Reel Life: Flick Pix
- courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
Shining a thrilling light on Denmark’s diplomatic hero of World War II
By Nora Lee Mandel
THE GOOD TRAITOR (VORES MAND I AMERIKA)
Directed by Christina Rosendahl
Written by Kristian Bang Foss, Dunja Gry Jensen, and Christina Rosendahl
Produced by Jonas Frederiksen, Bo Ehrhardt, and Birgitte Hald
Denmark. 110 min. Not Rated.
In English and Danish with English subtitles
VOD national release in U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn Films 3/26/2021
With: Ulrich Thomsen, Zoë Tapper, Denise Gough, Burn Gorman, Ross McCall, Pixie Davies, Henry Goodman, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and Nicholas Blane
If Americans know anything about Denmark during World War II, they think of the resistance saving Danish Jews from the Nazis by smuggling them to neutral Sweden. But they probably don’t realize that the rescue was organized in 1943 - three years after the country had surrendered to Nazi Germany and the government was cooperating with the invaders. Director/co-writer Christina Rosendahl impressively shows us what we did not know about Denmark’s man in America during those previous years, who we now will never forget, and why he is still significant.
Rosendahl emphasizes that here the personal is also political by opening in 1963 at the shocking end of the lives of Danish diplomat Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen, probably best known to American audiences as Banshees Amish gangster) and his American wife, the former Charlotte MacDougall (Denise Gough), at a sanatorium in Denmark.
The apparent euthanasia segues thematically into the chilling sounds of “Sieg Heil” chants as the film moves back to 1939, when the elite couple first arrived in Washington, D.C. with their children. Kauffman formally presents his Ambassador credentials and already starts pressing President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Henry Goodman) about the feasibility of Denmark’s continuing neutrality as the Germans advance north. At the reception, the embassy’s diplomatic staff is arguing: Einar Blechingberg (Esben Dalgaard Andersen) defends Denmark’s friendship with Germany, while Angry Young Man Povl Bang-Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is a passionate patriot for democratic independence – and Kauffman immediately selects him as aide-de-camp. They are soon discussing the possibility of forming a government-in-exile.
FDR more warmly greets Charlotte, because they are family friends from his World War I years as Assistant Secretary of the Navy alongside her father Admiral William MacDougall. And he always enjoys the company of pretty, bright women, a peccadillo too often ignored in the hagiographic portrayals in American films, other than Hyde Park On Hudson (2012).
While Kauffmann insists: “I didn’t become a diplomat to drink champagne”, his aide is wary, because there is a lot of partying going on, to the tune of evocative period pop songs. Especially when the Kauffmann family is joined by Charlotte’s younger sister Zilla (Zoë Tapper) and her diplomat husband Mason Sears (Ross McCall), both long-time friends of his from posting in China. The attraction between Kauffmann and Zilla is palpable, continuing since before his marriage. (The sororal casting is so effective as to be perhaps intentionally confusing.) Charlotte is constantly infuriated into a paroxysm of jealousy, that is then linked to the couple’s disturbing conclusion in the future.
But in 1940, even as they are relaxing pool-side, the film achieves a terrifically originally aural take on the military threats back home in Denmark – credited to sound archivist Jonas Olesen and sound designer Peter Albrechtsen. What happened in Denmark is a related story for viewers of the PBS/multinational Atlantic Crossing Norway-focused TV series: on April 9, 1940, Germany invades Denmark and the government quickly capitulates.
Kauffmann rejects directives from his country’s collaborationist Foreign Affairs Ministry and sets in motion a daring, complicated framework to represent independent “free Denmark” that is exciting in its chutzpah, urgent step-by-step implementation, and the personal risks he takes. With the support of only a handful of Danish embassies around the world, he has to even sidestep the U.S. State Department to work out a deal that will protect his country and his allied rebel diplomats. He conceives of a key element in a negotiation with the U.S.: a loophole in Denmark’s colonial control over Greenland to abrogate the connection with a government now under foreign control that would allow the U.S. to establish an air force base for Allied support, and block the Nazis.
To get directly to FDR, he first has to negotiate a separate peace with his wife, so that Charlotte will use her personal friendship with the President to allow favorable consideration of the unusual proposal. (She and FDR also bond over their perceptions of wayward spouses.)
What started as a “Mission Impossible” of intellectual derring-do, Kauffmann’s aggressive approach is publicly formalized and sets up Denmark as an American ally. He is branded a traitor by a government whose Nazi sympathies and resentments of his audacious actions didn’t quite stop at the end of the war, even as he brought Denmark into the United Nations (seen with integration of what appears to be the original news footage).
Historical consultant Bo Lidegaard argued against some of the relaxation of reality for cinematic excitement. (For the facts, his recent, extensive biography Without Mandate is not yet available in English; his 2003 Defiant Diplomacy: Henrik Kauffmann, Denmark, and the United States in World War II and the Cold War, 1939-1958 is difficult to obtain. Lidegaard’s 2013 history documented Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark's Jews Escaped the Nazis, of the Courage of Their Fellow Danes--and of the Extraordinary Role of the SS.)
This story was so little known in the States, and even in Denmark, that The Good Traitor will establish the parameters as thrilling. Rosendahl participated in a clever promotion during the opening theatrical weeks in Denmark so younger audiences could relate: a “Rebel Tour”. She did Q & A’s, per the press release, with over two dozen local activists “who have dared to trust their personal initiative, their ability to act and have taken new paths…where the audience is inspired to take matters into their own hands - completely in the spirit of Henrik Kauffmann.” Currently, there is also the example of Myanmar’s Ambassador to the United Nations U Kyaw Moe Tun who refuses to resign while speaking out against the recent coup.
Hopefully, all those viewers of endless World War II documentaries will seek out this noble, fascinating story that has not been covered in any of those many hours.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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