During World War II the Spanish dictator Franco, wishing to repay the kindness shown by Nazi Germany during the Spanish Civil War, organised a full division of volunteers (Division Azul, or the Blue Division) who served in the Wehrmacht, with the proviso they would only fight on the eastern front against the godless Bolsheviks, and not again Spain's western European neighbours. Although their name came from the distinctive blue uniform blouses, a hold-over from the Falangists, in the field they fought in German uniforms.
This little-known bit of history forms the background to the 2011 Spanish film Frozen Silence (in Spanish, Silencio en la Nieve, Silence in the Winter, not as good a title), set in 1943, as the Blue Division takes part in the siege of Leningrad. In the midst of the terrible Russian winter, a body turns up with its throat slashed and an inscription carved into its chest. As it happens, one of the privates on hand, Arturo Andrade (Juan Diego Botto) was a police detective, and he is soon given the assignment to find the killer. Who soon, as it happens, turns into a serial killer. Is he a hidden 'red'? A mason conducting some weird ritual? Or is something else, perhaps more sinister, going on?
The strongest part of the film is the setting, particularly the opening, when the body is discovered in the midst of group of horses frozen in a lake. Occasionally in the film there are shots of stark contrast, of cold power, but sadly, not often enough. That mirrors the basic problem of the movie: it's a who-dun-it whose plot is very much mechanical—hence, the action often bogs down into Andrade, and his sympathetic sergeant Espinoza (Carmelo Gomez), travelling back and forth along the front, asking questions, and travelling back.
A serial killer on the loose might have been pushed over the edge by the horrors of war, or by the grinding assault of winter itself; for Andrade, trying to manoeuvre through the military bureaucracy while dealing with the brutal murders, might be enough to push himself over the edge as well. But we never get that far, and, oddly enough, combat is kept in the distance. The winter itself comes and goes: conditions seem arctic at times, at other times it's a very mild sunny time, which might herald the return of spring and fighting, but I'm not sure any such symbolism was intended.
Andrade manages to solve the crimes before the Soviet air force intervenes, with a little bit of help from a friendly mailbag being driven by a friendly truck driver who seems to exist as a plot device—I kept waiting for him to turn evil. A number of plot elements are left hanging, particularly the most gruesome part of the Masonic red herring.The killing turns out to have had a more personal motive, something that goes back to the days of the Civil War, but the real villain of the piece walks away unscathed. At least until the Red Army attacks, and the film's ending is left appropriately dark, if open-ended.
The leads are very good, and the supporting cast is for the most part excellent; there are little bits of Paths Of Glory in the attitudes of the officers, Adolfo Fernandez as the commandant and Victor Clavijo as the clerk-sergeant are particularly good. But as a war movie, it's always going to be held back by the Columbo-like structure of the who-dun-it, and I'm not quite sure how that problem might be solved. It also tends to make the Russian front look too beautiful; as it happens I recently watched The World At War episode 'Barbarossa', and the 'reality' in grainy black and white footage, is shocking. In the end, Winter Silence is eminently watchable, but in the end, like light snow that doesn't stick.