A War is the best military film nominated at this year’s Academy Awards but it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (although it certainly could have been). The Danish-language film, which explores the costs of the war in Afghanistan for Denmark and its people, is up for Best Foreign Film. It’s also playing in theaters now and there’s a plan to show it around the country at U.S. military bases.
The story focuses on company commander Claus Pedersen, his battlefield decisions in Afghanistan and the effect of his deployment on his family back home in Denmark. There are some tough calls in combat and repercussions for Pedersen’s decisions that result in legal proceedings back home. The filmmakers find a way to portray both the realities of combat and present a surprisingly intimate and realistic portrayal of a military family. Even if you think you don’t like movies with subtitles, A War is a film that could change your mind.
We talked to writer and director Tobias Lindholm about the experience of making the film, how it’s been received by veterans in his native Denmark.
So congratulations on your nomination. Is that something you anticipated happening when you were finishing the film?
Oh, not at all. When I started to write this film, it was about trying to get us close to the reality that we were portraying and understanding the logic of the conflict and the lives of these soldiers.
I would say it’s not a surprise because we worked hard for it in the campaigning part, but nevertheless that has never been the point. So it’s all just icing on the cake.The biggest joy of it has been to be able to make these phone calls to the veterans that helped make the film and tell them that the work was done has been nominated for an Academy Award. That’s a great joy.
Very few Americans realize Denmark’s long-term involvement in the war on terror. Give us a little historical background for people who may not have been paying attention.
Well, Denmark is a country the size of Maryland. We went into Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. and the U.K. just after 9/11. We were the first country in with the U.K. and the U.S.. Then the coalition came and a lot of more countries got there, but Denmark went in right away.
It’s the first war that Denmark has fought since the second World War. And, in the second World War, we fought for five hours and then gave up, so as you can imagine this war has defined my generation more than anything else. We became the warfare generation.
Suddenly, we had sisters and brothers, friends, who became professional soldiers, and friends who died in war and came back in a body bag. And that reality shocked a little Scandinavian country known as the happiest country on earth.
It has forced Denmark to take a look at ourselves. We have to realize that the world is changing around us and we are now part of a bigger thing.
The reason I did this film is that, on a small scale, Denmark is going through what you would call a post-Vietnam phase. As a nation, we need to try to understand the soldiers and try to understand the politics behind it so that we can meet the future as a nation not falling apart.
There’s a central incident in the film that leads to the hearing back in Denmark. Is that based on anything that happened to a Danish soldier or is it a story point that you use as a way to talk about these issues?
There have been some incidents that look very much like this, with a commander ordering a bombing, but it’s not built on one case. I would feel like a parasite if I jumped down and took one case and started to make this story about it. I would never want to make a movie about a real person’s nightmare.
I decided to talk to the military attorneys, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and people in Denmark to try to create a situation that could make me identify with and understand this character even though he does what he does. In that way, we built a story that could help the audience understand how a soldier can end up in these situations and why battlefield decisions are not as easy as you think they are when you’re sitting comfortable in your couch at home watching the news and being judgmental.
One of the most interesting things to me is that I imagine it’s possible to watch the film and be completely sympathetic to Claus Pedersen, completely unsympathetic or feel something in between. It’s almost a test of how you view the world as to how you respond to his situation in the film.
Exactly. My idea was to humanize the soldiers as human beings, not humanize the actions that happens in war. I mean we all know that a lot of awful things happen, but that’s a consequence of war.
Instead of dehumanizing the soldiers and talk about how they become damaged as we often see in war films, where you see a young guy coming in and then we watch the process of dehumanization. I wanted to do the opposite and try to paint a picture of these guys as real human beings with wives, kids, families at home that they miss and that they are obviously affected by missing.
You’re right, that situation can be seen many ways. My point was to try to see it from a human point of view no matter what.
One of the most remarkable things about the film also is your ability to portray the struggles of the family back home in Denmark.
Thank you so much. I’ve never been a soldier, but I am the father of three small kids and I have a wife. And my job makes me travel once in a while. My life is never in danger for real when I go travel and I haven’t been to war. I’m just out making films, but nevertheless I know the feeling of not being able to connect with your family emotionally over a broken phone line, the frustration that creates and the distance it creates between you and the consequences for my kids when I’m away.
