Film

Review: A WWII-Era Ambassador Stands Up to Nazis, and Leads a Resistance, in The Good Traitor

Between this title and Six Minutes To Midnight, it’s an interesting week for footnote stories about pre-WWII America and Britain. In the true-life story The Good Traitor, the great Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen plays Henrik Kauffmann, the Danish ambassador to the United States, who watched from abroad in April 1940 as his homeland effectively laid down in surrender as German troops marched across its border. The Nazis began what they called “negotiations” with the Danish king to allow the royal family to continue ruling the country under German “supervision,” but Kauffmann knew the penalty if his homeland didn’t go along with this play: utter annihilation.

The Good Traitor

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

As a means of resistance, Kauffmann declared that, from that moment on, he represented only the free Denmark and not the one under Nazi rule. He was labeled a traitor, but many other Danish ambassadors did the same thing as a sign of unity, making Kauffmann both an enemy of the state and a hero. He was also in a unique position as his American wife, Charlotte (Denise Gough) and her family had a long-standing personal friendship with U.S. President Roosevelt, who was trying desperately to keep America out of what many saw as a European conflict. But Kauffmann’s move to separate himself from his own coerced government forced Roosevelt to take a stand, to either support the compromised monarchy or the man representing a free Denmark.

The political and diplomatic machinations of the time are fascinating and make us remember a time when governments were run by people with functioning brains who genuinely had the best interests of the people in mind. Kauffmann has his detractors, even in his own embassy, but he pushed forward with a confidence of being on the right side of history, even if it might cost him his job or his life (there were plenty gunning for both). And when the film sticks to issues concerning the  war and Kauffmann gently but firmly pushing Roosevelt into seeing why Europe’s interests were also America’s interests, it’s a gripping and satisfying journey.

But Kauffmann’s life was more than just diplomacy. Director Christina Rosendahl (Violently in Love, Idealisten) chooses to spent far too much time focusing on his personal life as well, which includes a past in which he was involved with his wife’s sister, Zilla (Zoë Tapper), when they were working together as part of a diplomatic mission somewhere on the other side of the globe, long before he met his wife. It’s clear Zilla is the love of his life, and he still makes passes at her when they are alone, but he adores his wife, who is in turn, extremely jealous of their connection. Zilla is wise enough to make sure nothing further happens because she cherishes both relationships, but that doesn’t keep the filmmaker from concentrating on this interpersonal goulash that adds little flavor to the film, aside from a truly bizarre bookend story involving Kauffmann on his death bed with his merciful wife by his side.

The Good Traitor also contains some solid supporting work from Burn Gorman as a U.S. State Department operative monitoring the situation with Kauffmann and the country he is meant to represent; Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as Kauffmann’s loyal and radical right-hand man; and Henry Goodman as FDR, who is portrayed as benevolent and practical. The film is worth exploring simply because of the singular nature of the story being told. I’m guessing few (if any) other countries had a similar journey during the Great War, and few ambassadors went from hero to villain to hero again in such a short span of time. But Kauffmann was unwavering in his mission, and as a result, the Danish people got their freedom back eventually (it took a bit longer to get their reputations as cowards expunged). If for no other reason, check it out because Thomsen truly is one of the greatest actors on the planet who hasn’t quite broken through in America the way his countryman Mads Mikkelsen has.

The film is in select theaters and available via VOD. Please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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1 reply »

  1. In “Appeasement,” Tim Bouverie notes that Rumbold’s April 1933 dispatch caused a momentary stir in the Foreign Office. But the ambassador’s warning, like later admonitions from Winston Churchill and others, made no dent in the British government’s unflagging commitment to come to terms with Hitler, no matter the consequences. Bouverie, a former British television journalist, offers few fresh details or insights into Britain’s disastrous appeasement policy — a subject that has been exhaustively mined in a plethora of previous books. Nonetheless, living as we do in an era with uncomfortable parallels to the political turmoil of the 19, “Appeasement” is valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom, whether at home or abroad. Particularly timely is the book’s examination of Neville Chamberlain. It highlights the dangers to a democracy of a leader who comes to power knowing little or nothing about foreign policy, yet imagines himself an expert and bypasses the other branches of government to further his aims.

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