'A War' ('Krigen'): Venice Review

A War Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Complexity emerges through a combination of careful writing and a little work on the viewers' part.

In the third feature from writer-director Tobias Lindhom ('A Hijacking'), Pilou Asbaek plays a Danish soldier in Afghanistan for whom a split-second decision has grave consequences for himself and his family back home.

A War (Krigen), the third film from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm, after co-directing R and helming A Hijacking, has again a title that’s conceptual and intentionally broad. Lindholm’s regular lead (and future Game of Thrones and Ben Hur star) Pilou Asbaek here stars as a Danish army commander in Afghanistan whose life and family are turned upside down by the fallout of a single decision made while his company’s under attack and one of his men is in desperate need of medical attention. Continuing in his familiar post-Dogme style, with its documentary-like approach and slightly twitchy visuals, Lindholm makes yet another modestly scaled but effective drama that asks more uncomfortable questions than it answers. After a Venice Horizons bow, it will be released locally Sept. 10, where it should do respectable business, just like in the other territories where the film was (pre)sold. Magnolia scooped up all U.S. rights.

Like R, the film unexpectedly falls into two halves, here about an hour each, and like A Hijacking, A War’s first part constantly toggles between a faraway location, here Afghanistan, and the home front in Denmark. In the first hour, Lindholm follows Claus Pedersen (Asbaek), the commander of a unit of Danish soldiers who struggle to keep it together after one of their men dies after having stepped on a mine. The kind of fearless and idealistic leader who actually puts himself out there in front of his men, rather than ordering them around and then retreating to the relative safety of Army HQ, Pedersen manages to calm them down and even inspire them, even if his childhood friend and army buddy, Najib (Dar Salim) wonders if he’s trying to do too much.

Almost as much time is spent with Pedersen’s wife back home, Maria (Tuva Novotny). She has her hands full looking after their cute daughter (Elise Sondergaard), her kid brother, Elliot (Andreas Buch Borgwardt), and Elliot’s somewhat older sibling, Julius (Adam Chessa), who seems to struggle the most with his father’s absence.

By presenting the home front on (almost) equal footing, the film doesn’t necessarily want to give equal attention to the hard work of an army wife and mother. Indeed, Maria is convincingly limned by Novotny but not developed as a character as much as Claus. Instead, what seems to interest 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.

An understanding of this particular point is an absolute necessity before the film can move on to part two (some spoilers ahead), when Claus finds himself back in Denmark and in a courtroom, accused of having killed 11 civilians when he ordered a house to be bombed during an unexpected siege. The question is whether he saw an enemy combatant in the house -- which would justify its bombing -- or not. The film makes sure that audiences know that he didn’t have any visual but ordered the bombing because otherwise he couldn’t have had one of his wounded men airlifted out. Clearly, Claus had the right intentions, but as a nightmarish “side effect,” 11 locals were killed.

“You may have killed eight kids but you have three living ones at home,” Maria tells her husband, horrified by the prospect of seeing him potentially disappear behind bars for the next four years if he’s found guilty. And thus all the time spent with her earlier is not only justified but actually turned into ammunition by Maria.

The whole Afghanistan section, filmed mainly in Turkey, was shot with Danish Afghanistan veterans playing the soldiers and Afghani refugees and some actual Taliban warriors also playing versions of themselves. With its long waits between short bursts of action and its constant decision-making under pressure, these scenes feel the most like a documentary. Lindholm never glorifies the conflict, instead focusing on what it does to the people that are involved in it (though he necessarily sticks closer to the Danish than the locals’ perspective, there’s some sense of the impact on them as well).

The film’s second hour, set almost exclusively indoors, is necessarily very different, a courtroom drama that relies on the information, experiences and feelings generated by the crosscutting between Asia and Europe and somewhat perversely proceeding to use them against Claus. As the case is about to go to trail, the protagonist has to face an even tougher decision than when he ordered the bombing that would save one of his soldiers: Will this honest, fair and conscientious leader want to be someone who might consider lying in court to avoid having to go to prison and be away from his family?

Questions of morality, superiority, the cost and value of local and faraway lives and the need for punishment to atone for one's sins are often not quite stated but hover over the material, with Lindholm's screenplay and direction sticking to his stripped-down style throughout. Helping audiences find a way into the complex material is Asbaek's emotionally honest and raw performance, which never even remotely becomes histrionic. Instead of being manipulative, the film lets audiences put the different parts of the story together, which means that viewers less used to art house films will feel the proceedings lose energy in part two while those interested in teasing out all the ambiguities will be rightfully horrified by the implication of the film’s last two, seemingly innocent shots.

Production companies: Nordisk Film Production, DR, Studiocanal

Cast: Pilou Asbaek, Tuva Novotny, Soren Malling, Charlotte Munck, Dar Salim, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Cecilie Elise Sondergaard, Adam Chessa, Andreas Buch Borgwardt

Writer-director: Tobias Lindholm

Producers: Rene Ezra, Tomas Radoor

Executive producers: Henrik Zein, Lena Haugaard, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern

Director of photography: Magnus Nordenhof Jonck

Production designer: Thomas Greve

Costume designer: Louize Nissen

Editor: Adam Nielsen

Music: Sune Rose Wagner

Sales: Studiocanal


Not rated, 115 minutes