Harald Zwart’s thrilling The 12th Man, based on the true story of a Norwegian soldier who escaped the Nazis in WWII, is a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart but also an unexpectedly tender adventure that is as celebratory as it is tense. Over the course of a few months, Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) survives the harshest weather of the Arctic Circle as he flees a cruel and relentless German soldier, Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), with nothing but the clothes on his back — and the kindness of the strangers he meets. It’s a good thing that Zwart alerts viewers that some of the most absurd events depicted are absolutely true — this would be one of the wildest, most creative fugitive stories told about the Nazi occupation of Northern Europe.
Baalsrud is the only survivor of 12 men trained by the British for a sabotage mission in Norway. The specifics of that are left to history; the first frames of The 12th Man drop us right into the pivotal moment when Baalsrud watches from behind a boulder as his squadmate is executed mere feet away. Nazis swarm the icy shore, where the Norwegian ship that carried the 12 men has exploded into a storm of wooden planks. Baalsrud darts from the boulder and the wreckage, through a clearing, for his getaway, barely dodging gunfire to jump into subzero waters to evade capture. Thus begins his epic adventure throughout the Norwegian countryside, with one toe shot clear off and others rotting as he goes.
But as Baalsrud’s body deteriorates — he gets caught in an avalanche and must continually cut off his own digits to prevent gangrene — the scenery of snow-covered mountains and azure waters becomes all the more beautiful. In one scene, as Baalsrud wades through an icy fjord to seek help from the inhabitants of a small country house, the Germans light off flares, blanketing this frozen land in a warm glow; this is terrain that is so majestic, and often dangerous — the crew really filmed in blizzards — that it, like the story, is sometimes hard to believe on screen. Cinematographer Geir Hartly Andreassen seizes every opportunity to capture the breathtaking expanse.
But the true beauty of this film — and its moments of genuine levity — comes from the supporting cast of Norwegians who risk everything to get Baalsrud across the border into neutral Sweden. They do this not because he’s on a mission that could help liberate Norway but because they find the mere fact of his being alive, after everything the Nazis have done to him, a symbol of enduring hope, a suggestion that miracles may be possible. Each person we meet along Baalsrud’s journey is inevitably changed by him, like the burly unnamed man who literally carries Baalsrud over freezing waters to keep him safe and dry. Baalsrud becomes something of a Jesus figure, resurrected from the dead for the salvation of his people. But he is just a man, and Zwart allows him to be flawed, even as his humility inspires the locals. Ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.
Baalsrud’s original saboteur mission was a failure, but he succeeded in uniting a people, and The 12th Man is a celebration of a far-flung, ordinary community’s triumph over unspeakable evils.