The King’s Choice

August 25, 2017
Jesper Christesen dodges a bullet in The King's Choice
Jesper Christesen dodges a bullet in The King's Choice

Scandinavian history may not be a pressing concern for most Australians, but we can all recognise the importance of political courage – if only by its absence in Canberra. The King’s Choice deals with the dilemma that beset King Haakan VII of Norway when his country was invaded by the Germans in April 1940. Erik Poppe’s film covers a three day period before and after an occupation that would last five years, but it feels like an epic.

King Haakon, played in magisterial style by veteran actor, Jesper Christensen, was a man of principal. Born and raised in Denmark, where both his father and older brother would serve as kings, he had ascended the throne at the age of 33. At the time of his coronation in 1905 it had been more than 500 years since Norway had had its own king. The decisive event was the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway, and a subsequent referendum in which 79 percent of Norwegians voted in favour of restoring the monarchy.

Born as Carl, the new king took on the old Norse name, Haakon, as a sign of commitment to his adoptive home. Throughout his reign Haakon was intensely alert to his obligations as a democratically elected ruler. His scrupulousness stands in stark contrast to his Nazi antagonists, and indeed to a latter-day President who imagines himself as king, and therefore able to do whatever he likes.

Haakon was generally happy to let the government make decisions in his name. The only time he took a personal stand is the subject of this movie, during the gravest crisis the nation had endured since declaring its political neutrality in 1905. Admittedly, it had always been a difficult policy to observe, as trade ties were a kind of partisanship. In World War I, Norway’s trade with Britain gave it the nickname “the Neutral Ally”.

At the outbreak of World War II, Churchill proposed the occupation of Norway, but his idea was dismissed as offensive to the Scandinavians. Hitler had allegedly contemplated leaving Norway alone until he met with the Norwegian fascist leader, Vidkun Quisling, who viewed a German invasion as a swift route to power.

Despite one minor success in sinking the German cruiser, Blücher, the Norwegian defences were rapidly overpowered. There was just time for the royal family and the parliament to be evacuated from Oslo, as Quisling announced he was ready to form a government.

Eager to legitimise an act of aggression the invaders called on Haakon to recognise Germany as Norway’s “protector”, and sign a document confirming Quisling as Prime Minister. The King’s compliance might have saved the nation from much bloodshed. His refusal threatened to unleash the full fury of the Nazis, who had already shown how harshly they responded to perceived resistance.

Given the same ultimatum, Haakon’s brother, King Christian X of Denmark, had quickly ceded. Yet Haakon felt he could only act according to the will of the people, and he knew Norwegians had no desire to be a puppet state. He told parliament it was their decision whether or not they should accept the German ‘protection’. If they did, he would abdicate on the spot.

Before we reach this climactic moment in the story we are already thoroughly familiar with Haakon’s personality, and that of his hot-headed son, Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen). The King is a man who observes all the protocols, but would rather be playing with his grandchildren. Olav wants to take a more active role in leading the nation, but his father preaches caution and restraint.

The film’s only other well-developed character is that of Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics), the German envoy to Norway. At the time of his appointment Bräuer had been ordered to respect Norwegian neutrality, and was surprised by his government’s sudden about-face. His new task was to get the King to sign the legitimation documents, which Bräuer saw as the only safeguard against a conflict that he wanted, most passionately, to avoid.

Was Bräuer really so sympathetic? Perhaps he was one of those “great people” that Donald Trump has discerned in Nazi ranks. He seems to have been an ambitious type who joined the party for reasons of career advancement, rather than ideological conviction. After his failure to persuade the King he was replaced by Reichskommissar Josef Terboven, a tyrannical sadist whose program embraced prison camps, summary executions, the deportation of Jews, and at least one notorious massacre.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this film is that Poppe has constructed a engaging human drama from a “choice” that had little impact on the occupation. Even had Haakon signed the paper it’s clear the Nazis would have been every bit as brutal. His refusal established him as a beacon of moral integrity, an inspiration to his people while he and his family waited out the war in Britain. It’s an object lesson on how to avoid a fight and emerge as the ultimate hero.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KoJhlSoslE

The King’s Choice
Directed by Erik Poppe
Written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg & Jan Trygve Røyneland
Starring Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tuva Novotny, Katharine Schüttler, Karl Markovics, Juliane Köhler
Norway, rated M, 133 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 26 August, 2017