis Jutzeler and the editing by Loredana Cristelli emphasises the loneliness and forced companionship of the men without feeling stagy. Since most of the sets are closed-off rooms, or darkened tunnels, this is impressive. The use of music to set mood is also masterful, and the men in the mine are well cast – although the film follows Francois too closely to allow the rest of them full development of their own.
It’s not unusual, when retelling a story for the nth time, to leave out gaps which make it incomprehensible to someone hearing it the first time. The Undercover War falls into this trap, but despite this deserves praise for finding a fresh angle on the world’s most exhaustively depicted war.