'The Woods are Still Green': Shanghai Review

A solemn WWI drama that doesn’t break new ground but makes an emphatic anti-war statement.

Slovenian-born director Marko Nabersnik ventures away from television for an sadly relevant WWI drama.

The tensions of WWI set the tone for what is very nearly a two-hander in The Woods are Still Green, a timely meditation on the futility of war and its ability to dehumanize and degrade. It’s not a new topic by any means, but it’s a point that can never be made too often and though director and co-writer Marko Nabersnik’s deadly serious drama is a challenge to get through at times, it’s also a quietly affecting snapshot of survival on the front. With the 100th anniversary of the Great War approaching, the film’s subject matter could earn it some attention with niche distributors, particularly in Europe. Beyond that, it’s deliberate pacing and introverted point of view will make ideal festival material.

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In 1917, a young Austro-Hungarian soldier Jacob Lindner (Michael Kristof) serving in one of the world’s deadliest conflicts is posted to Station R communications outpost in the mountains on the border between Italy and Austria along the strategic Isonzo River. He’s there with one other soldier, the equally green Hafner (Kristian Hodko) and their veteran Captain Kopetzky (Simon Serbinek). The trio’s mundane prep work is interrupted by furious Italian artillery shelling. The troops that were on the way to them have been destroyed in the valley below and their small camp is almost obliterated. Hafner is killed, and the Captain is fatally injured. Untested and unsure what to do, Lindner gets on the radio, the only tool they have to connect to the outside world, to ask for orders. He’s to hold the base until reinforcements arrive.

That’s the entirety of the plot of Woods, but Nabersnik and co-writer-producer Robert Hofferer are not interested in crafting some kind of wartime action adventure. The rest of the film pivots on Lindner’s desperate attempts to keep Kopetzky alive with only a rudimentary first aid kit to work with and, later, his growing disillusionment. With only a modicum of training, the young private does his best to maintain some level of wartime normalcy in a wholly abnormal situation. The two men talk about their families and the lives they left behind, even as it becomes clearer each passing hour that no help is coming.

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Woods has a static and oddly stately aesthetic to it that leaves no room for optimism: it’s eerily quiet (there is no music on the soundtrack until the very end) and has a relentless, appropriately dour atmosphere. It’s almost Russian in its grayness, with exteriors (by cinematographer Milos Srdic with Slovenia subbing for the Austro-Italian border) that are almost palpably oppressive. It looks grimy and degrading — Lindner helping Kopetzky use the toilet from his immobilized position is as humiliating as it sounds — but the film’s theatricality puts in danger of having a tranquilizing effect. That said, Nabersnik has a knack for capturing the mundane tensions of early 20th century warfare. When the field phone screeches, its ring pierces the silence in a way that makes it a real hazard, and when Lindner heads down to a creek for some desperately needed water, his trek provides a few of the most fraught moments on screen this year.

Without the nuanced performances by Kristof and Serbinek, the film wouldn’t have the impact that it does. Both actors lace their characters with varying degrees of resignation, fury, regret and sorrow as the moment demands, and neither ever slips into the kind of histrionics that could easily arise. The two men come from opposite ends of the spectrum — one a Jewish husband and father from a privileged family, the other a laborer’s son with no connections at home — but the brief but intense bond they forge makes Nabersnik and Hofferer’s point all the more vivid. The Woods are Still Green (and when Lindner packs up and leaves after a final, hallucinatory night we see that they still are) doesn’t have much to add to the “war is hell” conversation, but it makes its plea for peace elegantly enough to be heard.

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Production company: Artdeluxe Films, Perfo Production
Cast: Michael Kristof, Simon Serbinek, Clemens Aap Lindenberg, Kristian Hodko
Director: Marko Nabersnik
Screenwriter: Robert Hofferer, Marko Nabersnik
Producer: Robert Hofferer
Director of photography: Milos Srdic
Production designer: Miha Ferkov
Costume designer: Janeta Coh
Editor: Jan Lovse
Music: Michael Wollny
No rating, 112 minutes