For my state of mind and my tired brain, I was relieved that my first day of three at the London Film Festival ended with a Danish comedy drama starring one of my favourite actors, Søren Malling. This was a ‘Scope picture presented on the big screen at Curzon 1 Mayfair with an appreciative Thursday night crowd who enjoyed what is a major Danish production. This UK screening came just a week after the official release in Denmark. The Q&A with director Henrik Ruben Genz was equally entertaining and I’m sorry I had to leave before it was over.
The Word of God is an adaptation of a Danish bestseller from 2004 written by Jens Blendstrup, the youngest ‘son of God’ in what is an autobiographical novel. ‘God’ is Uffe (Søren Malling) a familiar character in a number of narratives. In 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Uffe’s traditional parenting methods are being called into question. His eldest son has left home and reversed all his father’s teachings, becoming a God-fearing Christian in what in the UK might be called a ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical community by non-believers. Second son Thomas has convinced himself that he has agoraphobia and can’t leave the house and Jens, the youngest is a 14 year-old ‘genius’ poet/writer. Swedish mother and wife Gerd Lillian (Lisa Nilsson) tries to keep this lot together. Uffe has a simple strategy to deal with both joy and despair – he makes ‘Army soup’ from his younger days, a ferocious concoction of unpeeled onions stewed in concentrated soup stock and schnapps. In his professional life he runs a psychotherapy group that convinces its members to abandon medical drugs and instead to progress with groupwork interaction (and copious amounts of beer and cigarettes). Beer is referred to as ‘vegetables’ (i.e. to accompany the soup). The ‘narrative disruption’ is double-headed when Uffe’s eldest returns to announce his marriage and Uffe himself discovers that he has developed potentially terminal cancer – and that he doesn’t want to accept new chemical treatments. In times of stress, as well as making his soup, Uffe retires to his ‘Arabic corner’ and smokes a shisha or hookah. When he discovers that Jens is a writer he unearths his typewriter from the ‘Swedish chest’ that Gerd Lillian brought as a her dowry and attempts to write his autobiography, inspired by Jens’ success writing morbid poetry. The narrative question becomes ‘can the family stay together and resolve their issues’?
I enjoyed The Word of God very much. It is funny and it is also quite moving, because of the performances I think. Lisa Nilsson is very good in a difficult role as the mother and the family rings true. Watching it I was reminded of two films for different reasons. The plot is very similar to that of East is East (1999), a British film which was very successful but which disturbed me greatly because of its representation of a Pakistani father and mixed-race children. It was also an autobiographical story – about a mixed race family in Salford in the 1970s. I found The Word of God to be less offensive and generally quite ‘humanist’ in its acceptance of characters (though some might argue about the wedding scene involving Uffe and his son’s Christian community). A more recent Nordic story which has less in common, apart from a seemingly anti-social lead male character, would be A Man Called Ove (Sweden 2015). Uffe is completely ‘unreconstructed’ but he does the right thing by his ‘patients’. He’s less successful with his children – though I think he always means to be helpful. Søren Malling is a terrific actor, but I hope the paunch he developed to play the role was prosthetic. The Word of God might confirm all the typical traits of Danish life in the 1980s for some audiences (including a questionable sex scene) but I was onside throughout. I hope this film gets a release over here and many more audiences in the UK get to enjoy it.
A trailer with English subs is here: https://www.levelk.dk/films/word-of-god/4003
The mystery is, why has this film, first seen at London Film Festival in October 2015 and Denmark’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, not been released in the UK until now? The answer may be something to do with the current spate of Second World War films on UK cinema screens. I haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk yet, but I would be surprised if Land of Mine wasn’t my pick of the summer. It arrives on our screens when not only Dunkirk, but the ideological quagmire that is Brexit is being widely discussed.
The film’s title is either brilliant or risible depending on your love of puns. The Danish title simply refers to the land mines planted by the German occupiers ‘beneath the sand’ of Western Jutland beaches during 1942-44, whereas the English title includes the crucial other element of the narrative concerned with national identity at a time of crisis. Like most UK viewers, I suspect, my knowledge of the experience of Danes under German occupation from 1940-45 is sketchy at best and mostly derived from Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008). I had to look up what happened in 1945 when British and Canadian troops advanced from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, and arrived in Denmark at more or less the same time as the German surrender to Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath on 4th May. The British Parachute Regiment arrived in Denmark to take control. This is the starting point of Land of Mine.