When I’m gone for three months, my three boys act out because I’m not there. I think that you can multiply that with 500 and maybe we get close to the actions we see in families with fathers and mothers in war.
I can only imagine the fear that you must feel when the phone rings and how that affects you, the constant fear of getting a phone call that tells you that your loved one has been hurt or killed. I felt that there was so much story in that.
Basically, I took some of the situations I’ve been in my life with my three kids and it becomes more dramatic because one of the parents is a soldier and is away. As I felt talked to these families in Denmark, talked to kids and spouses, I realized that that story had never been told respectfully. We have never actually seen the reality of the reactions in these homes.
They are just as affected by this political decision of going to war as the soldiers are out there. And I felt that we needed a story that could portray that reality and make us aware that it’s not only the soldiers, it’s all the loved ones around them. It’s all the families out there whose lives is changing because of this decision.
What kind of reaction did you get in Denmark when you released this film?
It was released in the end of September in Denmark and we got a great response from the reviewers and the audience.
Politically, it was kind of fun to see how most politicians wanted me to be political about it, talk about whether I was pro or against the war. I refused that. I think I made this film exactly to avoid that discussion. I think it’s worthless to talk about whether you were against or pro a war that has already happened. I wanted us to look at what has actually happened in that war. The reactions were very good and we started the conversation about what has happened and hopefully that process will carry on.
The most beautiful experience I had was very moving. A few days after it opened in the Danish theaters, I was taking my kids to school one morning. In the street, this guy stops me and he starts to cry. Before he started to speak, I got a little worried about who this man is. And then he told me that he and his wife had seen the film the night before and he hadn’t been sleeping since. And now he was just out to get coffee before he went back home and continued the conversation.
But he had spent the full night, for the first time in ten years, actually telling his wife what he had been through in Afghanistan and she had shared with him what she had gone through at home with the kids. And he cried and thanked me for giving their marriage an opportunity to continue because now they could finally speak together.
I called the actors right away and said, “You know what, we’re good, we’ve done a good job here.” I’ve had a lot of that kind of a response from veterans, which of course means a lot both to me and the guys that have helped me make the film.
You talked a little earlier about your country having to process this. How big of an issue is the long-term military commitment been politically in Denmark?
I feel that we’re not talking enough about it and it’s just over now. I’m a little scared about what we’re going to see in the future. I’m worried for the veterans that have come home now because basically everybody in Denmark wants to close their eyes and not talk too much about it. You know you rather want to just forget about that and continue. It’s too hard to look at.
The politicians, instead of looking into what their decisions meant and what we have to do in the future, they’re trying to not talk too much about it.
Look at the condition of Helmand Province right now, where the Danish soldiers served the most. We have to talk about what has happened because it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
We’re now seeing Taliban ruling in Helmand slowly again. And if that’s the case, then we as a country need to look at it and learn from it and try to understand what we have sacrificed and what the point of being there was and how we can continue. Down to a human level, the worst thing that can happen is that we have young people out there scarred for life by going to war and then feeling that they did it for nothing. We need to have these conversations so that we can define the value of the job that we have done down there. And that’s my biggest concern in Denmark right now.
It would be nice for the Academy Award to come through, so maybe a few more people will see your film.
That would be wonderful. The plan is to tour the film to American Army Bases and share it with as many veterans and active soldiers as we can. For me, that has been the point. I didn’t want to make a political film; I wanted to make a human film about war.
The aim for me has been to connect with the community of veterans. I’ve never been a soldier, but nevertheless it’s a film about soldiers as human beings.
And yes, it’s great to be nominated for the Academy Award, but it’s even greater to see how the movie actually translates internationally and can make a difference or at least affect people around the world who have been part of this conflict. That’s a document that I’m proud of being part of, so thank you so much.
Our friends at We Are the Mighty like “A War” just as much as we do. While we talked to Tobias about the family impact of war and the political implications, they do a great job of exploring the movie’s considerable accomplishment in giving a powerful portrayal of combat and its aftereffects. Check out their links below.