Inbetween Worlds (Zwischen Welten): Berlin Review

Zwischen Welten
Wolfgang Ennenbach
The German army in Afghanistan is the curiosity item in a p.c. war drama.

Award-winning director Feo Aladag returns with a war tale shot on location in Afghanistan.

Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks. Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade. These multiple viewpoints are inevitable in a film that dilutes its strength by switching back and forth from Germans to Afghanis, leaving the drama in no man’s land.

Still, audiences in Germany, where the film is coming out soon after its bow in Berlin competition, and other Match Factory territories are bound to appreciate the realism and muscular shooting by a woman director and crew (shades of Kathryn Bigelowand Zero Dark Thirty) on location in northern Afghanistan. It comes as a bit of a shock to see fully armed Germans in military uniforms again, after playing the villains in hundreds of Third Reich films. Here they are obviously the heroes, and in some way reflect Aladag’s plucky courage in producing the film on her own under such dangerous circumstances.

The title suggests the cultural clash she portrays. Young teacher Tarik (Mohsin Ahmady) lives alone with his sister (Saida Barmaki) after their father’s death. When he gets a job interpreting for Capt. Jesper (Ronald Zehrfeld), he’s viewed as a traitor by the Taliban and both young people are put in danger.

Meanwhile, Jesper turns out to be a decent-hearted if overly emotional commander whose own men advise him to get a grip when he flies off the handle; when he struggles with his conscience, the winner is obvious. His oft-told backstory is that he has signed up for a second tour of duty after his brother was killed in action. Initially he has a hard time dealing with the leader of the local Arbaki resistance, Haroon (Abdul Salam Yosofzai), but they slowly come to respect each other. The narrative arc is a familiar one and holds precious few surprises.

However, the immediacy and tension with which Aladag conveys the daily life of the soldiers is something to take home. The wordless opening scenes are a perfect introduction to Jesper as he fearfully flies back on an Army plane and suits up for duty. Zehrfeld, who also appears in another Berlinale competition film called Beloved Sisters, combines a big, muscular body with a sensitive face that recalls Russell Crowe in many ways. For that matter, all the soldiers seem unusually vulnerable for a war film, not to say wimpy, and their brief ventures into combat, all convincingly shot, emphasize their fear in a very unheroic way.   

Playing the local commander, professional actor Yosofzai says it all with a disbelieving stare. The disparity between his ragtag band of committed civilian fighters and the high tech foreign soldiers who get their orders by satellite phone is an eloquent comment on the whole situation. Ahmady is adequate as the unassuming interpreter and Barmaki, as the sister who studies engineering at university while holding down a menial job, radiates a quiet heroism that recalls the Turkish protag of Feodag’s award-winning first film When We Leave, which was Germany’s Oscar entry in 2011.

Judith  Kaufmann’s  spacious and gorgeous cinematography is a feast of muted sand colors complemented by the costumes and uniforms, creating one of the most expressive visuals of any film from the region. 


Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 11, 2014.

Production companies: Independent Artists Filmproduktion

Cast: Ronald Zehrfeld, Mohsin Ahmady, Saida Barmaki, Abdul Salam Yosofzai, Burghart Klaussner, Felix Kramer, Pit Bukowski, Tobias Schonenbert, Roman-Timothy Rien

Director: Feo Aladag
Screenwriters: Feo Aladag, Judith Kaufmann, Matthias Kock
Producer: Feo Aladag
Director of photography: Judith Kaufmann
Editor: Andrea Mertens
Production design: Silke Buhr
Costumes: Gabriela Reumer
Music: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Sales Agent: The Match Factory
No rating, 102 minutes.