Cannes: Harald Zwart on Fulfilling a Childhood Dream With 'The 12th Man'

The 12th Man
Geir Hartly Andreassen

Jonathan Rhys Meyers co-stars in Zwart's WWII drama about Norwegian resistance hero Jan Baalsrud.

With films like The Karate Kid and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Norwegian director Harald Zwart has established himself in Hollywood as a go-to-guy for mainstream genre titles.

But the 51-year-old filmmaker regularly returns to his native Scandinavia for a local-language project, including, in 2006 and 2008, the first two installments in soccer comedy franchise Long Flat Balls.

Zwart is back in Europe for his latest, The 12th Man, but the drama marks a major departure for the director. His first period picture, the movie is also Zwart's first true-life drama: the story of Norwegian resistance hero Jan Baalsrud and his daring, incredibly escape from the Nazis.

“It's a movie I wanted to do my whole life,” says Zwart, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the project, which TrustNordisk is selling in Cannes.

Did you grow up hearing the story of Jan Baalsrud and the Norwegian resistance?

Yeah, every Norwegian kid knows the story of Jan Baalsrud, the guy who escaped the Nazis and cut his toes off to survive.

This is a major departure for you, given your previous films. Why did you want to do it?

Several reasons. I grew up with both parents and grandparents who had been in the war, and that had a huge influence on me: to hear about it and learn about it. My granddad was a sailor who actually sailed the convoys that Jan Baalsrud’s [mission] was supposed to help. I thought it was really important to tell this story. Also, because the current generation is only maybe one or two generations removed from the war but they have no idea how much our forefathers sacrificed in order for us to live under the freedom we can all enjoy today.

Do you think the story has a particular relevance today, given what’s happening in Europe at the moment, with a turn toward nationalism in a lot of countries and a turning away from the order built up after WWII?

Yeah, I think it’s an interesting relevance. But I don’t want to make it a political statement. I do think it’s very healthy for us — never to forget what happened and how quickly it turned to horror. For someone who didn't experience the war, it’s unimaginable. But this movie is as much about young Jan Baalsrud's survival as it is about the people who helped him. The people who helped him put their own lives at risk, but they helped this person in need without any hesitation. That selfless idea, and how he, how his life became a symbol for the resistance of Norway, is at the core of the movie. His story became larger than his own life. Those are idea and values I think we, my generation and my children’s generation, need to be reminded of.

What do you think you, as a filmmaker, can bring to the story to make it different than all the other WWII movies out there?

Well, visually it’s a whole new artistic approach to a war movie. That’s one side of it. The other side is that for me, it was a psychological journey more than a sort of historical journey. I try to show to what lengths a man will go to survive. It’s important to me to tell the more subjective story. I mean, this man was caught in an avalanche, he had to amputate his own toes, in order to stop the gangrene. He was left alone, with the isolation, and the loneliness, and the unknowing whether he was going to make it or his friends were going to make it. That panic, that's what I wanted to capture. To make it a very subjective story, so it becomes really personal and more than just a historical document.

Can you tell me more about the visual approach, what makes it different than what we’ve seen before in war movies?

I don't think we've seen many war films in this setting: in Northern Norway, which is stunningly beautiful, and the juxtaposition of the horrors of war. Not many people know this but Northern Noway was where the Germans had their “Festung Norwegen” [Fortress Norway]. It was the most heavily guarded border of the Third Reich because it was their Northern border. It was actually the heaviest presence of Germans in Northern Europe. That’s where they put their largest warships, that’s where they put all their planes, all their submarines. For every Norwegian in the area, there were eight Germans. So I did the same in the movie: For every extra, I had to have eight Germans. Oh, and I had a thousand reindeer.

A thousand reindeer! That's also a first. I don't remember a single reindeer in any of your previous films. What was the biggest challenge in making the movie? Was it those huge set pieces?

Funny enough the tide was my biggest challenge. Because up there there's quite a big difference from high and low tide. So I was planning shots, reverse shots and tracking shots and I laid the track down and before I knew it the tracks were under water. So I had to move further and further up and then the direction of the sun changed and suddenly it was snowing! Nature was our biggest obstacle. Funny enough, controlling a thousand reindeer was the easiest thing because I had the help of the indigenous people, the Lapps. They are an incredibly fascinating people. They live outside with their reindeer. They're nomads; they live in tents. And with one tiny dog and one snowmobile they perfectly controlled a herd of one thousand reindeer.

The 12th Man is selling here in Cannes, but it already has a distributor for Scandinavia, Nordisk Film. When is it coming out?

At Christmas. It’s your classic Christmas movie: Nothing says Christmas like a thousand reindeer and a few gangrene toes!