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An army commander faces the consequences of his grave, split-second decision in A War, the third feature by Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm.

Representing Denmark as a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at this year’s Academy Awards, A War stars Pilou Asbæk (A Hijacking) as Claus M. Pederson, a Danish company commander posted in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, who leads his troop on a mission to protect civilians, while his wife (Tuva Novotny), Maria, faces the burden of raising their three children (played by Elise Sondergaard, Andreas Buch Borgwardt, and Adam Chessa) on her own.

When Pederson and his soldiers are caught in a Taliban siege, he is forced to make a judgement call in order to protect his men. His hastily made decision — to bomb the site of the attack — does not end well: A total of 11 civilians are killed, including women and children, and the once celebrated leader is faced with imprisonment charges.

Along with the use of one of the most haunting symbols in recent cinema — a child’s feet — Lindholm’s film delivers a compelling study of war and morality. And his muse, the charismatic Asbæk, naturally draws in audience sympathy for his portrayal of a man whose roles as both a leader and a father are tested.

Before A War‘s final stop at the Academy Awards (on Sunday, February 28), I had a chance to speak with Lindholm about his extensive research and preparation for the film, how family served as his emotional window into the story, and the challenges of portraying the complexities of war.

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ScreenPicks: Unlike most war films, which show how war can dehumanize a man, your film shows how man maintains his humanity during war. Can you talk about your inspiration behind the film and the challenge of finding that unique angle?

Lindholm: “We’ve often seen war films where we follow the dehumanization of a man, and I felt it inspiring to do the opposite and try to add human layers to him instead. He is very vulnerable by the end of this film, he is very hurt and he’s been part of things that he couldn’t control. But at the same time, I wanted to relate to him as a human being, which is why we added a wife and three kids. Now he’s not just a soldier; he’s a human being with a wife and three kids. He’s somebody’s father, he’s somebody’s husband and that made it possible for me to relate to him on a human level. And I found that extremely important in a story where I tried to describe the complexity of war.”

ScreenPicks: In preparing for this film, you worked like a journalist, interviewing Taliban warriors, refugees, soldiers, prosecutors, and families of soldiers. How else did you immerse yourself into the subject that you were initially foreign to?

Lindholm: “We traveled around the world; we went to Turkey. I spent a lot of time with soldiers. I watched a lot of private footage from soldiers who had been in camps, saw a lot of documentaries and just basically tried to understand the logic. Even though I’ve never been there, I felt that I needed to try to figure out how it would smell in these areas. So I would do anything I could to get closer to that truth and put myself in that situation.

But for me the most important part was to bring in these real veterans to the film, and these real refugees, so that they could honestly give me their witness of war and tell me their stories, so that I wouldn’t be lying, so that I could be accurate, so that the life that I was portraying, all the people I was portraying, would be able to recognize their own reality. I was very obsessed with that in the beginning and trying to do that many aspects.”

ScreenPicks: And as you just mentioned, being a father to three children of your own was your way of connecting to Claus. In one of your past interviews, you called it your “emotional window” into the film. But as we see in the film, Dar’s character says, “You don’t know what it’s like out there.” Do you think that film is the ultimate medium for those of us who are civilians to understand what a soldier’s experience of war is like?

Lindholm: “I can only say, I know what I felt when I watched Restrepo, the American documentary, for the first time, about a small platoon in Kandahar. There’s a scene where a soldier gets an anxiety attack, because one of his friends just got shot, and that’s one of [the] most proofs of human life in war that I ever saw. Suddenly, it became very real and very human to me. And that was scary. At the same time, it felt incredibly important to me to show this, to show this to me, who is part of a democracy who has sent soldiers out to war. I felt that that was the responsibility as storytellers and filmmakers that we have.

“And yes, I feel that film, as a medium, cinema can put us in situations and in the shoes of people that we will never be. I’ve felt that many times. I remember watching Japanese films about kung fu fighters. Nevertheless, I suddenly would feel like that, and I would become a better version of me by relating to other people and other situations. And that is one of the biggest responsibilities and biggest gifts of cinema.”

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ScreenPicks: Realism is major element and achievement of your film. It never feels melodramatic or staged. It almost feels like we’re intruding in their lives. And one thing audiences may not know is that you had real soldiers and Taliban victims for your film. What other ways did you ensure that your film was authentic to the story as possible?

Lindholm: “I am not amused by my own imagination; I often get bored if I have to make stuff up. I’d rather go out there and make it as it would be, and that’s fascinating. The best way to do that would be to cast people who knew what they were talking about. I have actors in there to make sure that the emotional journey of the characters is told, but I would never be able to make a truthful picture with twelve actors who have trained as soldiers for three months. With the possibility of bringing in these veterans that have spent years of their lives in Afghanistan, I knew that we could portray more accurate and that was basically what I was looking for — the accuracy.

