Denmark’s entry for this year’s best foreign language film Oscar is a thought-provoking drama from writer-director Tobias Lindholm ('A Hijacking'). 'A War' is set during the war in Afghanistan where Denmark along with the USA and UK deployed troops between 2001 and 2013.
It is one of the finest films to date about recent Western involvement in the Middle East. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq defined his generation, says Lindholm, 'but no one was quite sure what the mission was. We asked young people to fly to the other side of the world to do what? Build democracy?'.
In terms of look and feel 'A War' brings to mind the Bafta-winning documentary series, 'Our War', first broadcast on BBC3 in 2011. This presented a soldier’s-eye-view of conflict more immersive than anything that went before, because it used recordings by the soldiers themselves, sometimes made with helmet cameras worn into combat. The first episode, 'Ambush', told the story of a close-knit platoon of mainly 18 to 19 year olds sent to secure a remote outpost where nearby Taliban forces waited. During a routine patrol a man is seriously wounded: In the words of one private: 'They could see us. We could not see them. A world of fire came down'.
This is more or less the story – and point of view – of much of the first half of 'A War'. The extraordinary view of conflict achieved by 'Our War', jerky, low resolution, claustrophobic, with a restricted field of vision, finds its dramatic echo in the feature film. It is not how we are used to seeing war depicted on the cinema screen. Supporting actors are real soldiers recently returned from conflicts in Afghanistan (and elsewhere); extras are Afghan refugees living in Turkey – where much of the filming was done using hand-held cameras. At least one of the extras had worked for the Taliban. This means that Danish soldiers are acting alongside people they might have been shooting at a few years earlier.
The set-up of 'A War' is deceptively simple and the indefinite article important. It follows a company of Danish soldiers led by its experienced and compassionate commander Claus Pederson, played by Pilou Asbaek (best known in the UK for his role in the Danish TV series 'Borgen'). Claus is devoted to the young soldiers in his charge. Themes of comradeship and humanity under pressure emerge through several short simple sketches that establish an unsentimental sense of brotherhood among the men.
When a soldier is blown up by a land mine in the film’s opening sequence Claus decides it is his duty to accompany them on their daily patrols. We then cut to Denmark where commander Pederson’s family awaits his phone call. Unusually for a film about war, 'A War' counterpoints life and death struggles at home and abroad, moving between action in Helmand and Claus’s family’s life in Denmark as his wife Maria (played by the Swedish actor Tuva Novotny) struggles to manage with three children on her own.
Back in Helmand, ambushed in an Afghan compound with another wounded soldier – realised in a nightmarish cacophony of noise and visual disturbance that is truly terrifying – Claus makes a split second decision to save his men that has devastating consequences for local civilians. At this point the film’s parallel tracks come together as Claus is called back home to face charges as a war criminal.
As the narrative unfolds before the court case in the second half we switch back and forth between the parents, each facing testing situations involving the vulnerability of children and each making decisions in haste. The same visceral intensity and intimacy given to the battle scenes apply to the domestic, including a frantic trip to a Copenhagen hospital with a child in mortal danger. In one Helmand scene an Afghan man whose children the commander will not shelter in the compound for the night says to Claus: 'It’s all right for you – your children are not in danger as they sleep at night’ – a reminder that 'A War' is just that, Claus’s.
Asbaek gives a compelling and dignified performance as the conflicted captain, dedicated to his men and to his wife and young family. Novotky is wonderful as the hard-pressed wife and mother and it is such a relief to have three un-cute kids depicting awkward children just missing their dad. Their sporadic contact by telephone is the source of the film’s only joke (a very funny one about peeing in a swimming pool).
The courtroom conflict is sparse and riveting as Pederson is caught between his integrity and the needs of his family. Maria’s experience ultimately proves decisive in how the court case pans out, whilst both counsels convey how legal protocol is so often pitched against ethical principle. Not all viewers will desire the same outcome from the trial and this indicates what a fine film it is. Complexity and nuance jostle with sheer outrage and immense cynicism. There is no good outcome, no straightforward judgement.
'A War' is not an action movie but a new kind of war cinema that resists easy answers and makes drama out of moral mess and ambiguity. It has no heroes. It is a clearly-focused account of the circumstances surrounding a war crime and its reckoning in a military court. Unusually, the audience is not being directed how to feel but is made to watch closely and look carefully to see how Claus’s war has brought him to this terrible event.
The final frames of the film undermine any easy answers. The juxtaposition of prone children (and especially, their tender feet), worlds apart, is acute and devastating. It is also decisive because it shows the worlds so intimately connected. A film about guilt, grief and accountability, what makes 'A War' so haunting, says Lisa Mullen in Sight and Sound, is 'the ineluctability of Claus’s own self-judgement, a truth that is clearly apparent no matter how carefully he keeps it locked up and out of sight'.