If you’re trying to navigate the gulf between the absolutist view inside Fortress Bush and the relativist politics of Western Europe, you need go no further than Brothers, a provocative new drama from Denmark. Superficially, it’s an intimate and rather self-contained film, but director Susanne Bier (Open Hearts, The One and Only) asks some big questions about love, war, and conscience. The kind of painfully relevant questions our second-term president apparently doesn’t care to face and dissident documentarians like Michael Moore usually trample in their rush for self-aggrandizement. In the post-9/11 climate of fear and anger, many Americans have rejected European nuance. But Brothers bears watching — even if your name is Rumsfeld or Rice.
The scaffolding of the film — but only the scaffolding — is a sibling rivalry. The older brother, Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), is a dutiful army officer and family man who lives in Copenhagen with his lovely wife, Sarah (Gladiator star Connie Nielsen), and two young daughters (Sarah Juel Warner and Rebecca Logstrup Soltau). The younger brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is a sullen outlaw type who has just been released from prison after doing time for assaulting a woman. Where Michael is sensible and controlled, Jannik is reckless and irresponsible. Good brother. Bad brother. Can they really come from the same gene pool?
We shall see. No sooner does Jannik get out of jail than Michael is shipped off to fight in Afghanistan, confident in his training and buoyed by belief that he’s doing the right thing. Jannik gets drunk and lurches around the city in his brother’s car. Then, catastrophe. Michael’s helicopter is shot down, and military authorities conclude that everyone aboard has been killed. Why, in the absence of bodies, these soldiers are not listed as missing in action is a question only Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen can answer. But for the purposes of their plot, Michael’s parents, his grieving widow, her children, and her troubled brother-in-law endure a solemn memorial service back home and start trying to cope.
Jannik’s adjustment is more like a personal reinvention. His stern, stricken father (Bent Mejding) still disapproves of him, but the troubled younger son helps remodel Sarah’s kitchen. He entertains his nieces. Offscreen, he apologizes to the still-traumatized woman he attacked. In what they both see as an expression of mutual sorrow, Jannik and Sarah share a kiss. What no one knows, of course, is that Michael is alive in a Taliban prison camp and that he is about to return home a changed man — an angry, disturbed man much more like the preredemptive Jannik than the upright husband and father he once was.
Actually, writer Jensen has come this way before, more or less. In last year’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (written by Jensen and directed by Lone Scherfig), a young Scotsman obsessed with suicide reverses roles with his disease-doomed brother in a story of familial devotion that is tinged with carnal deceit. In Brothers, the deceit is all imaginary, but the role reversal is even more powerful — and more telling.
What happened to Michael in Afghanistan? The prison camp scenes are harrowing, and the turning point comes when the captured officer has to make a hard choice. From that the entire moral scope of the film radiates — in much the same way that the tragedy of Sophie’s Choice (novel and film) emerged from a single, agonized decision by its tormented heroine. Inflamed by the outrage committed on our own shores four years ago, most Americans would rather evade this kind of quandary, but there’s no reason a thoughtful Danish filmmaker should not present it to the world’s moviegoers, if only in concept. Tormented by his secret, Michael becomes a vessel for several burning questions about war and responsibility — and if answers don’t come easily, so much the better.
Director Bier is particularly adept at beholding the plight of her unhinged widow. In Nielsen’s big, liquid eyes she finds not only grief, not only fear, but a kind of otherworldly wonder at what is happening to her; moreover, one suspects that only a woman could have filmed the scenes of poor Sarah thrashing restlessly in her empty bed with the kind of deep-down understanding they give off here. It’s as though we are gazing into the woman’s soul.
In its second half, Brothers‘ psychological tension grows very keen, just as it did in a trio of postwar-stress movies American audiences know well — The Best Years of Our Lives, The Deer Hunter, and Coming Home. Michael’s transformation from a bourgeois drone into a violent paranoiac threatens to shatter his family and drive him insane: It also raises all kinds of issues about mission, duty, and the demands of love in a world where the certainties of absolutism are forever colliding with questions of moral judgment. Beautifully acted and disturbing to its core, Brothers addresses those collisions with grace and intelligence. What a pity it is unlikely ever to be screened at the White House or the Pentagon.