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PALM SPRINGS — The youth of Nazi-annexed Luxembourg had a choice, “Draft Dodgers” shows: conscription in the German army and likely death on the Russian front or the death-in-life of hiding in the country’s iron mines for months on end. Focusing on one young man’s brutal wartime awakening, Luxembourg’s foreign-language Oscar entry is by turns melodramatic and muscular.
Producer Nicolas Steil makes his directing debut with the well-researched World War II drama, co-written with Jean-Louis Schlesser. The English-language title of “Refractaire” — which bowed stateside at the Palm Springs festival — doesn’t quite match the nuance of the original. And the film itself sometimes forsakes subtlety for overwrought flourishes. But at its best, “Draft Dodgers” offers fine period detail and makes powerful use of actual locations, from the mines themselves to the banal basement stairs that the occupiers turned into a tool of torture.
Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet stars as Francois, an unlikely member of one of the subterranean communities of deserters. Neither a communist nor the son of dissidents, he’s the privileged child of an engineer who was well-known for collaborating with the Germans. After his father’s retaliatory murder and his mother’s steady fade into insanity — one of the film’s clumsiest elements — Francois leaves the German-run university, where lectures center on the difference between Aryans and subhumans, and makes his way underground, with the help of the Resistance.
In his three-piece suit and polished shoes, Francois is an almost comical addition to the group, which is run by the wiry Pierrot (Michel Voita) and at first glance threatens to turn into a collection of character types. But broad strokes notwithstanding, the film is less interested in obvious personality clashes and class distinctions than in the ways Francois breaks out of his protective cocoon and into the world of moral complexity — a world powerfully represented by the dank, impenetrable darkness of the mine.
Eventually becoming a courier for the Resistance, the collaborator’s son finds a convenient hiding place in the arms of a collaborator’s wife, Malou (Marianne Basler). The affair with an older woman is nothing if not a cliche of coming-of-age dramas, and the film doesn’t entirely avoid a familiar touch of the mawkish. What deepens the lonely Malou’s character is her clear understanding of what the Nazi Party represents to her weak, disappointed husband.
The film’s strength is its understanding of the degrees of resistance and collaboration. At the other end of the spectrum are patches of stilted dialogue — especially in Francois’ family backstory — and plaintive music to drive home points. Performances are a mixed bag; among the standouts are Thierry van Werveke as Malou’s husband, Carlo Brandt as trigger-happy dissident Jacques and Guillaume Gouix as the rough-hewn Rene, who above-ground was Francois’ rival for the affections of a girl. Leprince-Ringuet is not the most compelling of protagonists, but he convinces as an untested boy getting a devastating crash course in adulthood.
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival
Production: Iris Prods. and CAB Prods
Cast: Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Marianne Basler, Carlo Brandt, Michel Voïta, Thierry Van Werveke, Charles Muller, Guillaume Gouix
Director: Nicolas Steil
Screenwriters: Jean-Louis Schlesser, Nicolas Steil
Producers: Nicolas Steil, Gerard Ruey
Director of photography: Denis Jutzeler
Production designer: Christina Schaffer
Music: Andre Mergenthaler, Michel Wintsch
Costume designer: Uli Simon
Editor: Lorédana Cristelli
No rating, 101 minutes
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