Historical drama is an area in which Norwegian film-makers tend to excel – especially when it comes to retellings of Norwegian history. The 12th Man tells the story of Jan Baalsrud, the sole survivor of a thwarted Allied sabotage mission against the Nazis in occupied Norway as he flees to Sweden.
With this story already dramatised several times (once in 1957’s “Ni Liv – Nine Lives” and again in the recent miniseries “In the Footsteps of Jan Baalsrud”), this film certainly has big shoes to fill in terms of accuracy, cinematography and engagement.
An opening title notes “The most incredible events in this story are the ones that actually took place,” which both provides wiggle room for dramatic license and prepares one to accept a saga of arduous peril at times so extreme it might normally beggar belief.
In early 1943, Baalsrud (played by Thomas Gullestad) and a dozen of his fellow ex-pats who had trained together extensively in Britain, returned to Norway with a boat heavily ladened with explosives in order to blow up Nazi airfields. Unfortunately on the way, they were discovered and had to destroy their vessel and cargo while being fired upon by the enemy as they swam to shore in freezing water. Of the dozen men, only Baalsrud escaped capture (despite having been shot and losing one of his boots). His journey to safety is one of the most incredible in history – pushing the limits of human endurance as he survived more than two months in an arctic winter, pursued by the Nazis, suffering gangrene and near starvation.
Those among his comrades who weren’t tortured to death were executed by firing squad. Baalsrud’s lone endurance made him a popular hero of Norwegian resistance even as his ordeal was ongoing. Thus he finds rural residents ready to help him when he stumbles into their isolated farmhouses — though such acts could get them killed by the occupiers.
While much of “The 12th Man” is naturally dominated by our protagonist’s solo battle for survival — which included long forced stints hiding under a mountain rock and in a cave — the film’s emotional core is provided by his interactions with civilians who recurrently save his life. These samaritans’ resourcefulness, bravery and self-sacrifice is quietly moving, as shown by two key characters played by Mads Sjogard Pettersen and Marie Blokhus. It’s typical of the judicious script by “Kon-Tiki” scribe Petter Skavlan (billed here for unknown reasons as Alex Boe) that their patriotism is seldom verbalized; it’s taken for granted that these people will do the right thing, no matter the risk.
There are very few false steps in this long but taut account, though Zwart doesn’t quite pull off some moments of delusion and/or nightmare that feel unnecessary. An 11th-hour crisis involving a reindeer-pulled sled feels a bit over-the-top, whether it’s actually based on fact or not. But otherwise “12th Man” wisely hews to an understatement that appreciates the tale’s considerable scope without caving in to the kind of melodramatic tone that might’ve rendered its epic pileup of emergencies implausible or excessive. Likewise, Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ German-speaking turn as Col. Kurt Stage, the Gestapo officer obsessed with tracking Baalsrud down, provides a villain whose rage simmers under a rigid surface rather than bursting into stereotypical tantrums.
Gullestad, who reportedly lost more than 30 pounds within eight weeks to convey his character’s hardships, runs a thespian gamut of physical and psychological extremity with nuanced skill. It’s all the more impressive a turn given that this is his first major acting role; until now he’s been primarily a Norwegian TV personality and member of pop hip-hop group Klovner i Kamp.
“The 12th Man” is also first rate in technical and design aspects, with frequently spectacular widescreen location photography by Geir Hartly Andreassen (also DP on “Kon-Tiki,” as well as several of Zwart’s prior features) and a fine score by Christophe Beck.
review from Variety Magazine