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NPR Arts & Life

Two Films, Two Takes On Living With Genocide

<em>War of the Buttons,</em> set in occupied France, focuses more on the war between gangs of children than it does on the real conflict playing out among their parents, some of whom are Vichy collaborators.
The Weinstein Company
<em>War of the Buttons,</em> set in occupied France, focuses more on the war between gangs of children than it does on the real conflict playing out among their parents, some of whom are Vichy collaborators.

Simon and the Oaks, a handsomely upholstered Swedish drama about two troubled families trying to survive World War II, is based on a runaway best-selling novel by Marianne Fredriksson. The film was made with money from several Scandinavian countries once occupied by the Nazis, as well as from Germany itself. It won a truckload of Swedish Oscars, and in the accolades heaped upon the movie, the word "epic" is thrown around with abandon.

That's an awful lot of love for a sudsy family saga that owes much to the maternal melodramas cranked out by Hollywood in and around the war years. I mean no disrespect: That genre was mother's milk to me, and I love it still. But it is what it is, which is emphatically not enough to bear the weight of genocide.

That's not to say that the Holocaust should be off-limits to filmmakers, especially in countries struggling to come to terms with their passivity or collaboration with Hitler's fascism. And to director Lisa Ohlin's credit, the Third Reich draws close enough for the movie to face the awkward fact that, as early as 1939, Nazi anti-Semitism had its share of sympathizers in Sweden. But then history quickly pulls away into the background, where it functions as a loose thread warping the otherwise warm affection between two families in a remote, beautiful corner of Sweden.

Heavily larded with repeat happenstance, Simon packs the intertwined lives of two boyhood friends with secrets and lies, parallels and contrasts that blare out of the endlessly twisting plot. For starters, the boys seem to have inherited each other's fathers. So sensitive and musical is Simon (played as a doe-eyed child by Jonatan S. Wachter and as a young adult by Bill Skarsgard) that his muscled working-class hero of a father, Erik (Stefan Godicke), despairs of his survival in a world of schoolyard bullies. By contrast, Simon's friend Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson) feels like a fish out of water in the affluent home of his father Ruben (Jan Josef Liefers), an arts-loving Jewish bookseller.

Simon goes to the opera with Ruben; Isak gets into woodworking with Erik. Mercifully, we will not discover that the boys were switched at birth, but unwittingly they share more than a sense of chronic anachronicity, as becomes clear when Isak moves in with Simon's family after the Nazis approach. The two families grow close, but they're strained by jealousy and betrayal, not to mention by tensions of class and ethnicity. That ought to cover the emotional bases, but there's more: Ruben falls for Simon's gentle, supportive mother (Helen Sjoholm), while two madwomen in the attic stand ready to muddy the roiling waters.

Simon and the Oaks is period-perfect, sepia-pretty and visually inventive in ways that make you wonder if you're watching a movie aimed at tween drama queens. Clouds resolve into camel trains; there's fire and poison and scads of scenic weather — all of which is satisfying in a whatever-next sort of way. Unfortunately, the Third Reich can't compete.

The problem is not that the Holocaust is relegated to backdrop. In fact, it's smart of Ohlin to keep a respectful distance from the footage of piled-up corpses that have become the overused currency of the subgenre. In focusing on the war's psychic wreckage, though, her film trades in florid cliche: the neurotically fearful Jewish mother who goes to extremes to protect her family; a daughter so destroyed by Auschwitz that she comes alive only in sadomasochistic sex ripped off from the truly toxic '70s film The Night Porter; and so on (and exhaustingly on) until Simon, leaping to wild conclusions, cruelly punishes those he loves most, and lives to repent at leisure.

Worst of all is the hitching of all this extravagant suffering to an inspirational ending filled with sweet regret, healing hope and some picturesque nestling in the titular oaks with the next generation. That may be as comforting to moviegoers as the closing scenes of Schindler's List or Life is Beautiful or any other film that implies, knowingly or not, that the Holocaust had an upside. That's entertainment, I guess, but I have to ask — do we really want to go there?

Nazis also lurk in the wings of a sweet, child-friendly new French film billed as "a true story of the Resistance," in which a village rises to defend a Jewish girl from deportation by Vichy collaborators to a German concentration camp.

Like Simon and the Oaks, War of the Buttons has an idyllic setting, a father-son conflict and a coming-of-age dilemma. It's structured by the same parallel battles and romances, secrets and betrayals, ethical choices with both buttons and human lives at stake. But in tone and ambiance, War of the Buttons is another kind of domestic drama altogether, drenched not in hyperbole but in honeyed violins and the golden light of full-bodied nostalgia. At a time when most family movies come processed through extreme software and 3-D glasses, this film's gentle vision of the simple life has its old-fashioned charms — though they press too hard on the emo buttons for my taste.

The short-panted boys at the movie's center go into battle with catapults, wooden swords and upended saucepans for helmets. Their leader, Lebrac (played by Jean Texier, a mini-Belmondo with more sullen sex appeal than a movie this wholesome can hope to contain), is at war not just with a rival gang, but with his authoritarian father (Kad Merad), whom he takes for a coward. Lebrac also has his own stirring libido to deal with as he falls for a pretty Jewish transplant from Paris (Ilona Bachelier), whose sophistication he finds both alluring and intimidating.

Meanwhile, a war with higher stakes is being fought among the adults. Led by the girl's beautiful guardian (Laetitia Casta) and the local schoolteacher (a twinkly Guillaume Canet), the village squares off into a mettle-testing struggle over the girl, and by extension over the collective guilt of Vichy France.

That a family picture should own up to French collaboration is not nothing, given that France came so late to examine its checkered history under German occupation. But it's not much of an apology, either. War of the Buttons deftly folds France's unsavory collusions into a rather more rousing tale of resistance. I don't doubt that some of these heroics happened. But the way they're framed conveniently takes the edge off saying sorry.

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