Tobias Lindholm’s immensely watchable A Hijacking, set on the Somalian seas, premiered in Venice in 2012. Back on the Lido with A War, Lindholm enters the even more perilous territory of Afghanistan with this understated tale of culpability in war.
Pilou Asbaek is company commander Claus Pedersen, leading his men on peacekeeping missions in an unnamed Afghan province. The opening scenes brilliantly set the tense tone as we watch the platoon traipse through arid fields in glaring sunlight as their bosses shout out logistical data from distant darkened tents. When an IED goes off, all hell breaks loose and thus Lindholm depicts both the dangers and the monumental organisation involved in their task.
There are further parallels in the film between Claus and the Afghan father seeking his help and protection. Lindholm underlines the similarities and the dichotomies between the two men, for though the Dane’s children live in safety, the war threatens his family in myriad ways.
When Claus and his men are surrounded by the Taliban, he makes a decision that saves his men but contravenes international law. He is sent home and put on trial in a Danish civil court for the murder of Afghan civilians. Lindholm regular Søren Malling is the lawyer assigned to his case. At this juncture the film has not just shifted geographically but also thematically. It now deals with the question of where blame lies and who shoulders the responsibility for acts of atrocity committed in war: the men and women under fire or the situation that has placed them in such untenable positions.
This is Asbaek’s third film with Lindholm following R and A Hijacking, and what a gratifying collaboration it is. As Pedersen, Asbaek exudes an inherent decency as he seeks to placate locals, protect his men and maintain relations with his family in far-off Denmark. His humanity is at the heart of the film as is his all-too-human infallibility. There is something so likeable about this actor and your sympathies lie with Claus as he struggles to retain this decency when hindered by bureaucracy and fear.
Lindholm mixes professional actors with actual Danish soldiers and Afghan civilians to create a sense of realism and together they create a credible and strong cast. Lindholm asks difficult questions and makes demands on the audience. Does Claus deserve to be imprisoned for these crimes and how does he live with his guilt regardless of the trial’s outcome? And what about our own sense of decency? We are rooting for a man who has ordered the bombing of innocent children. How do we reconcile these feelings?
A War is asks these questions intelligently and inventively. As with A Hijacking, there are no heroes here, just ordinary people caught up in extraordinarily horrifying situations.