'Brothers' Torn by War And Rivalry

Connie Nielsen and Ulrich Thomsen in a film about a husband who changes after a U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Connie Nielsen and Ulrich Thomsen in a film about a husband who changes after a U.N. peacekeeping mission. (Ifc Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005

WAR DOESN'T just kill the dead, it destroys the survivors. Postwar trauma is the linchpin of "Brothers," Danish director Susanne Bier's biblically charged, absorbing drama about two brothers whose lifelong rivalry explodes when the oldest returns from brutal military duty.

Michael Lundberg (Ulrich Thomsen), a soldier, husband and father, is sent to Afghanistan on a U.N. peacekeeping mission. He says goodbye to the life he knows: sweet-natured wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen), two precocious preteen daughters, an irascible, bigoted father (Bent Mejding), and a younger brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose aggressive, drunken behavior has already resulted in a physical assault on a woman.

"Just tell me you love me," says Sarah, when Michael calls his wife from Afghanistan.

"With all the new nurses here? Are you kidding?" jokes Michael. It's the faux pas of his life, in a way. It tells her that he's not fully committed. And it turns out to be the last peaceful conversation between them. Their communication is cut off immediately afterward.

Michael is a man of seemingly invincible will. We've seen this when he trains a troop of Danish soldiers, warning them about the conviction and strength of purpose they'll need to make it through wartime alive and intact. But when he's captured by Afghan soldiers after his helicopter is brought down, Michael's discipline is put to its most harrowing test.

Informed that her husband is presumed dead, Sarah tries to pick up the pieces of her life. She is surprised at how forthrightly Jannik steps in to help her. Suddenly, the irresponsible brother-in-law turns into a pillar; and he's playful with the children. Not surprisingly, Sarah is more than available to his advances. And in short order, Jannik replaces his brother. But just as suddenly as Yannick becomes part of Sarah's life, Michael returns. But he's not the same.

What happened in Afghanistan? We have seen what he's gone through, but the family has no clue because Michael is emotionally shut down. His only means of communication is through verbal hostility, suspicion about his wife and brother and outright violence. Predictably, the brothers face each other on a powerful, atavistic level.

If the later stages of "Brothers" become almost too melodramatic to accept, they are always laced with the high qualities of Dogme 95 filmmaking. At its best, this Danish movement (a style of filmmaking co-founded by Bier, Lars von Trier and many others) is a fusion of low-tech and high-theatrical purpose, where inspired actorly performances combine with quasi-documentary, emotionally alert camerawork. "Brothers" feels like an amalgam of newsreel and stage drama, but with the most potent aspects of both art forms. This hybrid success comes from the deft, mobile camerawork, Bier's adroit direction and affectingly subtle performances by Thomsen and Kaas. And as Michael's daughters Else and Natalia, Solbjorg Hojfeldt and Sarah Juel Werner, respectively, add heft to the story. This is not the kind of drama to send you singing and dancing all the way home, of course. But there's such a sense of overall intensity, you know you have been though something powerful.

BROTHERS (R, 110 minutes) -- Contains brutal (off-frame) violence, emotional intensity, nudity and obscenity. In Danish with subtitles. At E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company