Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm is a contemporary master of suspense, both in his screenplays, which include The Hunt (Jagten, 2012)—brought to the screen by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Mads Mikkelson in a Hitchcockian scenario of a man wrongly accused of a crime—and in his own narrative features such as A Highjacking (Kapringen), also from 2012, which addressed tense negotiations with Somali pirates. Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling, two of the actors featured in A Highjacking, have returned for Lindholm's follow-up military drama A War (Krigen, 2015), Denmark's official submission currently nominated for the Foreign Language Academy Award®. It screened in the Awards Buzz sidebar at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) with director Lindholm in attendance.
As synopsized by PSIFF: "The stakes are higher than ever in this tense and suspenseful drama as a well-liked Danish company commander is forced to choose between his responsibility for his troops, the Afghan locals, his family back in Denmark and the written and unwritten rules of war. While Commander Claus Michael Pedersen [Asbæk] and his men are stationed in an Afghan province, Claus's wife Maria [Tuva Novotny] is trying to hold everyday life together back in Denmark. Meanwhile, during a routine mission, the soldiers are caught in heavy crossfire. In order to save his men, Claus makes a decision that has grave consequences."
As aggregated by David Hudson at Fandor's Keyframe Daily, reviews from the film's premiere at the 2015 Venice Film Festival have been uniformly supportive, including Guy Lodge's write-up for Variety—"A rigorous, engrossing anatomy of a suspected war crime: In its nerve-shattering first half, it conveys the on-the-ground maelstrom of combat as vividly as any film on the subject. A War doesn't seek to break new ground in the ongoing cinematic investigation of the Afghanistan conflict; rather, it scrutinizes the ground on which it stands with consummate sensitivity and detail."—and Boyd van Hoeij for The Hollywood Reporter—"Almost as much time is spent with Pedersen's wife back home…. [W]hat interests Lindholm is what it means for a family when a vital component of it is absent for months on end; by contrasting Afghanistan and Denmark, a clearer picture emerges of what Claus does but also what he's missing and isn’t able to do, which is just as telling."
In his introduction to his PSIFF audience, Lindholm stated: "When I started to do this project, I knew that I needed real soldiers, not actors, to do the battle scenes, basically because I have never been a soldier and don't have the expertise so how would I be able to direct actors to move naturally as soldiers? It would be impossible."
That strategy proved invaluable in the film's re-enactment of the pivotal battle sequence where Pedersen gives the order to bomb a compound without first confirming enemy presence; a desperate effort to save the lives of his own men. As a result, eleven civilians are killed, including eight children. My question to Lindholm was one of craft. "How do you choreograph an action sequence like that?" I asked. "Do you use storyboards?" Having already confided that—not having been to war himself—he relied on soldier informants, I wanted to know about the nature of that reliance. Did he improvise scenes with them in order to construct such a complicated action sequence?
Lindholm qualified that he hunted out Danish veterans who had spent years of their lives in Afghanistan. He promised them that he would be honest with them all the way; that he wouldn't lie; that he wouldn't change anything to make them look morally bad or good; but, would portray them as honestly as he could. "Now the honesty thing, I've kept," he added in his introduction, "but, after the film, you can tell me if they look good or not."
Which becomes the film's spectatorial conundrum. "It's frankly difficult to imagine a more generic setup for a contemporary war movie," writes Tommaso Tocci at The Film Stage, "but if there's one director that can make the how more compelling than the what, it is Lindholm." As a film, yes, A War is competently constructed. Its subject matter, however, remains morally problematic for rallying behind a brothers-in-arms mentality that effectively skirts (and justifies?) the war crime of civilian casualties. Yet, as honest as Lindholm endeavored to be with the soldiers who appeared in his film, he is no less transparent with his audience.
