A War

A War, the third dramatic feature from Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm, has been widely touted as the final installment of a trilogy about “desperate men in small rooms.” In R (2010) the perpetually haunted Pilou Asbæk stars as a frightened young man trying to learn the ropes in prison; in A Hijacking (2012) he plays a crew member aboard a Danish ship seized by Somali pirates; and in A War he’s a Danish officer in Afghanistan who stands trial for a war crime. Lindholm himself recently punctured this notion of a trilogy, explaining to Cineuropa that a bad phone connection had caused him to misunderstand a question from a U.S. reporter. These Danes! Doesn’t he know that, to get anywhere in this business, he needs to have a trilogy?

A sense of confinement links the three movies, but the real companion pieces are A Hijacking, Lindholm’s first movie to win theatrical distribution in the U.S., and A War, up for an Oscar this weekend as best foreign film. Both are international thrillers in the truest sense: unlike globe-trotting spy movies, which use their locales mainly as scenery, these films draw suspense from actual geopolitical tensions, and from tension between the first and third worlds. In each movie the action bounces back and forth from starchy-white Denmark to a more savage land, and each story becomes not just a power struggle but a clash of values between two different societies. Lindholm stresses the characters’ sense of disconnection, and electronic communications become a key story device.

Much of A Hijacking transpires over international telephone lines, and Lindholm often stages these conversations from only one speaker’s perspective. The suspense is heightened when the person on the other end falls silent—or, God forbid, hangs up. In the very first shot, Mikkel (Asbæk), the ship’s scruffy, bearded cook, bends over a phone set, listening eagerly for any response from his wife or daughter back home. But once the pirates have boarded the ship and taken the crew hostage, Mikkel is pressed into service as a negotiator, announcing a ransom demand of $15 million in a call to the company’s crisp, silver-haired CEO, Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling). Lindholm holds tight on the cook’s frightened face as Ludvigsen, explaining that he won’t allow Mikkel to become part of the negotiations, ends the call. Later, in the company’s brightly lit conference room, Ludvigsen will have his own moment of dread when a gunshot on the other end of the line suggests that Mikkel has been executed, and the line goes dead.

As the negotiations unfold, cultural misunderstandings become almost as dangerous as loaded weapons. Ludvigsen unintentionally torpedoes one session when he refers to the Somali negotiator, Omar, as a pirate and the irate Omar, shouting that he’s not responsible for the hijacking, hangs up on him. Connor Julian, the professional negotiator brought in by the company, reminds Ludvigsen that the divide between them and the pirates is mental as well as geographical. “We can’t rush these people,” he tells the impatient executive. “Time is a Western thing. It means nothing to them.” Lindholm may not explore the tribal chaos that fosters Somali piracy or the Western commercial exploitation that nurtures that chaos (for this side of the story, check out Thymaya Payne’s documentary Stolen Seas ). But A Hijacking does show how pirates use the tenuous physical connection between the ship and its owners to reverse the power equation between a rich nation and a poor one.

Asbæk dropped a few pounds to play Claus Pedersen, the military man of A War, but again his character is separated from his family and grappling with a strange culture. Claus commands a company of 135 men in Afghanistan’s southerly Helmand province, and his leadership skills are put to the test after one soldier is blown up by an IED during a foot patrol. As in the earlier movie, Lindholm uses electronic communications to raise the stress level: as the situation unfolds, Claus monitors a radio transmission back at the camp, listening helplessly as violence erupts on the other end. Concerned about morale in the wake of this incident, he summons the men to announce that he’ll begin leading patrols himself. “You’re here to safeguard and help civilians,” he reminds them. “So they can have a life. So they can rebuild their country.”

Once again Lindholm’s screenplay cuts back and forth between the first and third worlds, though in this case the action is divided between Claus and his wife, Maria (Tuva Novotny), who tends to their three children back home. When she takes his phone call in the evening, stepping outside onto their patio so the kids can’t hear, Claus’s end of the conversation is absent from the soundtrack, but Maria’s replies to him reveal that he’s telling her about the IED fatality. There’s an even greater sense of disconnection here between the two worlds, because Maria’s crises back home—one of the boys becomes a discipline problem at school, another one swallows some pills and must be taken to the emergency room—pale in comparison to the intractable conflicts, no-win decisions, and bloody life-or-death situations that engulf Claus.

Lindholm is more attentive this time to the society in which his protagonist finds himself, though Claus will be haunted by his mishandling of the locals. (Spoilers follow.) When a civilian father approaches the patrol seeking medical care for his young daughter, Claus gladly gives it, but then the father and his children show up at the camp, seeking sanctuary. The Taliban have learned that the Danish soldiers aided the family, and they’ve threatened to kill the family unless the father joins them. To the father’s dismay, Claus promises to bring another patrol the next day but refuses to shelter them. “I have three children of my own,” Claus tells the father. “I understand your situation.” This doesn’t satisfy the father: “Your children live in a safe place.” Even Claus’s interpreter presses him to let the children stay, but he stands firm. The next morning, when the patrol arrives, the entire family has been slain.

The two sides of the narrative merge at the film’s midpoint when Claus, having fraudulently ordered a rocket attack on a village compound to save another soldier during a firefight, is court-martialed and comes home to stand trial. Søren Malling returns as Claus’s cagey defense attorney, and the ensuing legal drama lives up to Lindholm’s reputation for serving up desperate men in small rooms. “You can’t imagine what it’s like out there,” one of Claus’s men tells the court, and his statement defines not only this movie but A Hijacking as well. The defense and the prosecution may be trying to construct competing narratives of what happened, but ultimately the trial is an instance of two different realities colliding head-on.  v