The Last Lieutenant

on August 27, 1993 by Kim Williamson
   A finely crafted Norsk Film production by first-time director Hans Petter Moland, this war story tells of the collapse of Norway during the German invasion in 1940. Partly a history lesson--scriptwriter Axel Hellstenius' characterizations of the country's officer corps lend a critical commentary on their quick capitulation--but mostly an intimate look at an antiquated former cavalry officer, Thor Espedal (a crustily convincing Espen Skjonberg), "Secondlojnanten" succeeds for the same reasons as has recent small-budgeted World War II film fare. Like the 1990 Danish "A Day in October" and the 1992 American indie "A Midnight Clear," this $2.9 million production wisely concentrates on people, not battle. Aside from two scenes--one in which the Luftwaffe bombs Oslo, the other in which Norwegian irregulars dynamite a railroad bridge--there are no explosions.
   Here, the focus is on Espedal, a one-time second lieutenant who later served in the Merchant Marine, whose new retirement with his beloved wife Anna (devoutly rendered by Rut Tellefsen) is cut short by the Nazis' arrival. The real battles he faces are moral and emotional: with the passivity of Norway's military leaders, which offends his Old World code of honor; with his individualistic deputy Krogh (Bjorn Sund-quist), who fought in the Spanish Civil War yet refuses to don a uniform--but whose unconventional code of honor wins Espedal's respect; and with his affection for his wife, which comes resonantly clear despite (for most of the movie) being conveyed during telephone conversations. Leading his ragtag franctireurs and trying to hold a key mountain pass, Espedal has every reason to fear he'll never see Anna again--a fate he could avoid, he knows, by simple surrender.
   Although the film's political subtext could be questioned--different judgments made a half-century hence, when blitzkrieg's terrible toll on civilians has faded from memory, seem all too easy--the story itself is rendered with fine authenticity. As its best foreign film nod at the Ft. Lauderdale film fest indicates, "The Last Lieutenant" despite its unfamiliar locale and long-ago concerns could find fans among select audiences.    Starring Espen Skjonberg, Bjorn Sund-quist and Rut Tellefsen. Directed by Hans Petter Moland. Written by Axel Hellstenius. Produced by Harald Ohrvik. A Seventh Art release. Drama. Norwegian-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 102 min.
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