Company commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) and his men are stationed in an Afghan province. Meanwhile back in Denmark Claus’ wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) is trying to hold everyday life together with a husband at war and three children missing their father. During a routine mission, the soldiers are caught in heavy crossfire and in order to save his men, Claus makes a decision that has grave consequences for him - and his family back home.
In 2010 Tobias Lindholm both helmed and wrote the prison drama R, which was a collaborative work with director Michael Noer. The same year, he served as episode writer on the hit series BORGEN (2010) and in 2012 he wrote and directed A HIJACKING, which received both national and international acclaim, winning a Critics' Award (Bodil) for Best Danish Film as well as five Danish Academy Awards (Robert).
As Lindholm did with R and A HIJACKING, he once again employs those who have been closest to the conflict. In A WAR he uses Danish soldiers and Taliban warriors, relatives and refugees, as he strives towards realism.
A WAR is produced by René Ezra and Tomas Radoor for Nordisk Film Production A/S with the support from Danish Film Institute in association with DR, Nordisk Film & TV Fond and Studiocanal.
DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT - TOBIAS LINDHOLM
I have never been a soldier. I have never been at war. I have only observed war in the news and as entertainment. So when I decided to make A WAR, I had to find people who had witnessed war: Danish soldiers and Taliban warriors, relatives and refugees. I needed to understand the complexity and the logic, although I didn’t expect to tell the truth about warfare for I do not believe that such truth exists. But I wanted to understand in order to tell stories about humans in war because they do exist. And to me A WAR is about them.
Tobias Lindholm, July 2015
INTERVIEW WITH TOBIAS LINDHOLM
Consequences of A WAR
In his third feature, A WAR, Tobias Lindholm continues his investigation of how people react under extreme pressure. The stakes are higher than ever, as a Danish company commander is forced to choose between his responsibility to his troops, the Afghan locals, or his family back in Denmark and the written and unwritten rules of war.
By Freja Dam
This interview was originally published in the Danish Film Institute's magazine FILM, Fall 2015: www.dfi.dk/film
Tobias Lindholm’s films exude claustrophobia. What happens to people when they are locked in a closed room and subjected to extreme pressure? How do we interact with each other and resolve conflicts when we have no physical or emotional means of escape?
In "R" (2010, with Michael Noer) a new inmate, Rune, tries to find his place in the internal hierarchy of a closed prison. In "A Hijacking" (2012), a ship’s cook, Mikkel, fights to survive on a ship that’s been captured by Somali pirates while shipping company president Peter is in intense negotiations to free the hostages. Now, in "A WAR," company commander Claus finds himself under fire and makes a decision that has consequences for himself, his men, the Afghan locals and his family back home in Denmark.
"For the past 14 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," Lindholm says about picking the war in Afghanistan as his subject.
"I have always liked American Vietnam War movies and see them as a way for the American society to collectively process a trauma. This film is my stab at processing Denmark’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan – a process I don’t think has remotely begun. It’s high time that we address what we have sent our men off to in the name of democracy."
Understanding vs. Condemnation
Unlike Vietnam War movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" that lay bare the absurdity of war, Lindholm has no unequivocal political message with "A WAR." The aim isn’t to determine whether the war in Afghanistan is right or wrong but to illuminate the consequences of the war on all its participants. It’s about understanding rather than condemning.
"I want to add some nuance to the debate by defending as many positions as I can, putting myself in other people’s shoes rather than telling the story from my own political standpoint, which is based on things I haven’t personally experienced. I was never in a war, so I thought I’d start with something my sweet, leftist mother taught me: war is evil, and so people at war are evil, too. I wanted to challenge that inference," Lindholm says.
In the film, Claus, in the heat of battle, decides to prioritise his own men’s safety over the safety of the local population. Other scenes show the soldiers treating Afghans roughly and kidding around after they shoot an enemy. It may seem cynical, Lindholm says, but when your life is threatened every day and you watch your buddies die in front of you, your moral tenets change. When you never know where a roadside bomb is buried, or who buried it, it’s only natural to be wary of strangers.
"Not to say it’s right, only that it’s all too human. And I think that’s the whole point: telling the story so we can identify with these people," Lindholm says.
