No Man’s Land

As the credits rolled at the close of No Man’s Land, Danis Tanovic’s scabrous satiric fable about the Bosnian war, the woman next to me leaned over and whispered, "Great movie. Now, which one of those guys was the Serb?" I thought for a moment and could only answer, "I have no idea."

Again and again in the film, someone points a gun at an enemy and demands that they make a single concession: they must admit that their side bears all responsibility for the war. ("My village was burned!" says a Bosnian. "Yeah, well, so was mine!" responds a Serb.) Since Tanovic’s only interest in the question of who started it all is its significance as motivation for his characters, he makes very little effort to sort out who’s who. This moves the film away from easy platitudes to the most brutal satire. At its best, No Man’s Land is "Who’s On First?" in a corpse-riddled trench, with moral culpability for a genocidal civil war rather than the identity of a first baseman as the punchline.

The film opens on impenetrable billows of blue fog. A group of soldiers are lost, close enough to the enemy to be terrified but incapable of moving on because of the fog. They settle in for the night, hiding the glowing tips of their cigarettes with their hands and whispering grim jokes to pass the time. It’s a setup straight out of a WWII combat movie – there’s a wisecracking cynic, a goofy recruit, a paranoid fat man – but with crucial information missing. It’s unclear what their mission is, which side they’re on, even how many of them are waiting out the night.

When they wake up, to a startlingly beautiful shot of a sunrise over breaking clouds of fog, they barely have time to panic. They were sleeping in no man’s land, the fifty or sixty unclaimed yards of territory between the Serbian and Bosnian front line trenches. They’re targets for both sides.

It’s a terrific opening scenario for a war movie, but Tanovic couldn’t be less concerned with heroics. He dispenses with this situation in one blunt scene, then settles into his real story. A Serbian and a Bosnian are trapped in a trench in no man’s land. One (Branko Djuric) is an injured veteran, the other (Rene Bitorajac) a recruit so doughy and inexperienced he can’t even rely on instinct to get him through. Between them lies a booby-trapped corpse, and outside are two armies poised to kill them if they try to leave the trench.

This middle stretch of the film plays like a homicidal vaudeville routine as scripted by Samuel Beckett. When one of them gets a gun, the demands and recriminations begin, and last just as long as it takes for the balance of power to shift. ("Empty your pockets!" "Why?" "Because I have a gun and you don’t!") Tanovic draws moral distinctions only to obliterate them: the Serbs may hide landmines under corpses, but the Bosnians’ lust for vengeance inflates each situation to ever crazier levels of violence. These two men play out the war in miniature, and the fact that we lose track of who’s on which side underscores the larger point.

When the men try to leave the trench by signaling a surrender, they inadvertently launch an international incident. A United Nations operative named Marchand (Georges Siatidis) intervenes when neither side can call off their troops. The UN troops – "smurfs" to the combatants because of their baby blue helmets – are there only to dispense humanitarian aid. They’re not empowered to act, so Marchand is in violation of international law as he tries to help the two men. When a BBC reporter (Katrin Cartlidge) intercepts a radio message, she leaps into the situation, followed by a pack of reporters.

Tanovic works through comic escalation and purposeful confusion, piling on complications and never stopping to provide any comfortable distance for judging the characters. (This leapfrogging structure suggests Preston Sturges’ masterpiece Hail the Conquering Hero.) As the UN troops and the media surround the trench, they inadvertently exacerbate the tensions while acting out of the very best intentions. (Marchand’s sincere statement of purpose – "Neutrality does not exist in the face of murder" – is at once moving, hopelessly naive, and completely inadequate to the situation.)

No Man’s Land is a staggering debut in a dozen ways. The performances are uniformly excellent, the dialogue terse and often hilarious, the pacing flawless. But what’s most satisfying is its complexity of tone. The film broadens its scope with each scene, shifting from simple action movie to absurdist farce to broad political satire, with each move outward deepening the satire, mingling real horror with the comedy. It ends with a shot so haunting in its blasted futility that it lingers long after the best jokes are forgotten. It’s also, of course, a morbid joke in its own right, a fitting end to a comedy that dares its audience to laugh at death because there’s nothing else to be done.

Gary Mairs