World War Two remains a rich source of inspiration to be mined again and again by storytellers. But even for those that love watching Nazi asses getting kicked behind enemy lines (like me) the same old bland tales that we’ve all seen a thousand times before can get extremely tiresome. It was refreshing then to find something slightly different and mostly enjoyable in the shape of Swedish film Beyond the Border.
It follows Lieutenant Aron Stenström who at first appears to be an authoritative officer and loving fiancé. He greets his brother Sven at the station before driving him to his new home, a roadblock 5km from German occupied Norway. As Sven settles in with his comrades it gradually becomes clear that our mustachioed protagonist is conducting frequent secret missions across the border, much to the frustration of his pregnant beloved, who wants to marry him before the bump starts showing.
These forays into forbidden territory are not just secret from those on the other side of the border. Officially Sweden is out of the war, with nothing to fear from Hitler’s all conquering mechanized army. Aron’s superior, Major Adolfsson, is suspicious of the Nazis though and sets about ensuring his country is prepared for the worst. He orders his Lieutenant to mine bridges over the border so that they can be blown if needed.
It’s perhaps the Swedish setting of Beyond the Border that most sets it apart from other films of its ilk. Apart from anything else you are reminded of the sheer scale of the conflict. There are so many untold or rarely told stories from smaller nations that were occupied, in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. They all had their own life or death battles to overcome. Not everything of importance played out in France, Britain or somewhere tropical with American soldiers swaggering about. It appears that in Sweden the political climate was particularly complicated, which makes for compelling and mysterious viewing and adds to the heroism of the central characters.
Meanwhile Aron’s brother Sven has a heated and alcohol fuelled argument with fellow sentry Bergström. Sven believes passionately that Sweden should prepare to stand against Germany, whilst Bergström is a mild sympathizer, pragmatically suggesting he’d prefer Hitler to Stalin. Later we find out that there is history here; many men in the Swedish ranks have fought the Russians in the past, whereas there are obvious shared links to German culture.
Sven is shaken by the ideological spat and unable to sleep in such close proximity to Bergström. He heads off to scout out the border in the dead of night, joined eventually by a reluctant colleague who thought better of leaving him alone. They stumble upon a Nazi truck searching for a fleeing Norwegian, who ends up collapsing studded with bullets at their feet in the snow. Sven returns fire in a desperate attempt to help the man and he is captured.
Elder brother Aron finds that Sven has disappeared on his way to a clandestine rendezvous deep into Norway. His orders go out the window and Aron begins to lose his cool in the Arctic cold as he and his men discover evidence of his brother’s capture. Sven’s reluctant escort is dead, tied to a tree as a trophy. Any subtlety and ambiguity as to whether the Nazis are “evil” or “bad” is abandoned when we meet the stereotypically sadistic Captain Keller. However the Swedes remain rounded human beings rather than chess pieces to be shunted around in action sequences.
Even as the plot thickens and wanders off in several directions through the striking, oppressive snow-scapes of Norway and Sweden, Beyond the Border’s heroes remain grounded. Richard Holm’s direction must be praised for handling scenes of moody introspection as well as modern and exciting gun fights. Indeed this is a film that manages to be brutal, bleak, bloody and thrilling all at once at times.
Further variety is thrown into the mix as Aron experiences some arty and stylish hallucinations in the search for his brother. He and his wife-to-be parted with an argument, which he regrets as he feels light-years away from her in the harsh heat of war. He sees her and a Nazi he killed in disorientating flashes; even though he is a trained military man and the Swedes know the terrain, they are not practiced killers like their opponents. Only Antti Reini’s character is a hardened and knowing veteran of real conflict.
For all Beyond the Border’s strengths however there is something unsatisfying about it. Maybe the characterization feels forced rather than developed. Maybe it does just feel like another war film despite the accomplished execution and refreshing themes. Maybe it’s too long. Just as the characters need to take breaks from their cold and disheartening surroundings, it might help to take lighthearted breaks from Beyond the Border’s 117 minutes when it’s released on August the 8th. Mostly though it’s a decent watch.