"In the specific dilemma in the film, some have to die so others can live. How the hell do you make a decision like that when bullets are whizzing around your head? I’m interested in what being in that kind of situation and having that kind of responsibility does to people. Who are these young men when they are sent off, who are they over there and who have they become when they return home? How do we look at this as objectively as possible without condemning their actions? How do we humanise the inhuman? How can we ever understand their situation?"
For Lindholm, the road to understanding goes through massive research. When he and Noer made "R," they worked with the dogma of "reality rules." Both directors have maintained that approach.
"I find real life insanely exciting," Lindholm says. "For me, it’s interesting to find a slice of reality that I can focus on, make myself a slave to and mix blood with. I don’t organise reality based on what my plot wants but let my plot be dictated by what reality has to offer."
In the writing phase, Lindholm consulted with Afghanistan vets, relatives of soldiers, an auditor, a defense attorney and a former Taliban warrior he met in Turkey, where the film was shot. He also found Afghan refugees there and cast them for his film.
In the Afghanistan part of the film, only three of the roles are played by professional actors: Pilou Asbæk as Claus, Dar Salim as his second-in-command Najib; and Dulfi Al-Jaburi as the soldier Lasse. The rest of the unit were played by professional soldiers who had been to Afghanistan. They were key to understanding the logic of the military world down to details like chains of command and radio communications. On the shoot, they showed how soldiers move and act on missions. Plus, they were refreshingly easy to work with.
"A good thing about soldiers is that they are used to taking exercises seriously. An exercise is a kind of acting. It’s the idea of being at war. That’s just like a film production. Also, soldiers have the gift of showing up on time, having their stuff in order and doing as they’re told. Working with kids was far more challenging," Lindholm says, referring to the scenes with Claus's wife and three children back home in Denmark which take up a big part of the film.
The Home as a War Zone
"R" is set in a single arena, prison. "A Hijacking" is set in two locations, the ship and the shipping company headquarters. In "A WAR," Lindholm expands into three arenas: the war zone in Afghanistan, Claus’s home in Denmark where he impacts his family by his absence and the courtroom where he has to stand trial as a citizen for the decisions he made during the war.
"I wanted to broaden the scope a bit, both visually and content-wise," Lindholm says. "A major challenge was expanding the home as an arena: working with a feeling of war in the home and describing the consequences of pulling Dad out of the equation and sending him off to face mortal danger. The home part is crucial to the story because the man who goes off to war isn’t just an empty vessel. He’s someone’s husband, someone’s son and someone’s father. If it was just him, who cares? But it’s not. His life affects a lot of people. A number on the news, how many people have died, can be hard to relate to. But if you picture all the people who are directly affected by just one person being stationed, it’s a whole different story."
In a core scene, an Afghan father asks if his family can spend the night in the camp because the Taliban are going to kill them. Claus turns the family away but tells the man that, as a father of three children himself, he understands his dilemma. "But your children are safe," the Afghan father protests.
Likewise, you might argue that however Danish soldiers and their families may be at risk, the Afghans have the short end of the stick. Why not tell their story?
"Things are horrible for Afghans. We touch on their situation by having the encounter with the Afghans trigger a lot of reactions in the film," Lindholm says. "But I happen to have been born a blond, heterosexual Scandinavian man with blue eyes and no chronic diseases. You couldn’t imagine a more privileged outline of a person. So to imagine me going out and doing a story that satisfactorily accounted for the realities in Afghanistan – it would be arrogant for me to think that I could do that. Living conditions, culture and traditions are so ingrained in people that I would never be able to achieve sufficient understanding of other people’s logic. In all humility, I aim to make films my way.”
Lindholm the Observer
Watching a Lindholm film is a bit like looking at bugs in a jam jar: we eye them from above at an angle through the glass, watching them squirm in the small receptacle, but we keep our fingers to ourselves.
"I wouldn’t want to plop down among these people and make demands on their emotions," he says. "I think it’s much more interesting to create situations where we look at them from outside, because that’s how we live among other people. I will never be you. You exist for me in my encounter with you. It’s like that in films, too."
Among his inspirations, Lindholm singles out the great Danish documentarian Jørgen Leth, who is famous for his poetic, anthropological studies of people.