“I’m not interested in the audience to understand exactly what’s going on on the radio. I just want them to believe that it’s real. I think that we can relate to each other in that way without necessarily simplifying our understanding [on] exactly what’s going on. So that became a main goal. I feel that after we are trying to simplify stuff, and the way that we communicate, we live in a world where we are communicating in 140 characters on Twitter. It’s really hard to be truthful with only 140 characters. I feel the world is more complex than that. And the witnesses of war, these experts, helped maintain the complexity of the story.”

ScreenPicks: For the first half of the film, when Claus is in Afghanistan, you contrast his daily life to that of his wife and their three children. And you show how the consequences of his absence have an effect on their daily lives. Why was it important to give them equal prominence on screen instead of just having this singular experience that the audience vicariously experiences?

Lindholm: “I feel that it was a world that I wasn’t aware of before I started to research. Yes, we’ve sent around 25,000 soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the number is a lot bigger if you look at the people directly affected by this decision. If we look, everybody had moms, brothers, sisters, wives, kids. It’s a pretty big group in a nation of 5.5 million people. And I felt it necessary for us to try to understand that and at the same time it was a way to identify with these guys. Because as soon as you’re a parent, and you’re traveling away from them, once in a while, just for a couple of days, if you know the feeling of speaking to your son on a broken phone line, if you know the feeling of being away from your family and understanding that your kids are starting to react of you not being there, I could relate to that.

“As you said before, it became an emotional window for me to climb into this story and understand from within. And I wanted to describe the reality of these families, and it was part of humanizing the soldier, but also part of telling the story of all these spouses who are not victims but are part of this being of war and who are struggling to make it work. I was just fascinated by the arena and fascinated by these families, spent so much time apart and still survived, even though the tension around the phone calls, the tension when the news is on, you never what’s going to happen, you get afraid when the phone rings — and all of that was a reality that I wasn’t aware of, that I got very fascinated by.”

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ScreenPicks: When you were making this film, were any of your views about the War in Afghanistan and Denmark’s involvement in it at all challenged or supported?

Lindholm: “I tried to not have a political view on whether I was pro, against the war. I actually just looked at it from a humanistic perspective, but of course, when I talked to Danish soldiers, they describe what’s going on down there. And I talked to Afghan refugees that, even though they had to escape their country, speak about the war as necessary and good in some ways. My anti-war feelings get confronted, right? So I don’t think I have fixed opinions before, but I have to say that I have accepted the complexity of war and aren’t sure what to think of it. Nevertheless, I found it extremely interesting to describe the reality of these people.”

ScreenPicks: I know that you’re writing Paul Greengrass’ The Tunnels and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune. How come you’ve chosen to focus on screenwriting rather than directing?

Lindholm: “Well, I’m educated as [a] screenwriter, and I feel at home with my computer late at night. I feel the biggest battles are won in the screenwriting process. And then I enjoy directing a lot as well, but I have a great love of writing. I’m not sure I’m built to be around too many human beings at the same time. So, you know, I like isolate and just, you know, when my kids are sleeping, I can write. (laughs)

ScreenPicks: A lot of writers borrow from their own lives and put themselves in their stories. Would you say that you identify with Claus’ character, his personality?

Lindholm: “In many ways, I do as a family father who travels a lot with his job. That for me was a point of identification. I often try to give my characters names to people that I know in real life. Because to writing names where I already know in real life, they kind of become alive and I have an emotional bank to draw from. But yes, I’ve never been a soldier, but I relate to the fact that you’re doing a job that demands from you to being away from your family for a long time, the frustration in talking to your kids on broken phone lines, not being able to connect with them emotionally. But you’re becoming, for a period, a spectator — the pain of that, I could relate to easily.”

ScreenPicks: Success is defined differently by every person. Someone would say it would be awards or how an audience reacts to your film. How would you personally define the success of your film now that it’s competing for an Oscar?

Lindholm: “Well, it’s a fantastic thing that we are nominated, that we’re doing this journey, but for me that was never the plan. The success of this film would be to create a film where the people whose lives we are portraying could recognize their own life and at the same time, hopefully, invite for a conversation — at least in Denmark — about what we’ve been part of in Afghanistan. That it’s been able to translate internationally and travel, and that people around the world seems to relate to the film is, of course, amazing. And yes, that is a great success, but for me, basically, when I’ve met with veterans and with wives and with Afghans that have told me that they could recognize their own realities, that’s where I felt the most successful.”

A War opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 12.

(All photos are courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)