A War (Krigen)

Denmark (2015) Dir. Tobias Lindholm

The title of this latest offering from the prolific Tobias Lindholm, the man who wrote The Hunt and directed the ultra tense A Hijacking, is a little nebulous in that there is more than one battleground hosting a conflict.

Switching between Afghanistan and Denmark, we begin in the former location where group commander Claus Michael Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) and his squad are stationed in a remote area of the country under threat of a Taliban attack. One soldier is killed and another is injured, while a third is on the verge of a breakdown.

Back in Denmark Claus’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is running herself ragged bringing up their three young children alone. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, when his squad is caught in crossfire, Claus makes the rash decision to call for an airstrike which results in the killing of eleven civilians, including children. He is deposed back to Denmark to stand trial for his actions.

Lindholm has shown he can craft a provocative and affecting script which he can then present on the screen in a frank and overwrought manner, and while A War takes a little while to get going, these ingredients are once again in play. One can argue that this film sits somewhere betwixt the two above-mentioned titles, blending the social fears of one with the intensity of the other.

This film isn’t about making anti-war statements or criticising Denmark’s presence in the Middle East, but about the human cost of these conflicts on and off the battlefield, whether incidental or direct, and the far-reaching consequences of a desperate but necessary decision made under extreme circumstances.

It’s probably a bit drastic to call Maria’s solo parenting plight “a war” but she is facing an uphill battle – If it isn’t problems at school with son Julius then it is youngest child Elliot accidentally swallowing his mother’s medication. Her main comfort comes from the occasional call from her husband but with the distance between them it is a plaster of a gaping wound.

Thankfully Maria is made of sterner stuff and refuses to crack under the pressure, which is just as well as Claus is in need of a sturdy shoulder to lean on when he returns home for his trial. At the battle zone Claus is a different kind of leader, preferring to deal with his men’s issue with a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear; similarly he is kind to the impoverished locals, especially the children.

So when the result of the airstrike reveals a number of children are among the victims, Claus is naturally distraught but he remains resolute that he made the right call under the circumstances. His squad support him, rating him a great commander, but this isn’t enough on the witness stand under cross-examination from prosecutor Lisbeth Danning (Charlotte Munck) and defence lawyer Martin R. Olsen (Søren Malling).

The courtroom brings with it a different kind of discomfort for Claus, revealing a fragile and unconfident side to his character, evidently rocked by the charge against him and the fact his children will now suffer if he is found guilty. They will still have Maria but we’ve seen how much of a handful three youngsters can be for her, and how loved their father is to them.

Lindholm’s manifesto is revealed through the subtext of this situation in exploring the potential ripple effect of Claus’s decision, while reserving his caustic observations for the net of bureaucracy waiting to ensnare the soldiers through the words of one serving witness: “You have no idea what it is like out there”. The whole case is being contested by people who may have the facts at their disposal but not the context, especially, when there is no right solution to a problem.

Because this isn’t your typical war film, the first hour isn’t as eventful for some tastes, but that is not to suggest Lindholm doesn’t scrimp on depicting the grim side of this conflict, creating an uncomfortable and often suffocating environment in the Afghan setting. The cinéma vérité style camerawork follows the soldiers around closely, constantly on the move within the confined spaces of the base camp.

Out on the desert plains the visuals are still kept tight and intimate, proving effective when relaying the chaos and frantic manoeuvres when the fighting starts, putting the viewer deep in the heart of the action. We duck down alongside the soldiers, feel the bullets whizz past our heads and the sandy surface rubs against our bodies. It’s a brief but immersive experience.

For this writer, there is also a touch of Asghar Farhadi in the latter half of the film, most notably when Claus and Maria are alone. The lack of background music, the handheld camerawork and the natural performances create a domestic intimacy and awkward frisson of a troubled couple reminiscent of that in Farhadi’s last outing The Past.  

The main cast will be familiar to fans of Nordic Noir TV dramas or, in the case of Pilou Asbæk and Søren Malling, A Hijacking. Both deliver expected impressive turns, Asbæk in particular showing a more vulnerable side to his increasingly reputable repertoire. Tuva Novotny also shines, portraying Maria with a graceful strength to her emotional foundation, and her natural chemistry with the young cast is utterly believable.

What makes A War stand out is how Lindholm refuses to over dramatise the situation, presenting a low-key drama that is free from hysteria and didactic monologues to demonise either side of the court case. Similarly he respectfully recognises the arcane experiences of those on the frontline without resorting to sycophancy, putting a human face on all scenarios.  

It’s refreshing to see a film that treats it subject with intelligence, understanding and a genuine sense of perspective towards what is a divisive and devastating situation with no easy answers. Sublime and compelling drama at its finest.