‘Brothers’ brings the battlefield closer to home
July 26, 2005
Wars have changed the course of global progress, altered the consciousness of whole nations, shifted the world’s strategic alliances and decimated populations.
“Brothers,” a Danish film by Susanne Bier, makes sure we don’t forget that war can also grab a single person, one family, and wreak its havoc on the small scale too, far from the battlefield and world capitals.The family in “Brothers” is something of a battleground to begin with. Jannik (Nikolaj Lee Kaas) is a brutish drunk just being released from prison. If incarceration – for assault on a woman – has changed Jannik, it isn’t evident. He quarrels with his older brother Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) who picks him up from jail; at a reunion dinner, he extends equal rudeness to parents and in-laws, young and old.The dinner is not only a welcome home for Jannik, but a send-off for Michael. A major in the Danish army, the optimistic, stable and beloved Michael is headed for Afghanistan. While Jannik threatens the family peace over nothing more than his internal rage, Michael reassures his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen) and their two young daughters that war won’t lay a finger on him.
But war between nations is no match for promises between a father and his children. Almost before their boots are on the ground, the helicopter carrying Michael and his comrades is shot from the sky. It is an especially effective way of depicting war: the battle, for Michael anyway, hasn’t even begun; we don’t see the enemy or its fire. And yet, back in Denmark, Sarah is getting that doorstep visit from two solemn, uniformed strangers, as much a symbol of catastrophe in Denmark as it is in the States.Bier shows an uncommonly accurate ear for this upheaval. The family doesn’t simply coalesce around the tragedy, but acts out in irrational ways that extend the damage. The older daughter resists going to the funeral. Michael’s parents, his stoic father and emotionally shaky mother, find tension in their disparate reactions. And when Jannik, as drunk and loutish as ever, starts calling and showing up at his brother’s house, Sarah doesn’t push him away, but brings him in closer. And closer. With all the unpredictable behavior and mood swings, “Brothers” jangles the nerves in a way that reflects the loss of a family member.Things get janglier still when Michael turns out not to be as much of a casualty as presumed. (I don’t restrain myself from divulging this twist, or feel it necessary to post a spoiler alert, as it was clear to me that Michael wasn’t dead.) After his torturous time in an Afghanistan prison camp, he returns home to the dreaded postwar existence explored in such films as “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.” Instead of a happy homecoming, Michael’s arrival is a disturbance, as much to him as to his family. Haunted by his experience, unable to connect, Michael is consumed by anger and jealousy. In his place is Jannik, finally experiencing some semblance of happiness and stability.
“Brothers” ends on a moment of satisfying release that takes nothing away from Bier’s unnerving depiction of the war on the home front. War is hell, and that applies to those locked in a squalid hut, those who have been maimed, or those deprived of their loved ones.Bier captures this almost flawlessly. The one occasionally unconvincing character was Nielsen’s Sarah, whose unhinged reactions to events are nearly on par with Johnny Depp’s Willie Wonka. But little matter that Sarah smiles like a Buddha statue at things that would bring most women to tears. “Brothers” strikes a balance between cold reality and compassion for its characters that makes this take on war heartbreaking, hopeful and honest.”Brothers” shows Sunday and Monday, July 31-Aug. 1, at Paepcke Auditorium in the SummerFilms series.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org