Tobias Lindholm’s war drama is a challenge to the audience on numerous counts.
This is one I missed when it embarked on a brief and limited theatrical run in Ireland in January, but has now become available via streaming options. I would probably have overlooked Krigen at this point but for its notably high review scores – 91% on RT at times of writing – and more than one critic describing it as belonging in the top echelon of war movies, a genre that recently has struggled, in my eyes, with creating really quality pictures, with more emphasis going to the humdrum and badly skewed biopic route – Lone Survivor, American Sniper et all – than on creating really worthwhile explorations of conflict.
More recently, I believe that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has shown that interesting stories can be found in the Middle East wars of the last 15 years, but new and interesting perspectives must be sought. Tobias Lindholm’s depiction of Danish military operations in Afghanistan, for audiences more west of Scandinavia, surely fits under than category. Was it as good as they said, or is just another tired war story about a conflict tapped dry?
Company commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is tasked with leading a Danish contingent of ISAF in Afghanistan, dealing with IED’s, the problems of locals and the growing combat stress of his men, while his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles at home with their three young children. When Pedersen makes a fateful choice in order to save the lives of one of his men, he must return home to face Krigen crimes charge, that calls into question his own judgement, personal integrity and the freedom of soldiers to react to circumstance.
The opening of Krigen follows a very minuscule looking line of desert camouflaged soldiers, utterly dwarfed by the immensity of the Afghan wilderness they patrol. They look so insignificant to our eyes, the kind of force pathetically unable to really make an impact on a land and a situation far greater than them. Krigen thus frames itself, from beginning to end, as a story about the individual isolated by events they are much smaller than, events they cannot control. And what emerges is a tale told with a masterful understanding of suspense, military life and the horrible contradictions of combat service, which effortlessly toys with the audiences’ emotions at every turn.
The narrative unfolds, in the first half of the production, as a dual look at men in uniform in theatre, and the spouses left at home to mind the fort and the family as best they can. There is an element of sameness to all of it in parts – certainly, you’ll have seen the contrast between tour and home life made before, on film or on TV – but Lindholm really captures the similarity and the differences brilliantly, swapping back and forth between Claus and Maria, both dealing with problems they would rather not be dealing with alone. And I think the quality comes from the fact that Lindholm’s narrative doesn’t condescend to one party or the other, though it would be easy to: the struggles of Claus and Maria are taken together and treated equally, depicted as differing problems of the same immense scope, relative to the situation that they each find themselves in. The pressures of camp life and home life are depicted brilliantly.
Claus tries to sympathetically deal with a soldier on the verge of a total breakdown. Maria’s son is caught fighting in school, acting out over his father’s absence. Claus orders a Taliban bombmaker killed by a sniper. Maria rushes her youngest daughter to the emergency room after she downs a bottle of prescription medicine. You can claim that some of these things are more pressing problems than the others, but Lindholm expertly frames them in just the right way to banish that distinction: the desperate attempts to stop a soldier bleeding out become a stomach being pumped, a crying trooper becomes a crying wife. Claus is an absent father to his children, and a substitute one to his men, his codename of “Papa” heavy with meaning.
Everything becomes interconnected, and that is one of the key points that Lindholm seems to want to make with Krigen: Nothing in war, no decision great or small, happens in the vacuum of that individual moment. Pedersen is a put upon man with worries in Afghanistan and at home, risking danger by going out on patrols with his men when he really doesn’t have to, or shouldn’t. And when the fateful moment comes, when he tells air support he has “PID” on Taliban fighters in a building so he can get a medevac for a critically wounded comrade, the audience realises that such a decision is not merely the sum of the current situation.
In effect, Krigen becomes suddenly a treatise on the moral grey area that war inhabits. The film turns on a dime in the second half, becoming a courtroom drama, and one with an alarmingly unique focus: the audience knows that Pedersen, by the letter of the law, is guilty. It was reasonable to assume that the Taliban were in Compound 6, but he had no PID. He presumed so to get the air attack, so he could get his wounded man the help he needed. It was a lie of emotion, in the moment, but it was a lie none the less. And 11 civilians died for it, even if the Taliban probably were in the building.
Other films would paint Pedersen as the villain, but not Krigen: instead, Lindholm’s well-crafted tale has the audience retain their sympathy for Pedersen, in the face of quite correct judicial proceedings, but proceedings we might, if we care to be honest, be happy to see fail. Not just because we want to see Maria and her family reunited with their husband/father, innocents in this confusing morass as much as anyone, but because we know Pedersen is no war criminal at heart, even if he has almost certainly broken the rules.
The war at home is as important as anything else here.
Krigen mixes its themes and tones well, and even with the sudden shift in setting I couldn’t say that I found it too jarring. Amid the discussions on rules of engagement and the role of CO’s in combat, there are also thoughts on to what lengths a man must go in order to protect and be with the ones he loves: Pedersen is presented with the option of lying under oath, at the urging of a wife who cannot contemplate four years of her husband in prison, and later the biases and preparedness to commit perjury by those under his command in examined.
