There’s bleak, and then there’s Netflix’s Nazi occupation thriller, Will

Shall, Netflix’s imported Belgian film about the moral impossibility of life under Nazi occupation during World War II, announces itself with shocking bluntness. Within the first ten minutes it is made clear that co-writer and director Tim Mielants intends to tackle the horrific horrors of the Holocaust head-on. But it is also clear that the film is structured more like a thriller than a gloomy drama, and that it tightens the screws on its main character – the young police officer Wilfried Wils (Stef Aerts) – in a series of breathless setups with escalating stakes.

It’s an effective way to get viewers to empathize with the terrible dilemmas faced by an occupied population, and to witness familiar horrors again. But the thriller genre creates expectations – climax, catharsis, redemption – which risks trivializing the material and creating a kind of ethical trap. Who will fall for it: the filmmakers or the audience? Mielants is too stubborn to get caught, as it turns out, but that’s bad news for the rest of us. Shall cherishes a glimmer of hope in the darkness, but extinguishes it completely. This is a bleak, bleak movie.

It is 1942 and Wil (referred to in the subtitles by the Dutch spelling of his name, despite the English title) Shall) and Lode (Matteo Simoni) are new recruits to the police in the port city of Antwerp. Before their first patrol, their commander, Jean (Jan Bijvoet), hands out platitudes about the police as ‘mediators between our people and the Germans’. Then he drops that pretense and offers some off-the-record advice: β€œYou stand there and just watch.” The ambiguity of these words echoes throughout the film. Is it cowardice to watch the Nazis at work, or heroism to refuse to cooperate with them? Are the occupied Belgians washing their hands of the Nazi crimes, or are they witnessing them?

Wil and Lode don’t have to think about these questions for long. Once they leave the station for their first patrol, a ranting, drugged-out German soldier demands that they join him in arresting some people who “refuse to work”: a Jewish family, in other words. The young men are initially paralyzed by the situation, but things spiral out of control, more out of desperation than through heroic resistance on the part of the two police officers. In the aftermath, Lode and Wil return to work in a state of paranoid terror.

Image: Les Films Du Fleuve/Netflix

Mielants, working with screenwriter Carl Joos from a novel by Jeroen Olyslaegers, wastes no time in using this premise to explore the paranoid swamp of the occupied city. Can the two young men trust each other? Where do their sympathies lie? Wil’s father, a civil servant, causes him to seek help from local dignified Felix Verschaffel (the excellent Dirk Roofthooft), who boasts of being friends with the German commander, Gregor Schnabel (Dimitrij Schaad). Suddenly Wil finds himself indebted to a greedy, anti-Semitic collaborator.

Meanwhile, Lode’s suspicious family – especially his fiery sister Yvette (Annelore Crollet) – wants to know more. Does Wil speak German at home? What radio station does he listen to? In occupied Antwerp – a region where German and French expressions naturally mix with the local Dutch dialect – an innocent choice of words or relaxing listening becomes charged with dangerous political meaning. β€œThere’s not much on the radio,” Wil responds. β€œCan you recommend something?”

During the film, Wil uses these kinds of deviations again and again to avoid taking a position on the occupation. But eventually he starts working to save Jewish lives. Actions may speak louder than words, but even despite a feverish affair with Yvette, Wil continues to keep his words to himself. While Schnabel’s net is closing in, Wil’s caution keeps him and his friends alive, but the costs are high.

It’s a bold move to center a Holocaust thriller around a protagonist who, on some level, refuses to take a side. We can only empathize with Wil because Mielants charges almost every scene and line of dialogue so effectively with implicit threat. Shall is a tense, dark, terrifying film, claustrophobically filmed in an angular proportion with lenses that blur the edge of the frame. The acting is intense (sometimes to a fault), and there are frequent bursts of unpleasant, graphic violence as the pressure mounts.

A man in a hat and pointed white beard without a mustache raises his arms triumphantly in front of a burning synagogue.  He is holding a gun

Photo: Les Films Du Fleuve/Netflix

But even though Schaad sometimes seems to do a weak impression of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s unglorious bastards, Shall isn’t that the film, and Mielants isn’t interested in Tarantino’s style of catharsis. At the end of the film, the cruel, inescapable trap he has set for all the characters simply snaps shut. Shall shows that under the brutal illogic of the Nazi occupation, survival equals cooperation, and resistance equals death.

That’s a miserable load for the film, and the question is how constructive it is. Jonathan Glazer is chilling The zone of interest, currently in theaters, shows that challenging new perspectives on the human mechanisms of the Holocaust is as essential now as it has ever been. Thirty years ago, Schindler’s List achieved something similar, and just as necessary, through radically different means: it found a thread of hope and compassion that could lead a wide audience to the heart of the nightmare and bring relief from it.

Shall is too burdened by his position to be able to do anything similar. The country has a clear vision of the cruel compromises of occupation and collaboration, but is so fatalistic about it that it ultimately wallows in its own guilt and hopelessness. That’s a dark truth, and not necessarily one that everyone needs to hear.

Shall now streaming on Netflix.