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Ole Christian Madsen, director of Flame and Citron, sits in the Intercontinental Hotel. He is attending the Toronto International Film Festival.Ashley Hutcheson

Growing up in Denmark, actor Thure Lindhardt heard many stories about the Second World War from his parents and grandparents. But until his friend, film director Ole Christian Madsen, started researching their story almost a decade ago, Lindhardt had never heard about Flame and Citron, code names for two of the country's most successful Nazi- fighters.

Bent Faurschou-Hviid (Flame, because of his red hair) and Jorgen Haagen Schmith (Citron, because he had worked in a Citroen car factory) were members of Holger Danske, a resistance group formed in 1942. For the next three years, its various cells carried out dozens of daring acts of sabotage against German targets, and summarily executed as many Nazis and their complicit Danish abettors and informants as possible. Flame and Citron were among its most celebrated agents.

Madsen's feature film of the affair, from his own script, opens in theatres this week. The most expensive Danish film ever made (a mere $8.6-million U.S.), and the biggest box-office hit there in a decade, it screened last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, with both Lindhardt and the director in attendance.

"Flame and Citron were big heroes during and immediately after the war, but then things changed," explained the multilingual Lindhardt, 34, who plays Flame and who recently appeared with Tom Hanks in Angels & Demons . "The government didn't really want Danes to confront the issue of their complicity with the Nazis. There was a kind of no-speak policy about it. And so after a while, Flame and Citron were largely forgotten. I never knew about them." Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in Casino Royale ) plays Citron.

It was while they were working together on another film, Nordkraft , that Madsen asked Lindhardt to read the rough draft of his new script. It was based on Flame and Citron's actual war-time escapades, as chronicled in memoirs and other eye-witness accounts. "I was totally fascinated by the story," says Lindhardt, "It's very dark, difficult and really interesting."

In a country that has become known for the spartan cinematic ethic of Dogme realism - one camera, no lights - Flame & Citron is an anomaly, a richly textured, full-blown action thriller. But Lindhardt, the son of a minister and a psychiatrist, says it would have been impossible to do it any other way.

Madsen, 43, said making the film constituted a huge challenge. "Assembling the money was very difficult. We ended up with 32 investors, which means 32 producers. And politically, nobody was interested in financing the story." The script spent nine years in development, while he struggled to find money.

Madsen says his original intent was to make a more documentary style of film. But during his research, he stumbled across a new piece of evidence that dramatically changed the way historians looked at the two agents. The evidence - it would spoil the film to disclose it here - concerned Flame's love interest, Ketty, played by Stine Stengade ( Kira's Reason: A Love Story ), an attractive bisexual woman who carried on simultaneous affairs with various men and women, including the local chief of the Gestapo.

"When I found the evidence, I thought, wow, this really changes everything, and it forced me to make the film a much more stylish, more noirish piece of work."

Thematically, Madsen is interested in exploring the moral dilemmas that Flame and Citron were forced to confront - commanded by resistance leaders to kill people whose loyalty was in doubt and the psychological toll such executions took on them. "Citron, for example, really felt that to take another person's life was wrong," Madsen says, "but he did it. He sold out his humanity for the highest price."

Nobody knows precisely how many people they killed - estimates range from 20 to 75 - but Denmark's wartime archives list many fatalities simply as casualties of war, some of which were likely among their victims. "Nobody knows who did what," says Madsen. "Everything was suppressed."

Their exploits soon made them the most wanted men in Denmark, the object of a massive search by Gestapo agents. Budgetary considerations prevented Madsen from shooting Citron's final scene as it actually occurred, alone and surrounded by 250 German soldiers that he managed to hold off for four hours.

There are many other no less compelling stories in Denmark's wartime history, Madsen says, "if you have the patience for it." It will help that the film has grossed about $10-million worldwide, even before starting its North American run. That, he says, may open the funding taps.

In fact, what Madsen would like to do next is examine another dark chapter in Denmark's history, the war's aftermath, when surviving members of the resistance went on a killing spree, executing hundreds of Danes that had co-operated with the Nazis. In such a way, he hopes, the country can begin to come to terms with its long-buried ghosts.

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