Such moral qualms inspire the most cutting moments of Lindholm’s script: “You may have murdered eight children, but you have three living ones at home!” Maria spits at Claus, instantly regretting so crude summations. Other moments stand out: Lasse’s tear-filled admittance that he’s starting to lose it out on patrol, Pedersen refusing to allow an Afghan family to stay the night in their base (though, somewhat lamely, the objection to this is put in the mouth of the sole female soldier we see), a soldier calming down an interpreter so hopped up on combat adrenalin that he’s lashing out (“It’s OK to be upset”) or Pedersen’s awkward response to a daughter asking him if he killed children. It’s subtitled, but a good job has been done there, and nothing seems to have been lost in the translation.
And still, our emotional connections are toyed with: Pedersen could be portrayed as a villain for his acts – after all, the 11 civilians deserve justice as much as anyone else – but he isn’t wrong to suggest in his defence that his job is to protect the soldiers under his command. The ROE of the situation are weighted against the Danish soldiers, and the survival of Lasse. By the letter of the law, the Danish courts and international legislation would have had him bleed to death in that dusty Afghan square while his fellow soldiers remained unable to get PID on “Compound 6”, whose destruction at the hands of the air strike ends the fire from the enemy. Krigen presents that most tricky of scenarios – a target that can be deemed military by the facts as the audience sees them, but which cannot be proven to be a target legally in a court. Krigen examines the hypocrisy of a system that demands full accountability for a commander’s actions in such a circumstance, without leaving much wriggle room for the powerful emotional and adrenalin based factors that push such actions in the midst of flying bullets and RPG’s. It does so without much judgement: that is left for the viewer.
It helps that Asbæk is as commanding in the lead role as he is. The Borgen veteran (Lindholm was a writer for the well-regarded political drama, and other alumni show up here too) steps into very different shoes here, but manages to capture the loneliness of military service and command, as well as the quiet dignity of the soldier. To others are left the truer emotional stakes, not least Novotny, whose own lone struggle allows for greater expression than is practical in military circumstances, but still comes with that staunch, almost admirable, reserve.
As a depiction of a military marriage under pressure, it is light years ahead of the last time I saw such an arrangement on-screen, in the turgid back and forth between Ethan Hawke and January Jones in Good Kill. A word of praise for Dulfi Al-Jabouri too, who portrays combat exhaustion well, without hyperbole or exaggeration and Charlotte Munck as the state prosecutor of Pedersen, cold, calculating, but betraying the right sense of outrage at the right moments.
Shot simply in an almost documentary style, with Magnus Nordenhof Jønck as cinematographer, Krigen is no stirring military epic in its portrayal of combat – in the critical scene, like Pedersen, we never actually see the “bad guy’s” – and a dull colour palette between the sand of the desert and the plain white of the courtroom paints a picture of a drab life that people are struggling through, rather than celebrating. Brief moments of real visual direction genius stand out though, such as when Pedersen reveals to his wife the real reason that he is home early from Afghanistan: we see the scene from outside the Pedersen household, looking through a sliding door window without audio, like a voyeur creeping through the bushes, intruding on what should be a private revelation. It’s like the director wants us to again consider the unseen personal side of any such event, that is usually portrayed in stark black and white terms of by public media, with the more subtle greyer aspects left in the darkness.
I will not spoil the ending, which comes with a sense of almost tragic inevitability, if only to say that it is appropriate to see Pederson is left alone once more, just as he was in Afghanistan: surrounded by people who love him, but isolated regardless. I was reminded very much of the conclusion of John B. Keane’s The Field (the play, not the film), wherein the “Bull” McCabe laments his role in a murder he has gotten away with: “It won’t be long before he’s forgot by all…forgot by all except me”.
Krigen will probably not ever be considered one of the all-time great war movies, its country of origin and language will see to that. And that is unfortunate, because this really is an all-time great war movie, and one of the best that I have seen in a long time, the perfect tonic to the nationalistic dross of American Sniper, the shady fictionalisation of Lone Survivor or even the entertaining but ultimately unoriginal Fury. This is a film that has serious points to make about war, and doesn’t sensationalise the subject, lecture the audience or pass judgement on soldiers or governments. It presents a story that is all too real, and presents a man who we can both condemn and admire. It presents people and factions, be they soldiers, spouses or governments, who all have clear motivations that are then suitably muddied. The rest, it leaves to us, asking uncomfortable questions about combat, the wars in the Middle-East, rules of engagement, home fronts and military law, challenging the viewer to consider the complexity of such things rather than seeing them in as monochrome a way as possible. Well written, well shot and well-acted, Krigen comes highly recommended.
A really great war film.
(All images are copyright of Nordisk Film Distribution).