This Outstanding Danish War Film Is All About the Ambiguity of Combat
Europeans are making some of the best films about Afghanistan
by KEVIN KNODELL
Capt. Claus Michael Pedersen, the commander of a company of Danish soldiers, tries to reassure an Afghan man. His soldiers had previously treated the man’s daughter for a burn on her arm, and Pedersen told the Afghan to come to the base if he needed help.
But now the man is angry. He wants to spend the night at the base. The Taliban have threatened him and his family for accepting the Danes’ help, the man explains. The militants have vowed to kill his three children if he doesn’t join them.
But Pedersen can’t allow him to stay. It’s against regulations.
The officer tries to calm the man, telling him through an interpreter that he too is a father of three. He promises his soldiers will come back to the village the next day, drive away the Taliban and protect the people. As the Afghan and his family walk away from the base, Pedersen watches, wondering if he’s done the right thing — and if he’s made a promise he can truly keep.
This is A War, a Danish film about the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s a film that asks uncomfortable questions and doesn’t necessarily give satisfying answers. And that’s what makes it great. Some spoilers to follow.
A War, written and directed by Tobias Lindholm — who previously brought viewers the Somali pirate thriller A Hijacking and wrote the World War II flick April 9th — was Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. It begins as a war film and becomes a courtroom drama after Pedersen orders an air strike on a compound that turns out to be full of children.
A War is one of a new crop of European films about Afghanistan. European NATO troops have played a major role in the Afghan war — particularly in Helmand province, where this film is set.
Despite limited budgets — or because of them — many of these films are better than many of America’s own Hollywood blockbusters about the War on Terror. Rather than focusing on the spectacle of combat, A War dwells on the routine patrols and soldiers’ interactions with local people. It’s a film about tension and moral uncertainty.
However, this focus on character dynamics doesn’t mean the film is without violence. A War opens with the gruesome consequences of an improvised explosive device blast on a well-liked junior soldier in the company. Death is portrayed as bloody, violent and pitiless. And the enemies who inflict it are often unseen. These aren’t action scenes. They’re war scenes.
Many of the soldiers take enthusiastically to the task of engaging with the local people. One of the most subtly powerful images in the film is of a soldier helping an Afghan child launch a kite. Several members of Pederson’s unit come from Middle East immigrant backgrounds, including Pedersen’s second-in-command Lt. Najib Bisma, portrayed by Iraqi-born Danish actor Dar Salim.
Other soldiers kick at children as they walk past and are quick to draw their weapons on any Afghans who approach them. The Danes don’t all agree on why they’re in Afghanistan or how they should fight. They argue about the rules of engagement. But while they might not all be in total agreement, they are unquestioningly loyal to each other.
A War has a special sort of authenticity to it. Minus the central cast, all the soldiers are played by Danish veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Afghan refugees portray all of the villagers the soldiers encounter.
The film drifts between Pedersen and his men fighting the war in Helmand to his wife Maria as she struggles to take care of her children alone back home. These scenes, though important in establishing Pedersen as a family man and contextualizing his decisions involving Afghan families and children, at times slow down the film. They feel tacked-on.
After the army sends Pedersen home to face criminal charges, he reunites with his family and the two storylines merge. Pedersen’s family and soldiers sit watching in a courtroom that seems to have little concern for the complexities or dangers of the war they were fighting. The prosecutor insists on immutable principles of right and wrong.
Pedersen himself wrestles with his actions. Though he defends them in court, he privately expresses questions about what he could — or should — have done. And regardless of the verdict, he will have to live with his decisions.
A War is a remarkable meditation on the ambiguity of armed conflict.