Collaborate or resist? That is the question asked in the World War II film, The Undercover War. Set in occupied Luxembourg, François (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) is a young man who faces the prospect of either being sent to certain death on the Eastern Front or joining a group of draft dodgers hiding out in a mine.
This film differs from your average war movie, and it isn’t just because it is set in Luxembourg. As other reviewers have mentioned, the battle scene on the DVD cover is somewhat misleading. There are few soldiers and barely any military hardware, let alone battles. What The Undercover War does offer however is an engaging drama with believable characters facing difficult choices.
The film’s title in French, Réfractaire, refers to those French and Luxembourgers who avoided being drafted into the German war effort. While not actually fighting the Nazis like the French Resistance, the réfractaire still endangered their lives and made sure they weren’t helping them either. As the gang of réfractaire in this film are hiding out in a deserted corner of a large mine – the emphasis in the English title should be on ‘undercover’ rather than ‘war’.
In his early 20s, in many ways François is a typical young man stuck in a small town. He faces all those familiar problems that young people face: a girl who’s not interested in him, a nasty love rival, and frustrations at university. In this case, it’s when he’s to be sent to fight the Russians that he decides to run off to live underground, both figuratively and literally.
Life in mine is hard: it’s cold, damp, and uncomfortable. They also have possibly the worst shower in the history of cinema – one icy drip into a steel bucket every two minutes. It’s enough to send you off your rocker – and that is what most of François’ fellow réfractaires seem to be doing, that is when they’re not getting sick.
The guys are meant to stay in their subterranean hideaway, but luckily for us François gets out. If life on the inside is dominated by fear and claustrophobia, on the outside it is exciting, but even more dangerous. It is also above ground, that François becomes more engaged in the struggle against the Nazis.
The Undercover War is a solid piece of work for Nicolas Steil’s debut film. The actors give convincing portrayals of the angry, desperation réfractaires in the mine which are counterbalanced by the equally oppressed living on the outside. While it may not have the same epic sweep that we’re used to in war movies, The Undercover War still makes you feel for the characters and their everyday horror.