erik lundegaard


Monday May 20, 2024

Movie Review: Before It Ends (2023)


The near-fatal flaw of Jacob (Pilou Asbaek), the morally upright principal of a folk school in Ryslinge, Denmark, in the waning day of World War II, is not that he attempts to administer to the sick even if they are German, or doesn’t allow children to die even if they are German; it’s that he’s a lousy debater. Did he never take rhetoric? He’s also not very good at reading a room. 

When he decides to close the school six weeks early, for example, because the German refugee children are dying of diphtheria in the overcrowded school gym, and if he can move some of them into the rooms currently occupied by Danish students they might survive, he doesn’t say any of that. He just says they’re closing the school. He assumes the rightness of his position is obvious. It isn’t. Not nearly. Not after everything.

This wouldn't have to change the storyline, by the way. He could’ve stated his position clearly and the locals still could’ve ignore it. But he doesn’t state his position clearly. That’s frustrating for a viewer. It’s like watching Democrats at a debate. Just say X! Just say Y! Nothing.

The least-sympathetic refugees
The movie opens with Jacob teaching his son, Soren (Lasse Peter Larsen), about the proper way to raise the Danish flag before the schoolday begins. Since I knew we were in Nazi-occupied Denmark, April 1945, I wondered what the flag might look like. Did Denmark have a specific occupation flag? Would they have to raise the Danish flag and theGerman flag? Nope, it’s the usual: a horizontal white cross against a red background. Not a bad first scene for a movie that’s about what we teach our children—even when we’re not trying to teach them.

The boy remains our eyes and ears throughout. The adults seem to have their moral stances ready, while Soren is constantly working through gray areas. You can see it in his scrunched-up face. Larsen is good, by the way. He seems like a kid overwhelmed by the difficulties of an adult world in turmoil.

Have there been less sympathetic refugees than Germans in 1945 fleeing into territories long occupied by Germany? Historically, 250,000 Germans landed in Denmark, and Jacob, as school principal, is asked to house 200 of them. That seems impossible. And then it becomes 500+.

Initially not much care is given. The Germans get the gym, and some supplies, and get to fend for themselves. When Jacob’s wife, Lis (Kartine Greis-Rosenthal), attempts to bring them milk, or to feed several German orphans in their home, including a young girl, Gisela (Liv Vile Christensen), Soren objects. They’re the enemy! She overrules, but when Jacob comes home he overrules her. He’s already been taken before the dour town council, led by the dourer Lauritz (Ulrich Thomsen), and told that if his wife continues what she’s doing, their position in town—i.e., his job—will have to be rethought.

So at this point, I was pissed at her. But when diphtheria begins taking the children in the gym, it’s suddenly Jacob who takes the extra moral step. He tries to get antitoxins to them. He even travels with Soren to a neighboring town, fools several Nazis into thinking he’s a doctor, and grabs the meds they need.

For this, he’s suddenly a pariah—a collaborator. A rock is thrown through their window and a cross burned in their front yard. In an after-school game of “war,” Soren is made the Nazi, but his father’s new rep makes it no longer a game. He’s tied to a tree, a swastika chalked onto his forehead, and his pants and underpants pulled down. He’s left there in the cold. To die? To suffer? It’s the German girl, Gisela, who finds him and frees him.

Increasingly, Soren is drawn into the orbit of Birk (Morten Hee Andersen), the young resistance fighter whose father, a kindly doctor, was killed by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the picture. Perhaps to clear the family name, or maybe because it’s his inclination anyway, Soren offers to deliver guns to resistance fighters. He says he knows the Germans don’t stop children. Right, except his father does. And Jacob and Birk have it out.

When the war ends, the town celebrates, but for the family there’s no celebrating: Jacob, the pariah, remains indoors. Soren rides with Birk through the town, picking up collaborators for detention, including women who slept with German soldiers and now have their heads shaved. Then Birk tells Soren to get out. They’re about to head to the folk school.

Again, Jacob doesn’t make the obvious arguments in his defense. “Isn’t collaboration when you side with a powerful enemy to benefit yourself? I sided with a powerless enemy to benefit dying children. Go fuck yourselves.” That would’ve been my argument. Instead, he says little, and is tossed into the truck with the rest. Heinrich (Peter Kurth of “Babylon Berlin”), the German doctor with whom he worked, who idiotically kept wearing his swastika pin in Denmark because to take it off would mean all of his sacrifices—his sons and his wife—would’ve been for nothing, this asshole tries to stand up for him. Shot by Birk.

Incarcerated, beaten and returned home, Jacob’s moral rectitude suddenly crumbles, and the movie gets a little fuzzy. Not morally, dramatically. I began to not buy stuff. I didn’t buy that the town, after all that, was still willing to keep Jacob as school principal; and I didn’t buy that Jacob was still willing, after all that, to actually stay in Ryslinge. And for reasons of weakness! “Where would we go?” he says to his wife forlornly. “What would we do?” Really? You’re just thinking that now? It’s like the movie wants to keep the primary tension in place long after it’s snapped.

But this is when Soren reveals whose son he is.

The last refugees
I could see a movie where Soren chooses Birk as father-figure and becomes tormentor. (That would be a ’70s movie.) We do see him fight another child, cheered on by his one-time tormentors, but we don’t know how he got in good with them again. Because he ran guns? Feels like we’re missing a scene.

Anyway he chooses the good father. As the parents succumb, and agree not to help dying German children anymore, Soren takes the earlier lessons he learned from them to risk everything to save Gisela. He breaks her out of the makeshift prison camp and tries to take her to a doctor in a neighboring town. When his father catches up with him, he convinces him to do the right thing; and when they’re stopped by Birk at a security checkpoint, Soren convinces Birk to let them through; and when the hospital still refuses to help the dying child because she’s German, and Jacob is making hapless arguments, it’s Soren, yet again, who saves the day: He walks in with the dying girl in his arms. Soren has the moral compass of his father but can actually make an argument. He's a breath of fresh air for the viewer. 

But this is the final straw for the township, and, in the final scene, the family leaves Ryslinge on foot. For helping war refugees, they become war refugees. I just wish writer-director Anders Walter didn’t underline things here. The family looks too proud, for one, and the townfolk look ashamed, as if they've already realized their madness. I wanted more gray. I wanted more gray throughout 

But it’s not a bad movie. Personal note: “Before It Ends” is the first movie I saw that was part of the Seattle International Film Festival—as opposed to a movie at one of the SIFF theaters around town, or the noir festival they host every February—since before the pandemic. Yeah, it’s been a slog. For a few years I think they moved it online. The last few years we’ve been traveling. Even this year, with time on my hands, I didn’t pay attention to the schedule, because the idea of going to a bunch of films in crowded theaters several days in a row just didn’t appeal to me. But a few days ago, a rainy Saturday, I checked what was playing, and this immediately appealed. For one, it was Denmark. For two, it starred Pilou Asbaek, whom I first encountered at “A Hijacking” at SIFF in 2013. It felt like a homecoming. 

Posted at 08:39 AM on Monday May 20, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023