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Harald Zwart • Director

"We need to instil in our children values such as constantly challenging our own limits"


- Cineuropa met with Norwegian director, Harald Zwart, whose new film 12th Man is released in Norway on Christmas day

Harald Zwart • Director

At the beginning of autumn, in a post-production studio in Oslo, Cineuropa met with Norwegian director Harald Zwart, known for his remakes of The Karate Kid and The Pink Panther 2 to name but two. He was finishing 12th Man [+see also:
interview: Harald Zwart
film profile
, a full-length film distributed by Nordisk Film, whose plot was directly inspired by the true story of Jan Baalsrud as it happened in Norway in 1943. He was also the subject of an earlier film back in 1957 called Nine Lives, by Arne Skouen.

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Cineuropa: What’s the difference between this film and Nine Lives?
Harald Zwart: Skouen was inspired by David Howarth’s book, We Die Alone, but it was Defiant Courage by Tore Haug - one of Baalsrud’s cousins who wrote this book in collaboration with Astrid Karlsen Scott – that led to the making of 12th Man. My film focuses more on those who risked their own lives to come to Baalsrud’s rescue and to help him escape to Switzerland. Filming took place mainly in the Tromsø region - the very place where the events actually unfolded.

Was Jan Baalsrud an exceptional man?
No, he was a man like any other, a good swimmer of course with great force of character, but also surprisingly humble. He would always say there was nothing heroic about him and that the real heroes were those from among the local population who looked after him. Thomas Gullestad, who plays Jan in 12th Man, brings an incredible presence to the film, as well as courage and generosity – the very same human qualities that could be found in Baalsrud.

There was no shortage of trials in his journey.
Quite. Firstly, Mother Nature shows him no mercy, especially with the cold weather which is a constant danger for him, and we weren’t spared by the bad weather during the shooting process either…luckily for the film. He also has to contend with the Nazis chasing him, and Kurt Stage, Commander of the Gestapo in Tromsø, turns the manhunt into a personal vendetta. Stage is played in German by Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who I directed previously in City of Bones. The film’s main language is Norwegian but the Sami language also plays a role.

Do you ask a lot of those you work with?
I am above all frank and direct. I have a deep contempt for laziness and incompetency. I like people who have enthusiasm and who are bold while being aware of their limits. I really appreciate honesty and the film’s editor, Jens Christian Fodstad, didn’t hesitate to stand up to me. I like that. I need people to say no to me, in the same way that I need the lucidity and severity of my wife, Veslemøy Ruud Zwart, who produced the film. She bought the rights to Tore Haug’s book about fifteen years ago. Following multiple research projects and a number of interviews with the precious few remaining witnesses of Jan’s arduous journey, we took a break before continuing the project with the support of producers Espen Horn and Aage Aaberge. At that point, I finalised the script written by Petter Skavlan. As for Tore Haug, he monitored filming day in, day out, always ready to make corrections or add details where required.

Is there a place for humour in 12th Man?
Without a doubt. Jan was a positive person with a great sense of repartee. He didn’t like to complain, he preferred to comfort those around him and create a happy and relaxed atmosphere. The humour you see in the film isn’t fake or artificial. It’s a kind of ‘’comic relief ‘’ emanating from the main character himself.

Humour probably helps to diffuse the tension because I imagine there are some scenes that are very difficult to watch.
Yes, there are. I fully believe in not hiding the atrocities of war, so as to help people understand just how awful it actually is. War is never the answer. Maintaining peace, or restoring it – that’s the most important thing.

A humanist message in keeping with the spirit of Christmas...
What I also wanted to do with this film was to highlight the universal nature of Jan’s story of survival and to make the point that sometimes we need to forget ourselves, to put our egos to one side, especially in times like ours where people like to put themselves on show and flaunt themselves via social networks. There are certain values such as solidarity, and constantly challenging our own limits, that we need to instil in our children.

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(Translated from French by Michelle Mathery)

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