With a seemingly fantastical, yet true-to-life story as its backbone, Scandinavian production Into the White had potential in spades. The least of which wasn’t the film’s immediate, juicy setup which finds opposing forces during World War II forced to share an isolated cabin after their aircraft are collectively downed during the frigid Norwegian winter. The dormant promise the hook possesses ranges from duality-laden themes of coexistence and betrayal to loyalty and humaneness to camaraderie and distrust. While some of these motifs may surface (albeit in the most superficial ways), the film almost solely opts for artificial-feeling melodrama in lieu of darker subtext.
From the first encounter between German and British airmen, Into the White makes it fairly clear what type of effort it sets out to be. With the three surviving (armed) Luftwaffe aviators reaching a modest hunting cabin ahead of two (unarmed) RAF enlistees, we have the latter stumbling out of a snow squall towards raised weapons into a standoff as intense as asking a cashier for change without buying anything. No shots are fired, no bartering, pleading or compelling exchanges, just a welcome in with the sole condition that the armed party are now in control the other are now prisoners of war.
The later justification for this limp first encounter lands somewhere between muddled and simply asinine, with explanations ranging from eventually using them as decoys to confuse any pursuers, to turning them to their commanders for information to the fact that the German commander is, simply, tired of death. This character’s motivation is that he enlisted for a chance at redemption after his career as a commercial pilot resulted in casualties. It all rings fairly false, especially in the context of welcoming in the enemy, because if he let them live to avoid bloodshed, why is he in the army to begin with?
Likewise, the two British airmen upon arriving immediately begin to chastise and prod at their now-captors with enough pomp to down an aircraft of its own, bickering over which beds they want and proclaiming that they deserve three square meals a day. This (apparently) is all intentional to orchestrate some sort of future escape, but right off the bat it makes them insufferable enough to make you want to yell at the screen. And unfortunately, this isn’t the only instance where contrivances are presented as pre-planned in some way, not to mention the fact they are orchestrated through bizarre character decisions and motivations.
Thankfully there is some significant salvation to be found in the acting and in some of the relationships that develop between certain characters. The Nazi commander Lieutenant Horst Schopis (Florian Lukas) is truly fantastic and is an individual I would love to see in a film again. Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint also shows up as the British gunner and though his character has some flaws born out the script, he has a lot of fun as a heavily-accented Scot. The bond that forms between him and the third German solider is one of Into the White’s highlights, despite the fact the latter keeps silent for the majority of the film.
The exception to the above would come in two instances. The first of which is the British Captain, Charles Davenport (Lachlan Nieboer) who especially (early on at least) comes across as Hugh Grant on rascally overdrive (or if you can imagine a more cartoonish version of Michael Fassbender’s character in Inglorious Basterds). The second is one of the German underlings (David Kross) who goes from snivelling annoyance to plot device. It’s not so much on the actor I suppose, but rather how he is written. By the climax, however, most of sticking points personality-wise have mellowed and it’s nice to see a friendship formed, no matter how obvious it all is from the start.
Aside from the stagy nature of the relationships and how they develop, the actual premise and setting are used to little noteworthy effect. Though dropped in the midst of a war, in the middle of nowhere, literally sleeping with the enemy, Into the White is completely devoid of tension. There are no meaty exchanges with these opposing forces comparing ideals, nor does the film ever properly convey the potential graveness of the situation. There are no examinations of cabin fever, little-to-no breakdowns and few confrontations that deviate from the “don’t cross the line without permission” variety (note: there is literally a line).
Even an examination of the unrelenting power of nature is never touched upon, nor is anything pertaining to the struggles of keeping warm as the wind pelts the cabin, the difficulties of finding food or even trying to trek out of their situation (aside from strapping some airplane parts to their feet as improvised snowshoes). It all makes Survivorman look like a grade-A pansy.
In many ways, Into the White calls to mind the masterful 1937 Renoir classic La Grande Illusion in the ways that it (at least attempts to) explore the nature of honor amongst the upper ranks of the armed forces even if they happen to be, in principle, the enemy. Unfortunately, Into the White does not earn this baser association and instead opts for story-of-the-week techniques and attempts drama that comes up limp more often than not. Some strong performances and occasionally interesting dynamics make it all watchable, but sadly – simply – premise still remains the film’s most significant asset.