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Gunnar Sonsteby, centre, portrayed in Max Manus, is flanked by directors Joachin Roenning, left, and Espen Sandberg. at the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sept. 17, 2009.

Max Manus, a Second World War thriller about Norway's heroic resistance fighter, may be the most important film ever made in that country. One in four Norwegians - about 1.2 million people - have now seen it, a statistic even more impressive when you factor out non-movie-going audiences, the very young and the very old.

Certainly, with a budget of more than $8-million (U.S.) - cheap by Hollywood standards but allowing the most expensive and elaborate (1,800 extras) movie ever shot in Norway - it's a testament to the power of national legend and the determination of producer John Jacobsen, who fought to make it happen.

The King of Norway, Harald V, attended the official premiere in Oslo in 2008, and the film catalyzed a new debate about how the country and ordinary Nords responded to the surprise German invasion of April, 1940, and the subsequent occupation.

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"We immediately knew where the fault lines were," co-director Joachim Roenning said in interviews, first at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and more recently by telephone. "It's an important chapter in our history and a lot of people have opinions. So it had to be taken very, very seriously and with respect. The film had to be as truthful as possible."

As truthful as possible: In order to put five years of Max's story into two hours on the screen, conceded co-director, Espen Sandberg, "we also had to be free to take some liberties. So some compression of characters and events was required."

Starring Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, Max Manus was the first Norwegian film selected for a gala presentation at TIFF. It gets its Canadian limited commercial release today.

By any measure, Max Manus - 25 when the war began - was an extraordinarily courageous young man. With the outbreak of hostilities, he volunteered to fight with Finland against Russia, then returned to Norway and went underground, part of a rag-tag group known as the Oslo Gang that made some early efforts to sabotage Nazi assets. Captured by the Gestapo, he was injured during an attempted escape, then, while hospitalized under guard, escaped again, down a rope from a second-floor window.

He made his way safely to Sweden - the start of an epic journey that took him to Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United States and Canada. In fact (although this isn't in the film), Manus spent several months in Toronto - involved with what was known as Little Norway, a contingent of some 2,000 Royal Norwegian Air Force pilots who trained at Toronto Island and in Muskoka.

Eventually, Manus crossed the Atlantic again and learned the craft of sabotage in Scotland. Attached to what was known as Linge Kompaniet, he parachuted back into Norway and led teams of saboteurs that planted limpet mines on Nazi ships, scuttling the SS Monte Rosa in 1944 and the SS Donau in 1945.

After the war, Manus authored two books about his exploits; these served as the historical basis for the film's script, by Thomas Nordseth-Tiller. It went through about 20 drafts. Sadly, Nordseth-Tiller died of cancer last year at the age of 28.

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Gunnar Sonsteby, the sole surviving member of Manus's resistance cadre, came to Toronto last fall for the film's Canadian premiere.

He'd grown up in the same Oslo neighbourhood as Manus, but did not meet him until July, 1940, when they worked together on an underground newspaper to counter Nazi propaganda. "I gravitated to the resistance movement naturally," said Sonsteby, whose acts of successful sabotage numbered in the dozens.

"When your country is taken over by 100,000 Germans," says Sonsteby, "you get angry." At 92, he still walks erect, like a soldier, and grips a stranger's hand like a steel vice.

Why did it take so long to bring the Manus story to the screen? "There were many reasons," said Roenning. "One was historical. Max and his group were worshipped - national heroes - so people were somehow reluctant to make a film that, in addition to his achievements, looked at the whole man, a man with some inner demons. And some were technical. We needed the capability of CGI - computer-generated imagery - to recreate some of the events. And then, of course, the money."

It seems to have been worth the wait. Max Manus is the second highest-grossing film in Norwegian history.

Roenning and Sandberg are now working on their next film project, a recreation of Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition - an epic journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands.

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