Feature film “of love and war”: complex neighborhood

The feature film "Of Love and War" tells about a touching romance of the relationship between Danes and Germans during the First World War.

Like "Casablanca," "Of Love and War" tells of love amid the turmoil of war Photo: Tamtam Film

An airport at night, a last-minute escape. The uniformed Germans are already approaching in a car. A woman between two men. With which of them will she fly to freedom? With her great love or his noble rival? Yes, this is the final scene of "Casablanca" – the most beautiful melodrama in film history. But that’s also the ending of the Danish film "Of Love and War.

It tells the story of Danes and Germans during the First World War. But as the German distribution title makes clear, this is also a love story. Director and screenwriter Kasper Torsting could not resist, and has – well-meaningly put – been inspired by the farewell scene between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. So even his protagonist can still deliver a heartbreaking monologue in which he explains to his beloved why he must sacrifice himself and her love. Only the "beginning of a wonderful friendship" could not be accommodated by Torsting.

And as with "Casablanca," the romance here is so touching because it is solidly embedded in a political conflict that determined the fate of many people. There it was – incidentally not told historically in 1942, but almost on a daily basis – the situation of political refugees from the Hitler regime. Here it is the contradiction that in the First World War Danes living in the Prussian dominion had to fight on the side of the Germans.

The film begins on the Western Front in France, where Dane Esben gets behind enemy lines and has traumatic experiences that will change him so much that his wife Kirstine and his young son Karl hardly recognize him when he returns. With the bloody and lavishly staged opening scenes in the style of "Nothing New in the West", the titular "war" is then basically dealt with. The rest of the film takes place in Esben’s home village on the German-Danish border. But there is no sign here of the fact that the civilian population also had to suffer from extreme deprivation during the war years of 19.

Post-traumatic change of mind

Esben is briefly celebrated as a war hero, but his post-traumatic change of mind makes it difficult for him to get used to everyday life again. And he is plagued by jealousy, because during his absence the German officer Gerhard visited his wife Kirstine so often that his son now sees him as his new father. The German is in charge in the village and orders Esben to be sent back to the war front. But he deserts and his wife hides him in the attic.

The fact that he walks around there with street shoes on the thin wooden floor directly above the heads of those searching for him is one of the clumsiness of the direction, which severely undermines the plausibility of the story. Still, one enjoys following the story of the two lovers, played by Sebastian Jessen and Rosalinde Mynster as a handsome couple with whom one loves to commiserate.

Tom Wlaschiha has a more difficult time in the role of the German officer and power seeker, because he is not only the bad guy who wants to get rid of Esben. He also loves Kirstine and her son so sincerely that he eventually sacrifices everything for them.

The sadistic villain of the film, on the other hand, is the sergeant Hansen (Thure Lindhard), a German-friendly Dane who pretends to be more Prussian than the Germans themselves and who wants to hunt Esben down with a dogged zeal. The figure of this collaborator best illustrates what Kasper Thorsting actually wants to tell about.

At the time of the First World War, there were more Danes than Germans living in Northern Schleswig, but because the region belonged to Prussia, more than 30,000 of them were sent to the front. 6,000 died, several thousand deserted. In this sense, the film is based on a "true incident," even though this formulation has been highly suspect in feature films since "Fargo" at the latest.

The melodrama that is incorporated into it may seem a bit contrived, but the film comes alive whenever it tells of the highly complicated relationship between Danes and Germans. They are neighbors, friends or relatives, and the fronts cannot be clearly drawn between the two nationalities.

Torsting tries to fathom these complex and often contradictory relationships, and one means of doing so is language. When and how German or Danish is spoken is a decisive indication of the power relations between the protagonists – in the original bilingual version, it is not for nothing that Danes play Danes and Germans play Germans.

"Of Love and War, Directed by Kasper Torsting. With Sebastian Jessen, Rosalinde Mynster a. o. DK/D/CZE 2018, 103 min.

But in the German version, which is now being released in cinemas, everyone speaks German. Thus, an important layer of the film is dubbed away. While in the original version, for example, the assignment is clear from the first spoken word, in this version it often remains unclear for a long time whether a film character is Danish or German. It becomes absurd at the latest when a Danish official speaks German with a Danish accent or when a folk song is sung in Danish in the original sound.

"I krig og kærlighed" (the original title) is a Danish-German co-production that was funded by Filmforderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein as well as Nordmedia Film- and Mediengesellschaft Niedersachsen/ Bremen. In 2018, the film celebrated its world premiere at Filmfest Hamburg, since then it has been on hold at the Hamburg production and distribution company Tamtam Film.

A fitting occasion to bring it to German cinemas after all are this year’s celebrations of the peaceful and democratic vote in 1920, when the majority of the population of Northern Schleswig chose to live in Denmark rather than in the German Reich. From today on, the film will be shown where interest is likely to be particularly high: in cinemas in Flensburg, Heide, Amrum, Busum, Husum and Sylt – unfortunately not in a double program with "Casablanca".

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