Cinema: A Scandinavian vision of the horrors of war

Pilou Asbæk as Commander Claus Pedersen in A War (Krigen)

The popularity of Scandinavian television drama has been one of the most surprising cultural phenomena of recent times, with The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge sending seasoned BBC Four-watchers like me doolally with excitement.

Cinema from this part of Europe has enjoyed its own triumphs, too. In 2012, A Royal Affair, from Denmark, picked up an Oscar nomination, while Swedish black comedy Force Majeure was one of the very best films of last year. Now writer and director Tobias Lindholm has added another fine effort to the growing list of successes, following his acclaimed A Hijacking, with the similarly titled A War.

The war in question is the current conflict in Afghanistan and a company of Danish soldiers are in the thick of it. After one of their number is killed during a patrol, Commander Claus Pedersen (played by Borgen actor Pilou Asbæk) agrees to lead future excursions outside camp in order to allay the fears of his terrified troops.

While out on one of these exercises, the men come under heavy fire from the Taliban and Pedersen makes a snap decision that has serious consequences for all concerned, including the civilian Afghans he is there to protect.

After this crucial moment, the battleground switches from the arid Middle Eastern desert to a chilly court in Denmark as Pedersen is forced to answer for what he has done.

Lindholm pulls off the switch from war film to courtroom drama in a satisfying and surprising fashion. There is no ambiguity in what has transpired on the battlefield. So rather than tension deriving from the piecing together of fuzzy events, the interest comes in seeing whether Pedersen can get the court to side with him in the face of a seemingly overwhelming case for the prosecution.

The film cleverly refuses to hold up its central character as a hero or a villain. Instead, we have to make our own choice about the morality of the situation, and, ultimately, decide whether we want to side with the accused or not. Lindholm is a fine film-maker who eschews extraneous detail in order to put his characters and story in sharp relief. The performances, including those of a number of real Danish soldiers, are understated and believable, and the scenes in the war zone are particularly impressive. Here, a slow and steady pace is punctuated by moments of tension, dark humour and sudden bursts of bloody violence.

On the downside, the scenes of Pedersen’s family at home struggling to cope without him feel uninspired, and the way the court case wraps up might be a little too convenient. Despite these small quibbles, A War is another quality offering from Scandinavia, a sober and provocative account of the horrors of war.