There is beauty in capturing the human face in close-up. The face becomes the stage for the drama to unfold on the screen. Will, directed by Tim Mielants, is a film that is interested in capturing moments in the close-up first and foremost. The spatial dynamics of the scenes are secondary. That being said, Will has a brilliant screenplay, and the characters are so grounded in the story, which we are told has something to do with history (with an H).
I hadn’t ever heard any stories about the Belgian occupation by Germany during World War 2. There might have been some good films made, and Will has just piqued my interest to look for them. World War II dramas are a somewhat dubious category of cinema for me. The dramatization of events and circumstances of the characters neatly tied into a story often becomes entertaining, and this entertainment is what then becomes a philosophical issue. Will, the titular protagonist in this psychological drama, becomes part of both the Communist resistance in Belgium and the Nazi officers’ camp responsible for rounding up the Jews in the area. Will is an idealistic policeman who faces terror when a German officer is killed. It’s quite a dramatic idea, which ignites all kinds of fantasies, but it’s Mielants’ insistence on capturing the story off the faces of the characters that makes it a philosophical one in some sense. If his interest really had been to set up shots that gave the overall narrative and background about the history of the Nazi occupation in Belgium, then it could have become an exploitative idea. But we are plunged straight into the exploration, which is done quite exquisitely.
The aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is the reason why the faces get more prominence on the screen. It reminded me of “Son of Saul,” where most of the tension is derived from the smothering close-ups of the actors’ faces. Will is not that dedicated to telling its story that way, and this is also a different kind of film. Mielants is determined to get to a point where he can get to the philosophical question of what it means to survive. Hence, there is some breathing room given to the characters so that they can be seen as having a choice in the matter. Whether to fight the Nazis and help the Jews or obey and survive until the war’s over,
Based on the novel by Jeroen Olyslaegers, Will is a testament to intelligent and empathetic filmmaking. Just for a second in the third act of the film, the filmmaking veers towards the melodramatic, but it is hard-hitting nonetheless. The aspect of friendship supporting cowardice in each other was a theme throughout the film, and it had a very clear idea of how to deal with that theme, and the screenplay by Carl Joos and Mielants helps tremendously. But apart from that, it’s the use of elements—the mud, the rain, and the fire—that somehow aids in evoking emotion. When Will and his friend Lode in the Antwerp Police force go in with a ‘feldgendarm,’ we get to witness bravery for a brief moment, where Will and Lode kill the German officer when he was trying to kill a Jewish family. But the bravery is subverted as we see them cave under dread, trying hard to save themselves from Gregor Schnabel, the SS officer, who comes in to investigate the disappearance.
We are given the impression that we are seeing the realistic depiction of a quixotic character stuck in World War 2, when all he was made to do was help the people by virtue of his being in the police force. We are prepared to see how idealism will perish, or perhaps this will turn out to be one of those movies where one man taps into some kind of ‘plot armor’ to save everybody else. But as I said, this movie has a philosophical intention and doesn’t just want to entertain, for that can become callous given the nature of the tragedy of the war. There is a kind of romantic distraction in there as well, which later becomes the hammer the film hits us with as we see the rug getting pulled out from under us.
Films like Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are made with such conviction and honesty that we empathize with the most volatile and corrupt people and understand their point of view as well. Will has the integrity of not being halfhearted about its commentary, which is why the ending hits us hard. Will and Lode are friends who, instead of fueling each other’s courage, do the opposite. The film is quite a scathing criticism of the camaraderie that the war offered to men. They became violent in packs and lost their courage together. The brotherhood was sometimes the main reason for virtues to go down the drain and the deterioration of the human soul. Meanwhile, there is a clear comment on how the feminine touch to the resistance helped in retaining the meaning and purpose of survival.
The sound design in Will has to be praised for using sounds like a sharp knife to the throat. It isn’t overdone, but the breaths and the grunts make the scene even more heart-pounding. Every second Will is interrogated by Gregor; it’s the sound that communicates the dread of the moment. The performances are noteworthy, but it’s the casting that’s spot on. Stef Aerts as Wilfried Wils and Matteo Simoni as Lode are perfectly cast, but it’s Annelore Crollet as Yvette who takes the cake for a strong portrayal as the truly idealistic person in the male-dominated war. Mielants has managed to create an entertaining piece of cinema on a subject that needed to showcase the brutality of war because it had a creative justification to do so. It is why Will becomes nail-biting as we see a man opting for a hollow survival rather than a loving death. We carefully follow the will as if we are on an ascent to get to the pinnacle of human willpower to endure suffering, but we are left in the abyss of the regular man who just wants to live a few days more.