Presumably concerned about Denmark’s western beaches as a possible target for an Allied invasion force, the German occupiers had set over a million mines of various kinds on the beaches – more per cubic metre than in any other territory in Europe. Clearing them was going to be a major undertaking and someone decided it should be German POWs who would have to risk their lives. Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Dane wearing the uniform of British Army Parachute Regiment, gets the job of ‘looking after’ a group of POWs and supervising them clearing the mines. Unfortunately these soldiers are very young, mostly teenagers aged 15-18, and they soon realise that they won’t get home until all the mines are cleared in their sector. The job is extremely dangerous and many will die (at the end of the film, on-screen text reveals just how deadly the task proved to be).
At the preview screening I attended, my colleague suggested that this was basically a suspense genre film – who is going to die next? I agree that the narrative structure does imply a certain kind of genre film that combines war movie, horror and suspense. It’s also an extremely fine genre movie in that the genre conventions are explored very carefully and with intelligence. Land of Mine would score well if it was simply a genre movie – but it’s much more than that. At heart it’s also a humanist film harking back to the classic humanist dramas of the 1950s. The young men, boys really, are not Nazis, though they may well be patriotic and homesick. The war movie genre leads us to expect that they will be differentiated in various ways and this happens. The horror movie suggests that they will be ‘picked off’ – killed by mines in different ways. The stereotype of the ‘British’ sergeant (though I think that sergeants are the same in most armies) gives us a man who is hard and experienced, gruff and prone to shouting, even bellowing at his ‘men’. But a good sergeant also cares for his men. He understands them, they are his children. He mediates for them with the officer class. In this case, Sgt Rasmussen (an excellent performance by Møller) begins by attempting to be cold and brutal towards the PoWs, trying to keep his distance. Eventually he will make relationships with them. He has to do this to make the operation work, but it isn’t easy for him.
The film moves beyond genre because of its interest in the Denmark of 1945. This is the point at which for viewers outside Denmark it gets tricky. I don’t know what the Danes knew in 1945 or how they felt, but in the film, the Danish officers (and the British) seem to treat the POWs extremely badly. This also seems to be the case with some of the local people on the coast, at least initially, and the film’s real strength is its exploration of guilt, compassion, justice and all those other difficult emotions that this unique situation sets up. Someone has to clear the mines. How should it be done? I won’t spoil the narrative any more. The film is ‘based upon real events’ but my attempts to clarify the historical facts suggest that this is still a contested issue (which may be shaming for Danes – and Brits). The numbers of POWs injured or killed is disputed – but not the danger. Under the Geneva Conventions the clearance depicted in the film shouldn’t have happened but the British and French seemingly encouraged the authorities in liberated countries to use German POWs in activities like this after 1945. They changed the wording to imply that the surrendering troops were ‘volunteers’. There are accounts of German soldiers supervised by their own NCOs (but controlled by Danes) operating as Minenkommando units and claims that these were ‘volunteers’. When I watched the film, I didn’t notice armbands to this effect but now I see them in some of the stills material. I found other web material, more clearly political in nature, which disputed some of these facts. I think it is safest to say that Land of Mine simplifies a story which is based on real events – but that it does expose one of the many stories about the immediate aftermath of war that make for uncomfortable viewing.
Land of Mine was written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across him before since he has won several awards for earlier films (Land of Mine has won many prizes). The cinematographer Camilla Knudsen has captured the strange atmosphere and beauty of the dunes and beaches in ‘Scope format. The young German actors playing the POWs are very good and Land of Mine is riveting to watch. Because of the suspense genre conventions, you will fear that something terrible is about to happen but the suspense will work – and you will be intrigued by the relationships. Don’t miss an opportunity to see it. Although it is released by Thunderbird (ex Soda), your best chance of seeing it in the UK seems to be at Curzon Cinemas and online until it gets to smaller arthouse/specialised cinemas. It is on at HOME in Manchester
I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?
I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.
The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.
I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.
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.