Zwischen Welten (Between Worlds) Review

Posted: March 4, 2014 in 2014 Berlinale, Action, Drama, Foreign, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

ImageThough the war stories of Afghanistan and Iraq are still being written, the overarching theme is increasingly clear. This generation’s tales will not be of heroism, although that has been on display, or cowardice, although that is inevitable, or of atrocities, triumphs, intrigue, or geopolitical struggle. The ground truth of these conflicts as reflected in the movies already made and those still to be filmed is ambiguity. Setting aside the motivations – real or supposed – for the onset of hostilities, the question of whether the noble commitment of bringing freedom to oppressed people through armed intervention by outsiders is possible or whether the definitions of freedom, oppression and commitment differ so greatly across cultures that the matter can never be resolved will continue to overshadow a more traditional military cinematic narrative.

This maddening, unresolvable ambiguity is at the moral heart of Zwischen Welten (Between Worlds), a simple, powerful tale of one German army unit’s experience in Afghanistan as seen through its squad leader. Much has been made of a movie centered on a modern Germany military rather than the tried and true Nazi storm troopers routinely seen in every conceivable genre, but the German experience in Afghanistan translates to the Polish experience in Iraq or to any other Western nation’s involvement in either war at the foot soldier level.  As such, the Germans are immediately accepted here as “Us” versus the generally unseen “Them,” no matter the nationality of the viewer.

The German squad leader Jesper (Ronald Zehrfeld) is damaged goods. He is back for his second tour in Afghanistan, and his brother died while on deployment in the country. The Base Commander questions Jesper as to why he returned and is less than satisfied by the response: “I was asked.” The baggage he carries puts Jesper outside the normal world of the German soldier, and he shares this space in limbo with the squad’s local interpreter, Tarik (Mohsin Ahmady).  Tarik has suffered his own loss – the Taliban executed his father – leaving Tarik responsible for his younger sister, who is studying at the local university. Tarik is frustrated is his attempts to obtain German visas for them both and must continue to risk his life and his sister’s well-being by serving the nation many of his countrymen view as the enemy.

The film takes Jesper and Tarik into a series of dilemmas as every action to support the mission of bolstering a local militia is life threatening for one or the other and contrary to the orders coming from HQ. Tarik is forced to move delicately, tiptoeing in a diplomatic minefield when he translates between Jesper and the local militia commander, while abandoning his post periodically to look in on his sister. The worst case scenario becomes the no-win scenario, and the questions of what is the humane decision in a war zone and are all lives equal hang in the air after the movie ends with a sadly familiar sound.

Feo Aladag’s direction is spot on, and her ability to film this on location in Afghanistan lends an authenticity and immediacy that could not be duplicated in another locale, no matter how clever the production team.  That is not to say that the film is without fault.  The militia leader Haroon (Abdul Salam Yosofzai) looks like he just finished auditioning for a remake of The Pirates of Penzance, and the scenes between Tarik and his sister are played almost as romantic encounters, introducing an unsettling and vaguely creepy vibe.  Both are small, but distracting points in an otherwise exemplary work that had its world premiere at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival in February.

Three and a half stars.

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