Tobias Lindholm’s Oscar nominated Danish feature has a very simple title – “A War” (2015). And as title suggests, it deals with the conflict wreaked upon a landscape as well as on one’s inner-self. Men with guns kill each other; their wives become depressed shut in; and children cry or act out. If one is to explain the plot trajectory of “A War” (aka "Krigen", we would feel that there is nothing new in the plot, except that it is a Danish soldiers’ point-of-view of the Afghan war. Denmark went with US and UK by 2002/03 to fight ‘war on terror’, which was the first battlefield for Danish soldiers in their nation’s modern history. But, what else a soldiers’ POV film could diffuse upon the viewers, apart from arriving at an endpoint to state ‘war dehumanizes a human being’. And, Lindholm’s third directorial feature, of course reiterates this age old statement, although the way he puts forwards his characters and their emotions is so compelling to behold.
Unlike the majority of American war movies, “A War’s” protagonist isn’t a rookie soldier, who thinks war is only about getting the bad guys. The central character is Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who is a commanding officer with a resolve to take more patrolling jobs to uphold the withering morale of his company men. He has just lost a 21 year old guy, blown to pieces by a landmine, in what was to be a regular patrol routine. At home in Denmark, Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) has a tough time in caring for their three young children. Of the three, the middle child Julius is acting up (creating troubles at school) because of his father’s lengthy absences. Pedersen, the thoughtful and persuasive guy, tries his best to understand the family troubles as well as to keep his men safe. At one point, he says that their job is to root out the Taliban and protect the civilians.
Pedersen tries to engage with the locals on a basic human level. But, the exact methods to protect the civilian population remain elusive as Pedersen, driven by protocol, declines shelter to a innocent family, which is threatened by Taliban. Next day, driven out of emotion, Pedersen takes few of his men to check on the family and to root out the enemies. However, only chaos erupts during the patrol. And, an incorrect command is given, out of the desperation to save few lives. Pedersen soon returns home, but a threat of facing a prison term accompanies him.
In his previous directorial attempt, “A Hijacking” (2013), director Tobias Lindholm took upon the premises of a hostage thriller and transformed it into a layered, psychological drama. He was also the writer behind Thomas Vinterberg’s emotionally exhausting films “The Hunt” and “Submarino” (also one of the screenwriters for exemplary Danish political drama series “Borgen”). So, Lindholm always keep emotions and characters at the forefront, while his plot looks very simple on the outset. He gradually imparts those subtle emotions with a profundity that avoids us from passing comfortable judgments on the characters. It is very easy to find a caricatured version of each of the characters (particularly from Hollywood movies) we encounter in “A War”. The emotional troubles of Maria never reach an overly dramatic arc. The wearied patience of that character is perfectly emoted rather than expressed through large words. The mischief of the three kids come off genuine on camera. The way Lindholm amalgamates two spheres of plot’s course (Afghan & Denmark) in the first two acts, with sharp realism may not give us an immediate impact, but with the arrival of courtroom scenes, all those previous, little personal experiences of the characters makes us to perfectly understand the moral dilemmas posed. To put it simply, Lindholm puts us into a moral minefield, whose existence we are aware of only after getting through the early subtle portions.
Of course, the director/writer isn’t so ambiguous about whether we should root for Pedersen or not. Despite his wrongful action, we empathize with him and the family. When Maria says “Never mind what you should have done, the important thing is what you are going to do now”, we are absolutely aware of what the outcome of the trial would be. So, through the courtroom sequences, Lindholm traverses to pursue thought-provoking questions about war by disclosing few of the emotional ambiguity. Najib Bisma’s (played by Dar Salim) testimony profoundly shows how a good soldier could be forced to take a bad decision due to his empathy. In fact, Lindholm’s idea with that scene is to exhibit how elusive a term like ‘good soldier’ could become. War film protagonists usually tend to claim madness for losing their emotions. Here, it is the opposite and that is what makes the scenario more haunting. In the climax, the inevitable happens, although the director doesn’t finish it with a false note of triumph. At the very end, Pedersen briefly looks at his child’s foot and then goes out in the dark for smoke. Is he just gazing through the darkness? No. He is looking into a metaphysical void which isn’t going to provide him any relief. May be waging wars are like gazing into metaphysical emptiness.
“A War” (110 minutes) takes an often told soldiers’ point-of-view tale and transcends it with admirable emotional ambiguity and thoughtfulness. It is a necessary watch for anyone interested in the sober analysis of war.