Secrets of War: The Background
As it had in World War I, in 1939, the Netherlands proclaimed neutrality. The next year, with no warning, German troops invaded the Netherlands and the two other Benelux countries (Belgium and Luxembourg). Much of the area was occupied until the war’s end in 1945.
Rather than set up a collaborative government such as Vichy France, Queen Wilhelmina fled to England and formed a government-in-exile.
Holland, as the Netherlands is commonly known, is small, about the size of Maryland, and densely populated. It’s mostly flat, a terrain great for windmills but not so favorable for hideouts for resistance fighters, downed pilots (three planes a day were lost in the air war over Holland), and refugees. In the country’s southeast are hilly forests, full of caves of soft marlstone, a building clay that had been excavated for millennia. The Dutch resistance was strongest here, and it was easier to conceal Jews fleeing the Holocaust — not entire families, such as Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam, but individuals.
Secrets of War: The Movie
It’s 1943 in a small rural village in the province of Limburg, bordered by Germany on the east and Belgium on the west. Twelve-year-old boys Tuur (Maas Bronkhuyzen) and Lambert (Joes Brauers) are “best friends forever.” They do everything together. They make faces when the teacher’s back is turned, throw pebbles at the sides of the windowless cars on the passing trains. They swear they will never share their secrets with anyone else — like the cave in the nearby forest, past the wreck of an airplane, where they found a comic book that must have been left by an American pilot.
Though Tuur’s parents refuse to discuss the war with him, he can see that fear is spreading like a toxic cloud over the town. He watches helplessly as German soldiers confiscate a neighbor’s pigs. Then the priest is hauled away, and so is an elderly couple. More and more trains are speeding through the forest.
Tuur deciphers whispers downstairs at night and realizes his father and brother are in the resistance. He can’t tell Lambert this dangerous secret because Lambert’s father has made the boy join the town’s goose-stepping Hitler Youth Group. “I hate this bloody war!” screams Tuur.
Into the classroom comes a new student. Maartje (Pippa Allen) is so pretty and friendly (and strong and daring, too) that both boys fall madly in love. Girls have secrets, too, and during wartime, they can be terrifying. When Maartje tells hers, to only one of the boys, the burden of it threatens to destroy Tuur and Lambert’s close friendship.
Perhaps because we can all identify with the vulnerability of children, Secrets of War is one of those daily-life civilian war stories that ends up being more horrifying than scenes of bloody battles. In this masterwork from Dutch director Dennis Bots, based on the best-selling novel from Dutch author Jacques Vriens, the children are so believable you forget that you’re watching a movie. You’re right there with them in their changing world, hearing their heartbeats, imagining the nightmares looming over them.
As children everywhere eventually learn, the only thing that can banish demons is courage. And no one can give you courage. Tuur, Lambert, and Maartje have to discover it for themselves. When they do, they learn the other thing about courage — once found, there’s no going back.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association). E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Secrets of War
Quick Take: The friendship of two boys in Nazi-occupied Holland is sorely tested when they discover dangerous secrets.
Special Appeal: A beautiful, unforgettable film.
Players: Maas Bronkhuyzen, Joes Brauers, Pippa Allen.
Director: Dennis Bots (Cool Kids Don’t Cry, 2012).
Based on the novel by Jacques Vriens.
Color, 2014, 95 minutes. In Dutch with English captions.
Presented by the WNC Film Society at Grace Centre (495 Cardinal Road in Mills River) on Tuesday, August 18, at 7pm. $10/$12. Children 12 to 18 are free. wncfilmsociety.com. 828-885-5354.