Over the last seven or eight years Danish film and television has become almost familiar in the UK. The major TV serials from the Danish public service broadcaster DR have attracted audiences of around 1 million each week for BBC4 – far larger than for any foreign language films in the cinema. But the same lead actors, writers and directors have also begun to feature in both ‘Nordic’ and Anglo-American films.
Tobias Lindholm is at the centre of much of this activity as a writer and also as a director. Between 2010 and 2012 he wrote 20 episodes of the TV serial Borgen and then the script for the Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt before writing and directing his own second feature A Hijacking (2012). That film, about a Danish ship boarded by pirates off the Horn of Africa, had lead roles for Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling and Dar Salim – three of the actors who became known to UK viewers via Borgen and other Danish serials. The same trio appears in A War and Pilou Asbæk’s high profile in Denmark is an important factor in how the film works.
Danish shipping is central to Denmark’s profile in international affairs, as is the country’s role in NATO and its participation since Iraq in the so-called “coalition of the willing”, including supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. The aftermath of military service in Afghanistan was the setting for a crime thriller in The Killing 2 serial, but A War offers a rather different narrative in which the focus is on one man’s decision in the midst of battle and its impact both immediately and as examined in a tribunal back in Denmark.
Anti-war? Realism and personal stories?
Tobias Lindholm has made several statements about his film after its selection as the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars – where it was nominated as one of the five finalists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it received a great deal of attention in the US, including from other filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fibre of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathise with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy? (Tobias Lindholm interviewed on IndieWire: blogs.indiewire.com)
In the same interview Lindholm explains that he developed the script with soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and several of them appear in the film supporting Pilou Asbæk. Lindholm also worked with Afghan refugees from a camp in Turkey (where part of the film was shot, as well as Jordan, Spain and Morocco). Apart from a few key lines of dialogue much of the script was improvised/developed by the soldiers themselves, ‘reacting’ to the situation. In the same way, the interpreter gave Asbæk a ‘live’ translation of what the Afghans said during each scene. Lindholm also used the same technique for the Danish scenes of family life – the children were left to behave more or less as they would do at home with relatively few set lines of dialogue. All of this tends towards a mode of realism often associated with Ken Loach and others influenced by Italian neorealism.
The audience I watched the film with seemed to feel that Lindholm did indeed present the complexity of the situation. Claus Pedersen is a company commander in Afghanistan who, because he feels close to and wishes to protect his men, perhaps becomes too involved in the day-to-day routine patrols the men carry out. As a consequence he finds himself in a situation in which he makes an error of judgement – one which is quite understandable but as the senior officer he must be called to account when things go wrong. Back home in Denmark we see the effects of his absence on his wife Maria (Tuva Nuvotny) and his three small children – and we know that whatever awaits him after a tribunal, his family will also suffer. We are asked to think about the deaths of families (men, women and children) in Afghanistan alongside the dangers for Danish soldiers and the effects on their families. Only the deaths of the Taliban (seen here only in long-distance shots) seem to be ‘collateral damage’. But the Taliban didn’t invite the Danes to come and be shot – perhaps there is an argument that the Taliban (and their supporters too) should be humanised?
The political context
There are several key ‘absences’ in the film. We don’t see any media representations of what would presumably be a significant legal action in the military tribunal and we don’t hear any debates about why Denmark is in Afghanistan. Although we see a few TV vans in the distance and there are reporters in the court room, we don’t hear politicians or media commentators and the soldiers are not ‘doorstepped’ by the tabloids. Though the country is identified, the (English) title implies this is not specifically about Afghanistan but rather about ‘war’ in general (Lindholm’s previous film was ‘A’ Hijacking). For the World Socialist Website (wsw.org) this won’t wash at all:
A War is one of those ‘non-judgmental’, ‘apolitical’ films that is, in fact, thoroughly judgmental and political – its assumptions are simply so in tune with official public opinion as to go unnoticed by the filmmaker and critics.
There is something in this charge and it is certainly a valid point to make about many of these films about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure about the Danish polity but it would be fair to say in the UK that while a majority has been opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (post Blair and the Iraq fiasco) there has also been widespread support for the men and women who have been sent to Camp Bastion (where the Danes were also stationed up to 2014). But that seems to be Lindholm’s point. He wants us to sympathise with Claus Pedersen while at the same time considering what he has done and what the effects are.
