The indefinite article is an important element to consider in the cinema of Danish writer and director Tobias Lindholm. Three years ago he was in Venice with A Hijacking (2012), the film Captain Phillips might have been if Paul Greengrass’ Seal team cavalry hadn’t been called in. Now entering the Orizzonti sidebar competition comes the second part in a proposed trilogy, A War (2015). This isn’t ‘The War’ but rather an ordinary singular one, undistinguished from other such things. Thankfully, Lindholm’s filmmaking prowess imbues it with compelling power. We find ourselves in Afghanistan as a company of Danish soldiers head out on patrol. An IED explodes and one of the men is killed.
The unit commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) decides to lead the subsequent patrols as a way of persuading the men on the necessity of their mission and his own willingness to lead from the front. Meanwhile, at home in Denmark Pedersen’s wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) works, cares for her three young children and misses her husband. They rely on their regular phone calls but it’s visibly difficult, especially when middle child Julius (Adam Chessa) begins acting up at school, fighting with the other children. Pedersen is a caring commander who believes in the mission of helping the Afghan population, just as much as he’s concerned with keeping his comrades safe.
The unit have mixed feelings: some of them are actively hostile and suspicious of the Afghans whereas others know the language and are keen to engage with the locals on a human level. They fly kites with the kids and the medic treats a little girl who has a badly burned arm. However, there is a limit to what the soldiers can do and when the man turns up at their base pleading to be taken in and protected from the Taliban, Pedersen must send them home with the promise that he will return to the village in the morning. When he does, he and his soldiers will be caught in a fire fight that will lead him to a decision that will see him sent back to Denmark to face criminal charges. A War shares with A Hijacking the mixing of two spheres of action – the foreign space of violence (Afghanistan in this case) and the family home. Lindholm is careful to employ the same sharp realism for both spaces. The economy and precision of his filmmaking make an ambush as credible as family breakfast; a school drop as tense as a sniper attack.
The handheld, unobtrusive camerawork of Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and the naturalism of all the performances, from the young children to the hardened grunts, gives the impression that events are unfolding before us, rather than having been scripted. Back in Copenhagen and reunited with his family, Pedersen must answer for his actions and with the prospect of prison looming, he is forced into an impossible moral position. Pedersen, as we see, is a good soldier, compassionate, competent, but he is still a soldier and still responsible for killing people. Earlier we have seen his team set up an ambush and kill a Taliban fighter and later stand around the corpse, joking. In fact, Lindholm’s wider point seems to be to question if a ‘good soldier’ is ever actually possible. We might root for Pedersen, but as his seven-year-old daughter (Cecilie Elise Søndergaard) asks, in a bluntly chilling line: “Is it true you killed children daddy?” A War’s courtroom drama might resolve the legality, or otherwise, of such killing, but real guilt is going to be much more difficult to come to terms with.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.