In order to achieve that, his starting point was to introduce Lasse, a broken-down young soldier wanting to return home after watching his best friend die from an IED explosion. His commanding officer Pedersen can't allow that, of course, but—when Lasse gets shot—the audience begins to understand why Pedersen struggles to save him, his reasoning, and why his actions feel necessary. "It's a bit technical," Lindholm explained, "but I'm always looking for a middle point and a fake ending. If we know the beginning, the middle point, and the fake ending, then the whole story's there." In this case, the beginning is Lasse's breakdown after witnessing his friend's death. The middle point is Pederson ordering the bombing. The fake ending, of course, is his admittance of the crime. With those points to write through, Lindholm felt confident in his narrative and could then conduct interviews to secure requisite information, including the logic of the military worldview.
At this juncture, Lindholm's filmic enterprise borders on Dostoyevsky in its examination of the definition of crime itself and how apparent crimes are often predicated on equally criminal forces operating behind the scenes, avoiding culpability by redirecting punishment. Suddenly the question becomes what was the "mission" of Denmark's presence in Afghanistan?
"Originally we went in to hunt down bad guys," Lindholm synopsized. Following 9/11, together with the U.S. and the U.K., special troops went in to Afghanistan right away on the clear logic—neither good nor bad, but logical—to try to kill the bad guys. This clear purpose morphed into abstraction as it soon became clear that Danish forces were not there to fight; they were there to walk around in an area and, once in a while, step on an IED or get shot. The fact that they were there became the mission, even if they also became walking targets for the Taliban.
Real soldiers were used in filming that scene, including the female translator who had served in Afghanistan a couple of times. The family were from the Helmand Province. They escaped the war, lived in a refugee camp and knew all too well the situation of the family in the film. On the day of shooting, they became extremely emotional. Lindholm seeks to create scenarios that play out as if real, inflected by a documentary impulse, albeit controlled. In this case, he gave the scene a long time to shoot. He respected that the Afghan family had never acted before. For them, as well as the female translator, the scene became real. Her frustration in having to send them back to their village was tangible for her, energized by accumulated experiences from her two deployments.
“I'm not the judge of that,” Lindholm insisted, adding, “I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to walk out that gate every day not exactly knowing why you're there. The reason that you're there will become to protect your friends.” That's what Andersen does all the way through, and why Lindholm accepts that Butcher lies in court to protect his commander. “That's what he's trained to do.” Lindholm achieves his task of garnering support for Andersen, and asks (without answering) the underlying question: was it the right thing to do to cover up a war crime in order to protect a friend?
“We are in what you would call a small-scale post-Vietnam phase in Denmark right now,” Lindholm explained. “We're trying to figure out what kind of people we are and how our democracy can continue with this happening at the same time? That was the reason for me to make this film in the first place.” The final image of Andersen reflecting on his deck suggests questions that won’t be answered for a long time. His doubts and regrets will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, most of the questions following Lindholm’s PSIFF screening had to do with Andersen’s military trial. How could a civilian trial judge military misconduct? Does the verdict in a civil trial have to be unanimous?
One of the problems of being a young warfaring nation, Lindholm responded, is trying to figure out how to deal with war crimes. Admittedly shocked that a civilian court would oversee such a process, Lindholm learned that the prosecutor is from the military hired by the military to work in these courts. The rest are civilians who have no to little idea what military engagement entails. What happened in Denmark, Lindholm explained, and what is happening right now, is that the politicians who sent these young people to war need to wash their hands as they say, "Yes, we went out to war but we would never accept war crimes." The whole idea for Lindholm is a strange thought that you would create something as chaotic as war and then think that you could sit back in Denmark and make laws about it as if you understood what armed conflict really is? At the same time, as a democracy, they need these trials because, of course, it wouldn't be possible to let military do their jobs without there being some sort of control, some rules of engagement; but, the idea of civilians being able to cope, understand and judge military misbehavior is absurd and a huge problem in a democracy like Denmark.
The verdict in a civil trial does not have to be unanimous. It can be two to one. It frustrated Lindholm to discover that within Denmark’s system the panel hearing such cases is composed of two civilians and one judge, but the judge’s opinion doesn’t count any more than the other two. The defendant can, of course, appeal and have the case go into the system; but, ordinarily, they try to keep it simple. A fun story is that the judge in Lindholm’s film is a real judge. She went on pension just a week before he started to shoot. “And I can tell you,” he grinned, “she didn't take direction from anybody. That was her courtroom. I took direction from her.”