Swiss director Anja Kofmel embarks on a journey to seek closure to a family mystery that has obsessed her for twenty years. Her cousin Christian Würtenberg was a war reporter who, at the age of 26, found himself in the latest hot spot – going to Yugoslavia as Milosevic’s forces tried to crush Croatia’s attempts at an independence breakaway from the federation.
He soon abandoned the role of journalistic observer to join the PIV (Prvi internacionalni vod), a paramilitary group of foreigners fighting against the Serbs. The paramilitary group was responsible for ethnically cleansing civilians in villages around Osijek, a city located in the north of Croatia. In 1992, Würtenberg was strangled in what was left as unclear circumstances.
Taking his diary notes with her, Kofmel sets out by train to trace the last places her cousin travelled to, enlisting the help of a wartime fixer who had guided him on several occasions from the InterContinental Hotel in Zagreb, where reporters holed up, into the belly of the beast.
Sliding into moral corruption
In seeking to determine not only how Würtenberg got killed but why he joined an ultranationalist organisation, Kofmel avoids endeavouring to excuse his actions through any rose-tinted glasses of family loyalty. Instead, she offers a clear-eyed and haunting meditation on the moral corruption of war and the darker impulses of humankind, imaginatively blending investigative documentary with animated segments of phantasmagorical, animated elegy.
Inky hand drawing provides an innovative, poetically evocative means of envisioning Würtenberg’s wartime experiences. These are reconstructed as dramatic episodes intercut with interviews the director conducts with those who were present at the time, as well as archival footage from the war.
At one point in the film the Swiss recruit is ordered to shoot an elderly civilian villager, and refuses, while another soldier goes to finish the task in his place. These segments rest on conjecture over just how bloody his hands got in the war atrocities, and remind us that complicity does not reside solely in pulling the trigger.
Kofmel is herself depicted as a ten-year-old in animated sequences swarming with black, haunting shapes. Plunged into a sinister dreamscape that represents her burgeoning, existential awareness of evil and threat in the world, she receives the troubling news about the cousin she had idolised.
Perhaps most unexpected among the people linked to Würtenberg and who Kofmel is able to interview via telephone, is a notorious Venezuelan terrorist Carlos «the Jackal» – currently in a French prison. He asserts the claim that Würtenberg was actually a foreign agent, and discusses the fundamental difference of peacetime from some wartime worlds in which «life is of little worth».
«In war, the choice is not between good and bad, but between bad and very bad.» – Gaston Besson (soldier)
This deeper consideration of what drives people to kill civilians, and how humans are able to slide into moral corruption, is a central concern of a film eager to understand human nature beyond the specifics of any particular conflict. The Yugoslav Wars, with their notably «dirty» mode of fighting and sheer viciousness of atrocities, provide an apt, urgent lens onto this conundrum. Graphic footage of slaughtered civilians, along with references to the murders of babies – by both sides – attempts to drive home the horror of a war in which the levels of cruelty were difficult to fathom.
Suspected of being a spy
Würtenberg himself remains an enigmatic figure. Descriptions of him are somewhat contradictory, and Kofmel is never able to reconcile his ambiguous behaviour. Was he a mercenary, a secret agent, or a journalist collecting experiences as material for a book? While it is not clear to what extent his loss of journalistic neutrality was a matter of conviction or cover, he embodies a fascinating case study of the ethically contentious tendencies for risk-taking and addiction to dangerous extremes that war reporters are both renowned and notorious for.
He also exemplifies the feelings of guilt and uselessness many experience as a result of their mere observer status to the suffering of soldiers and citizens around them, and from which they paradoxically make a living.
We hear that numerous journalists joined paramilitary groups during the conflicts in the Balkans. Eduardo Rosza-Flores – the ruthless PIV commander who many believe ordered Würtenberg’s death because Rosza-Flores suspected him of being a spy, and who Kofmel can only track down in archival footage since he was assassinated in Bolivia in 2009 – also arrived in the region as a journalist before personally taking part in the conflict.
Würtenberg is spoken of by two journalist colleagues as someone whose writing had seemed driven by an urge to uncover the truth; a man who had grappled with the dirty aspects of the war and was later regarded as somewhat of a black sheep, disliked by the others in the PIV. But they were alarmed by his joining of an organisation aligned with fascist groups that were characterised as a bunch of «right-wing criminals» who «killed for fun».
At the end of the day, even if Würtenberg’s motivations are muddy, his complicity in atrocities is hard to deny. Foreign soldier Gaston Besson perhaps puts it best when he sums up the morally bankrupt nature of participating in such a bloody conflict: «In war, the choice is not between good and bad but between bad and very bad.»