War reflects on human behaviour during and after the extreme conditions of war and questions the effects of war on identity and morality. Filmed in different formats (DV, 35mm and a thermal camera), the film also mixes different film genres, e.g., interviews, archive material and fiction. The witnesses include a Dutch UN corporal who experienced the ethnic cleansing in ex-Yugoslavia, Cveja Jovanovic, a Yugoslav prisoner of war who survived the German concentration camps in Norway, the architect and writer Bogdan Bogdanovic and Norwegian criminologist Niels Christie.
The film is structured in three parts using a narrator reading poems from WWI as a backdrop for the story. Filmed through reflecting glass, the film adopts an aesthetic style that gives every picture a double image revealing the scenes and activities around the interviewed person. The photographer Anthony Dod Mantle has worked on several of Loftager’s films.
Jens Loftager was born in 1954. He studied philosophy and film and graduated form the National Film School of Denmark in 1989. He has directed a number of shorts, documentaries and television series.
Anette Olsen: Please describe your filming technique in this film.
Jens Loftager: By placing a glass plate in front of the lens and then angling it, the background is projected on the face of the person you are filming. It’s very difficult to handle.
AO: Why did you choose this aesthetic style?
JL: It’s a long story, but a very important story, too. Because regardless of whether a film is called War or Words, it’s still a film, and I had no intention of bringing forward a gilt-edged message, because that’s not my job. My job is to give a credible and hopefully true picture of what war involves. And this demands precision in the artistic devices you use. After all, the language I speak is visual, and I’m not trying to say something is terrible, or that these are the bad guys and those are the heroes, even though you can find them in the film. This distinction is incredibly important to me. To me the criterion of authenticity is not decisive, quite on the opposite. I try to show from the beginning that I mix the genres in my own sweet way because I don’t believe the Truth is just out there waiting to be depicted truthfully. Truth has to be created and one way to do it is to be precise in one’s use of cinematic devices.
In the beginning of War, Loftager uses fiction to describe how a German soldier kills a French soldier during WWI. The French soldier does not die right away but lies in agony in the ditch. The German soldier cannot bring himself to stab him again, however. The enemy has become human. The two soldiers are played by actors.
AO: In your film you incorporate fiction scenes. Why was that necessary?
JL: To me it wasn’t a question of necessity but it was the right thing to do. It had to be exact. It was an attempt to show in a nutshell the border between killing in wartime and killing as a civilian. That’s the development the soldier goes through during one night. And there is no other way to say it than by using fiction. It would be hard to find witnesses from WWI, by the way. And if something has opened my eyes during research, it’s the fact that WWI is of crucial importance to understanding anything at all in the 20th century. In other words, the permeating effect of the admission of great failure embodied both in the war and in the peace that followed the war.
So the fiction scenes had to be there. During the editing we found out that the WWI story form should be the recurrent theme, even though the script doesn’t divide the film into three segments. Apart from having WWI as the general element, we also wanted to let it be the backdrop for the stories people tell. This is why WWI poems appear throughout the film as a sort of mouthpiece or ‘beat’, you might call it, in order never to forget its presence.
Jens Loftager and the photographer Anthony Dod Mantle graduated from film school the same year, and Dod Mantle has worked with Loftager on all of his films.
JL: The dialogue between the director and photographer is paramount. We have to create a common starting point, which may have nothing to do with war but with visual associations to war. We discussed the Sisyphus myth, the life of the ants, digging in the soil versus digging in the past. One of the first things we did was go to Auschwitz.
Anthony and I had not worked together for several years, and it was important for us to home in on each other again. It’s difficult for me to work with other photographers, difficult to reach that special kind of understanding that I apparently need. But we went to Auschwitz. Fortunately, Tony had been there before, as it’s not a nice place to be, and we walked around in the burning sun. Tony had brought a DV camera with him, and I just walked around looking. Afterwards we were very quiet, of course, which is to be expected when visiting such a place. I’ve never wanted to deal with the extermination camps, I simply haven’t’ got the psyche for it, but now there was no turning back.
JL: What Anthony did in Auschwitz was to film everything indirectly, seen through silhouettes or reflections or shadows on the walls except from one shot of the eyes of the concentration camp prisoners on the photos that hang there. That didn’t mean we had a solution to our problem of how to film, but we had a feeling, and when we finally left, we felt we had found something.
Because we were groping and vacillating before such a huge subject, the indirect approach became the right thing to do logically and emotionally. We didn’t want to assert that we knew better or that we had found the truth.
I was worried that the duplicity effects would distract the audience, but what the characters in the film are saying is important enough for people to want to watch them. Sometimes something happens in the picture; people pass ‘through the head’ of the person being interviewed, for instance.
In addition to the mirroring effect, we had brought a 35mm camera with us, because we were inspired by Lars von Trier and the images that introduced the segments in *Breaking the Waves, those Kirkeby paintings where you stop to think and are roused from the drama of the story. It wasn’t like that in our film but our idea was to have something we called ”monumental” images, a sort of meditative image that brings time to a standstill. We also did a lot of supplementary work on the images, especially the DV images to give them more effect.
Words, War and Faith
AO: You interviewed the victims of war, but didn’t film the executioners?
JL: It’s actually in the script. I wanted to get an interview with Krstic, who was second in command in Srebrenica and who had already been convicted at Haag, but it was simply impossible to get access to him. But Krstic led me to the Dutch soldier, because the soldier was a witness at Krstic’s trial. I could easily have included the executioners, and I was very interested in doing so. I think they are there between the lines, but not in person. I laid out the pieces, but you’re right, there is no one in the film who could have told that part of war. And somehow it’s a pity, but when I looked at my material, I didn’t think it was necessary.
AO: Your film is part of a trilogy. The first was Words from 1995. Why a trilogy and why almost ten years between the films?
JL: When I started, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy, but when I made *Words, and I knew that the war – which had been going on for a year at the time – was already present in that film. I also knew there was so much more material in that subject that the first film couldn’t deal with it all. It was obvious that the two subjects related in the first film were war and faith. And the funny thing – and maybe the most beautiful in *War – is that the words are there, too. (Cveja Jovanovic, the Yugoslav prisoner, managed to teach his fellow prisoners by making an ABC, ed.).
But the explanation is also a cheap trick to persist. You can’t escape the promise. I can’t say in ten years time say that I don’t want to do it after all. That would be an admission of failure. The explanation makes me stick to it, and quite simply the subjects interest me: they are interesting in terms of my reflections on the 20th century. Other people might find other subjects – but I can use them creatively, and that’s what it’s all about.