A War


Review by Willard Manus

It’s not very well known, at least in this country, that Denmark has soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan. The Danish fighting force might be small, but it is right there in the forefront of the battle against the Taliban, as evidenced by the new feature film, A WAR, which has just been released by Magnolia Pictures.

Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, a former scriptwriter on the Bogen TV series, A WAR is Denmark’s official entry in the 2015 Oscar’s best foreign-language category. It was also screened last year at the Venice and AFI film festivals.

“For the past fourteen years, Denmark has been a nation at war. It has defined my generation, more than anything else, that we have sent young men to wars that haven’t been about defending Denmark’s borders but are based on a more abstract political choice,” said Lindholm in an interview.

A WAR centers on a youthful company commander, Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who heads a squad of infantrymen stationed in a desolate Afghani province which is in the grip of the Taliban. Sequestered in a heavily fortified compound, the Danes live perilous lives, thanks to the enemy’s bombs, mines and skill at hand-to-hand fighting. The pressure on the soldiers is constant and ferocious, with death looking over their shoulders 24/7.

Lindholm and his DP, Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, shoot the action from up close, using hand-held cameras to capture the pressure and danger the men face, especially when they are out on patrol. Completely exposed, the Danes know that each mission is futile, that they are fighting a war they cannot win. Hence, they can’t help but ask themselves why they are there. All talk of bringing democracy to Afghanistan has become meaningless to these weary, battered men whose only reality, only principle, is survival.
Then the director shifts gears and introduces us to Pedersen’s family back in Denmark, where his wife Kajsa (Tuva Novotny) is struggling to keep things together. His absence is sorely felt; his three young kids desperately miss him and won’t be placated by his occasional phone calls. War takes its toll on civilians as well as combatants, the film reminds us.

The crucial dramatic incident in WAR is triggered when Pedersen’s squad comes under fire while on a humanitarian mission to aid an Afghani family, forcing the commander to make a difficult, heat-of-battle decision: should he save his men by firing on a farm house that contains innocent as well as evil people? His order to pull the trigger results in an army investigation and later a court-martial trial back in Denmark.

A WAR not only exposes the tragic nature of the conflict in Afghanistan but tells a complex and powerful story, one which is deeply rooted in humane and compassionate values.