"I have learned a lot from Leth’s insistence on observing people without judging them, just letting them stand for what they are and leaving them be. I have to break with that to tell a cohesive story, but I try to avoid judging or romanticising. The best way to do that is by observing what’s going on as soberly as possible.
“There’s no reason to cram the characters’ feelings down the viewer’s throat,” Lindholm says. “As social beings we are extremely adept at reading other people without anyone having to say anything.
"I would always rather say too little than too much. Some films seem to think that people check their awareness in the cloakroom before they go into the theatre. So they serve up all sorts of unimportant details that take up space and become oppressive instead of giving the viewer room to invest their own experiences and get into the film."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER
TOBIAS LINDHOLM - Writer & Director
Since graduating as a screenwriter from the National Film School of Denmark in 2007, Tobias Lindholm's name has appeared on many of the most prominent Danish movie and TV productions, and was listed on Variety's 2012 list of the ten most promising young writers. But it is both as screenwriter and director that Tobias Lindholm has received great acclaim.
In 2010 he helmed and wrote the prison drama R (2010), which was a collaborative work with director Michael Noer. The same year, he served as episode writer on the hit series BORGEN (2010). In 2012 he wrote and directed A HIJACKING, which received both national and international acclaim, winning a Critics' Award (Bodil) for Best Danish Film as well as five Danish Academy Awards (Robert). A WAR, his third feature, once again stars Pilou Asbæk in the leading role. Lindholm has also received great acclaim for his screenwriting work on Thomas Vinterberg's last three productions: SUBMARINO (2010), the critically acclaimed and Oscar® nominated THE HUNT (2012) and THE COLLECTIVE which opens in 2016. In 2013 Lindholm received the Sundance Institute – Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award for his preliminary work on A WAR.
ABOUT THE CAST
PILOU ASBÆK (Claus Michael Pedersen)
A WAR is Asbæk’s third leading role in a Lindholm film. The collaboration between the actor and the director began in 2010 with the critically acclaimed prison drama R. The film was Asbæk’s debut and for his portrayal of “Rune” he received a Danish Critics' Award (Bodil) for Best Actor. In 2012 he played the cook, “Mikkel,” in Lindolm's prize winning A HIJACKING, and now, in A WAR, he plays the part of “Claus.”
Besides starring in a number of successful Danish films, Asbæk has launched a promising international career, playing alongside Jeremy Irons and Francois Arnaud in the TV series THE BORGIAS (2013) and working with Luc Besson on the sci-fi drama LUCY (2014) with Scarlett Johansson and Morgen Freeman. His latest international role sees him play Roman emperor Pontius Pilate in the upcoming remake of BEN-HUR and he has been cast in the hit TV series GAME OF THRONES as Euron Greyjoy for the upcoming sixth season.
TUVA NOVOTNY (Maria Pedersen)
A WAR is the first collaboration between Lindholm and Tuva Novotny, though Novotny is one of the most sought after actors in the Scandinavian countries. She was named Shooting Star at the Berlinale in 2002 and has since worked in Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and international productions.
She had her breakthrough in 2000 in Josef Fares' JALLA! JALLA! and many notable performances have since followed, including the Norwegian series DAG for which she received a TV award for Best Actress. In 2016 Novotny will appear in the upcoming Norwegian World War II drama THE KING’S CHOICE, in which she stars alongside Jesper Christensen. She also appears in the Norwegian TV series NOBEL, alongside Aksel Hennie and Danica Curcic.
Written & Directed by Tobias Lindholm
Producers René Ezra & Tomas Radoor
Executive Producers Henrik Zein, Lena Haugaard, Thomas Heinesen, Olivier Courson & Ron Halpern
Director of Photography Magnus Nordenhof Jønck, DFF
Editor Adam Nielsen
Composer Sune Rose Wagner
Sound Design Morten Green
Production Designer Thomas Greve
Costume Designer Louize Nissen
Hair & Makeup Designer Bjørg Serup
Line Producer Anders Barlebo
1st AD Maj-Britt Paulmann Dalsgaard
Claus M. Pedersen - Pilou Asbæk
Maria Pedersen - Tuva Novotny
Martin R. Olsen - Søren Malling
Najib Bisma – Dar Salim
Lutfi “Lasse” Hassan - Dulfi Al-Jabouri