Operating under inconclusive ethical bounds, Tobias Lindholm’s A War (Krigen) is as morally ambiguous as its titular subject. Any attempts to define ‘war’ would diminish its evocative powers of terror and heroism, leaving Lindholm and his team hinting at the wide-eyed brutality of killing for a living. Characters justify actions and emotions with meaningless rhetoric; conversations steeped in bathos alluding to the cluelessness of everyone involved. A War is a film that, like its central couple, battles on a dual front — at home (Denmark) and abroad — against mental and physical threats that will have lasting effects on all those involved.
An ethereally floating camera betrays the gravity of the introductory patrol in war-stricken Afghanistan, until our perspective affixes itself to the gun barrel of one of the unfathomably-trepidatious soldiers. Pensive beauty surrounding men in any war film has become a recognized device to mean “imminent danger” (as the man sitting behind me so bluntly put it, “there’s gonna be an explosion soon”), and Lindholm refuses to let his audience down. The headquartered leader of this stricken Danish patrol group decides to take an active role in the convoys, and after the tragedy that occurs in the opening minutes, we quickly find that Claus Michael Pederson (Pilou Asbæk) is not a hands-off type of commander. And neither is his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny). Living the life of a single mother in the relative safety of Denmark, Maria battles raising three small children as they become aware of their father’s noticeable absence.
Lindholm’s narrative is a straightforward and unbiased one. He gives equal weight to the horrors of war and to the horrors that war creates in its wake. Lingering shots of Maria or Claus Michael staring blankly into the distance and fleeting glimpses of the atrocities of war serve their emotional purposes, but they are neither heavy-handed nor biased. Abrupt shifts from the sweltering Afghan desert to the antiseptic Scandinavian cold are a comforting glimpse at normalcy, until the invisible wounds left by an absent father become all too clear. Scenes of palpable mortal danger have equally-powerful counterparts in those found with Maria and the children — the shockwaves from a moment of lapsed judgment are as profound at home as they are in war.
A War is at its best when displaying humanity’s general inability to cope with the hardship of others. Overused and hollow sentiments (a friend telling Maria that her middle son’s anger issues are a passing phase and that “he’ll adjust”) are casually passed back and forth when anyone is at a loss for words but seeks to empathize. There is nothing to say that will alleviate the sorrow of a soldier that looked on as his friend slowly bled to death or to comfort a mother unsure as to whether the next call she receives will be good or bad news. These are singular events that only heal with time and the personal resolve of those affected. This is never more plainly evident than in the aftermath of Claus Michael’s suspension for military misdeeds. During a trial, his actions are called up and scrutinized, and despite the prosecutor’s best efforts to describe him as a murderer, we cannot help but seek to understand his side of the argument. As the audience, we know the truth in its entirety but are forced to put ourselves in his shoes — not by the director or clever narrative tricks, but by our very nature.
More than a simple condemnation of war, of which there are plenty, A War seeks to deliver a thorough examination of human behavior. We know that war of any size is a brutal and oftentimes futile exercise, so Lindholm has no desire to further decry the senseless brutality of it, with an aim to expose the boundless empathy machine that is the human mind.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.