NO MAN’S LAND, Danis Tanovic’s black comedy about the absurd futility of war, is a prime example of why I adore films from the former Yugoslavia and have since before it was a former. They are like a knife to the gut, they are beautiful, and they are poetic with their shattering intensity. They are like the car crash you know you should not slow down for and rubberneck, but just can’t help yourself. They are like that sore on the inside of your mouth that you know you shouldn’t play with, but it hurts so good.
And they are devastatingly funny and not just because of the joke playing out on the screen. At root, it is the absurdity of two strangers with neither having any personal quarrel with the other taking up arms and trying to kill each other because another stranger with a higher rank has told them to. It is a particular manifestation, a distillation of the weariness of war. It is savage whimsy.
In this case, set in 1993, about three soldiers, one Serb and two Bosnians trapped in a trench between enemy lines. How they got there has to do with being lost in a fog and reckless boredom. The Serb is Nino (Rene Bitorajac), a perky neophyte who’s so new to the war that, in a joke that never fails to hit the spot, he keeps trying to introduce himself to people who know better than to get to know their fellow soldiers. The Bosnians are Chiki (Branco Djuric), a cynical vet in a Rolling Stones T-shirt, and Cera (Filip Sovagovic), who thanks to Nino’s fellow Serbian soldier, finds himself laying atop a mine that will explode if he gets up, a mine that will kill not only Cera, but everyone else in the trench. Talk about another great metaphor. And, of course, if they try to leave, one side or another will mow them down.
The enemy lines taking a bead on them can’t figure out what’s going on and, truth be told, they care even less, torn as they are between tedium and inertia. That goes for the UN peacekeeping forces, too, who are eventually involved, reluctantly, of course. A supercillious UN commander with the evocative name of Soft, played to perfection by Simon Callow, begs off making a decision on what if anything needs to be done, saying that his superiors are away at a media relations workshop. Finally, a sad-eyed Georges Siatidis as a UN sergeant from France, who is actually in the field, decides that he’s had enough of sitting by and decides to actually try to help. As he puts it, choosing to do nothing is also taking a side, it is anything but neutrality. Whereupon all hell breaks loose. Or should I say, more hell? We are, after all, in the Balkans.
The tragedy amid the chaos is laid bare when it becomes obvious that the people with good intentions, and we all know where good intentions lead, aren’t going to help. Even the savvy, hard-bitten British reporter played with brittle integrity by Katrin Cartlidge, misses the story right under her nose.
And yet while your gut is being wrenched, Tanovic forces a belly laugh with things like a kid who plays his accordion until a soldier pays him in cigarettes to stop the racket. And then forces a painful insight as Nino and Chiki spar over whose fault the war is and then discover that they both knew the same girl back in their hometown. NO MAN’S LAND is a perfect metaphor, achingly on target in the slightest particular, of what the former Yugoslavia was, has become, and where we might all be headed one day