I was surprised by the ‘coolness’ and ‘flatness’ of the film in that it deals with quite shocking and emotional material. I found that I was engaged and I cared, but also that I was aware of the issues. Lindholm avoids all the genre trappings of the usual courtroom drama. It is a ‘lay court’ comprising three assessors hearing evidence presented by a judge-advocate with Pedersen defended by a lawyer (Søren Malling). By UK standards the tribunal is remarkably calm and civilised (and takes place in a typically low-key, modern setting). The film has a simple narrative and direct, often hand-held cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Lindholm makes the most of small scenes and, for all the improvised acting, a carefully-written script in terms of structure. The WSW criticism lambasts the film for not ding many things and ends up claiming that Lindholm:
seems to be making an effort to create a national-patriotic mythology, portraying the Danes as hardy, stoical and ‘straight-shooting’, precisely at the historical moment when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is being stoked up in the country.
I don’t agree with this and a film which tried to do everything that the WSW demands would be very difficult to produce. Lindholm cast Dar Salim (a prominent actor who was previously a soldier) as Pedersen’s second in command and close friend placed in a difficult position. He also cast Dulfi Al-Jabouri as ‘Lasse’, the soldier whose welfare Pedersen seeks to protect and who unwittingly becomes central to the incident which leads to the tribunal. Is this contrived casting to skew the argument or is Lindholm trying to act positively to represent Denmark’s immigrant communities? I don’t know, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
A War is definitely worth seeing and provides further evidence of the strength of Danish/Nordic production. The film is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal and I’m disappointed that one of Europe’s leading film companies hasn’t made a better job of promoting the film. I couldn’t find a Press Pack and the DVD (no Blu-ray?) is a barebones affair. As a film that deals with military procedures, one of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to tell what rank Pedersen holds and as someone pointed out to me, in the British Army Pedersen would have been supported in the field by senior NCOs, experienced men with authority. Is the Danish Army different, just like the Danish legal system? It would be useful to know.
This is a political thriller which received its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is based on actual events in 1968 when a B52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, crashed at the US Airbase at Thule in Greenland. Greenland was a territory administered by Denmark and in both cases there was a ‘nuclear free’ policy. At the time the USA and Denmark maintained that the accident site was cleared and the weapons accounted for. In the 1980s workers involved in the clear-up in 1968 started showing signs of illnesses linked to radiation. The investigations led on to evidence of both contamination at the time and of a cover-up over the incident. The film explores this story focusing on a radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg) who researches and reports the story. There is a full account of the historical events on Wikipedia: the film has obviously simplified the process for dramatic effect.
The film in many ways falls into the genre of the investigative journalism uncovering secrets: films like All the President’s Men (1976) or Defence of the Realm (1986). So we get light and shadows, the neon lit urban areas at night, basements, [but not underground car parks], the following car, the officious sectary or policeman, and the missing files, either hard copy and on computers. There are also the humorous moments when irony is lost on some official or bureaucratic rules lead to unintentional revelations. However, the film also achieves a distinctive treatment through the use of archive film: bonus point, these are all in the correct aspect ratio. This footage is in black and white and colour and includes television interviews and reports and an unintentionally funny US military promotional film for the airbase.
The cast is generally very good, especially Peter Plaugborg. I thought the victims of the incident were credible, though not the main focus. And the members of officialdom, with those hiding something and those letting something slip, were very good. The film is well photographed by Laust Trier-Mørk. The landscape in Greenland offers great opportunities: there is one splendid shot of the Thule Base at night, shrouded in darkness. It well edited by the team of Olivier Bugge Coutté, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. And director Christina Rosendahl has exercised very effective control over her team.
The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa and is screened from a DCP in standard widescreen. It runs 114 minutes, slightly long as some scenes drag a little, though overall it works well. The film has English subtitles. The film does not have a UK distributor yet but it is good enough to warrant that.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.
To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.
Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes).
The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative. Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).
This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent viewings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War. I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.