Go to War Alongside Denmark in ‘April 9th’
2015 film depicts Danes' World War II
I had never heard of April 9th until this week. The Danish-language film set during World War II came out last year and is fairly obscure. But it’s one of the more well-crafted war movies I’ve seen in the past few years.
April 9th takes place during the German invasion of Denmark in 1940. Within the context of World War II and its more than 60 million dead, the invasion — which lasted six hours — is a historical footnote. But that’s partly what makes the film interesting.
The small scale and low budget means April 9th doesn’t bother much with spectacle, of which American war films like Fury are prone to do. Now, I liked Fury, but this film is a satisfying and tightly focused change of pace.
On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway and Denmark to prevent Britain from threatening the Third Reich’s iron ore supply, and also to use Norway’s fjords as staging points for submarines.
The Nazis invaded Denmark too, because they needed its airfields to shore up Norway from a British counter-attack, and to protect German shipping lanes. Eventually, the Nazis intended to incorporate Denmark into a Greater Germanic Reich, which would have permanently ended its status as an independent nation.
For the Germans, Denmark was a road bump along the way to a bigger prize, with the Danish army woefully unprepared to resist. The country’s flat terrain also served to heighten the motorized German army’s military superiority.
In every practical sense, Denmark lost the war before it began.
This might not sound like good movie material. Yet there are strong reasons to watch the film. To director Roni Ezra and writer Tobias Lindholm’s credit, the story focuses strictly on a small group of soldiers and their experience in combat.
More specifically, April 9th shows us the war from the perspective of a poorly-equipped Danish bicycle platoon beginning a few hours before the invasion. The platoon’s commander, 2nd Lt. Sand — played by Pilou Asbæk — is under enormous stress, and he’s just as much a combat rookie as everyone else.
The movie gets right to the point. The Danish General Staff knows war is imminent, and the soldiers start out on a war footing but do not deploy in defensive positions. The political leadership is wary of provoking a German invasion before it begins. However, it’s too late for politics to do any good.
By the next morning, the Nazis have crossed the border … and it’s on. What follows are a series of sudden and violent skirmishes over several hours between the platoon and the advancing German army before the Danes surrender.
April 9th is a brief 93 minutes long and well paced. And the film doesn’t tell us more than what the soldiers know, which during a motorized blitzkrieg and the loss of all communications, isn’t much. The movie shows, not tells.
I say the Danish soldiers are poorly-equipped only in a relative sense, as it’s easy to point to their bicycles and laugh. But it’s difficult to see under what circumstances the Danes could have held out for very long by military means.
The film is generally faithful to the actual events, and the soldiers are well trained and led. Their bicycles give them a fair amount of mobility, and an important military skill is knowing how to quickly replace their tires. The bikes are never played for laughs, yet they add a surreal element as the platoon cycles to meet a German column of tanks and armored half-tracks.
It’d be false to call the Danish effort a “token defense.” The Danes are spirited, though their defense is short-lived considering the nature of what they’re up against. They are confused, scared and more or less cut off from the big picture, as you would be in the same situation.
In the opening clash at Lundtoftbjerg hill in eastern Jutland, the platoon knocks out an armored car and kills several German soldiers. But the Germans’ superior numbers and firepower proves overwhelming, pinning the Danes down.
The Germans rush onto the flanks, a young Danish soldier is killed, and the rest flee, terrified.
The Danish soldiers fight, bleed and die to defend their country, and April 9th‘s combat scenes are intense. The film has a Band of Brothers-esque attention to … place. It’s frenetic, but there’s always a sense of where soldiers are in relation to each other and the enemy.
Another point in the film’s favor is that it eschews cinematic heroics. These are ordinary men living through events that happen to them — of which they’re clearly unable to change the outcome. They can, at best, delay an inevitable defeat.
World War II was a horrible machine that swept up millions of people like Sand and his soldiers. In such an environment, all you can really do is survive, and do your duty as best you can. Anything more would risk asking too much of people.
April 9th shows those soldiers fulfilling their duties with a great deal of courage.