The Oscar-nominated film from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindhol, A War (Krigen) probably stands as the most subdued entry into the mix of foreign language films vying for the gold statuette this weekend. Split into two distinct settings, a small base of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan and a military tribunal back home in Denmark, the film follows a commanding officer on the field who must later face consequences of a rash decision during a firefight that ends in civilian deaths.
Everything about Claus (Pilou Asbæk) seems admirable though not necessarily sensible. He is invested in his men while also dedicated to what seems to be a pointless mission of patrolling the IED-filled desert near their base. After one of his soldiers dies, he reminds the survivors of their mission: It’s about winning over civilians and protecting them so they might rebuild. It’s not much of a speech or a mission. When one traumatized soldier refuses to go back outside of their short-walled base, Claus doesn’t hesitate to put his own safety on the line by leading the patrols himself. He also has a family back home, a wife (Tuva Novotny) and three young children who struggle with the mundane without their father at home.
As with his previous film, 2012’s A Hijacking, A War is intelligently edited to focus on characters and create barriers in their realities. There are long periods spent with Claus’ family or on the base. Lindhol never even bothers with inter-cutting phone calls between husband and wife, staying true to the setting he has put the viewer in and enhancing a sense of separation. Even at the opening, when we meet a platoon on patrol and Claus at base, the editing (expertly modulated by Adam Nielsen) is carefully paced to highlight the chaos and humanity of the front, while in the base the troops are remotely referred to by Claus with numbers. This is the first reveal of Claus’ frustration with having to stay in the base while leading troops on their patrol. Just as he used editing to highlight the behavior of corporate suits and a captain whose cargo ship has been hijacked by Somali pirates, Lindhol presents an incredible example of how key the film’s editing is to establishing its message and character development.
This continues into the fateful firefight that ultimately sends Claus home, the mystery of the location of the attackers only enhanced by Lindhol’s tendency to choose a perspective and stick with it. This style makes the struggle to reconcile the unknowable truth of what happened with the stories told through evidence and testimony feel genuine. The film is grounded by the unrelenting handheld camera work of Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Even during the trial, the film has a feel for chaos normally reserved for characterizing the battlefield.
Asbæk’s leading performance is also outstanding. The viewer will understand Claus is still haunted by every event that has happened until the film’s final, revealing frame. Lindhol sparingly leans on close-ups and uses no flashbacks, much less any exposition, to reveal Claus’ thoughts or struggle with his conscience, to emphasize Claus struggle. Instead, it is in Asbæk’s low-key performance filled with slight ticks of hesitation and apprehension.
Ultimately, what Lindhol is trying to show is how the chaos of war is more to blame for the tearing apart of humanity than those wrapped up in it. He is careful not to characterize the Taliban as people as much by their cruel acts. Save for an encounter with a solitary member of the Taliban, the enemy comes across as an unseen boogeyman who strikes at night and leaves bloodied bodies of innocent children in its wake. As we can tell by the last half of the movie, the enemy is the military and a system that ineffectively polices itself. But with Lindhol’s concern for humanity above all, no one comes across as a bad guy, just people caught up in a machine run by an enemy as faceless as the vicious Taliban of A War.
A War is in Danish with English subtitles, runs 115 minutes and is rated R. It opens in Florida exclusively on Friday, Feb. 26, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It may be currently playing in your area outside of Florida or coming soon. For other play dates, visit this link. Magnolia Pictures provided all images in this post and a preview link for the purpose of this review.