October 5, 2007

Back to Bosnia with Oscar-winning "No Man's Land"

Here's my old review of "No Man's Land," which went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2001:

Dec. 6, 2001 (UPI) -- Is America ready for back-to-back Bosnian civil war movies? Trapped with Owen Wilson last week "Behind Enemy Lines," we're now stuck between enemy lines in "No Man's Land," a self-assured art-house tragedy masquerading as an absurdist satire.

Awarded "Best Screenplay" at Cannes, about a quarter of the script is in English. The rest is in subtitled Serbo-Croatian or French. The trilingual dialogue isn't really that brilliant, but the plot is well-crafted.

Still, most American moviegoers probably feel that a little Bosnia goes a long ways, thank you very much. Despite all the video razzmatazz of "Behind Enemy Lines," its slushy Balkan mountains seemed an especially dismal place to die. If I'm going to stick my nose into tribal vendettas, let it be under gleaming blue skies, as in "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Man Who Would Be King."

Fortunately, rookie Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic sets "No Man's Land" in a rolling meadow on the loveliest day of June 1993. Obeying Aristotle's advice to unify time, place, and action, Tanovic's script is better suited for the stage, but his low-budget movie looks surprisingly inviting on screen.

The premise is set up with the care and artificiality of a chess problem. A relief platoon of secular Muslims blunders past its own trenches and is ripped apart by dug-in Serbs. One bleeding Muslim in a Rolling Stones t-shirt dives into an abandoned trench between the two armies.

Two Serb soldiers crawl out to investigate. While the Muslim survivor hides, the Serbs find a Muslim corpse. The vile older Serb places a Bouncing Betty mine under the body, setting it to explode when he's lifted up for burial.

The Muslim guns down the old soldier. He wounds the harmless-looking new recruit, but decides to spare him.

The two enemies soon realize that neither can escape without being shot by the opposing army.

The boobytrapped Muslim lying on the mine turns out to be alive. The only thing wrong with him is that if he gets up, he goes boom.

The foes slowly realize that it would be in everybody's interest to cooperate. (Strikingly, Tanovic, an anti-religious Muslim, makes the Serb slightly more sympathetic.)

"No Man's Land" has been winning rave reviews for exposing the "absurdity of war." So, I assumed I knew what was coming next from all the American movies with similar themes. The enemies would realize their common humanity; ask, "Can't we all just get along;" and devise a tension-filled but clever way to save the man on the mine.

This being a Bosnian film, however, everything instead goes wrong. While UN peacekeepers and the global media look on fecklessly, the two soldiers' truce repeatedly breaks down. Fear leads to a pre-emptive attack, which generates revenge assaults. Ultimately, the man on the mine is left laying there as all the Western European gawkers give up and go back to the Holiday Inn for a press conference.

After the screening, I asked the handsome and cocky young auteur if he'd ever dreamed up a way to get the poor jerk off the mine. "No way, it's impossible," Tanovic snapped, perhaps irritated that yet another literal-minded American had failed to grasp that the boobytrap was an absurdist symbol, not some vulgar practical problem like the one Mel Gibson faced in rescuing Danny Glover from the exploding toilet in "Lethal Weapon 2."

In contrast to Eastern European intellectuals, however, American audiences like a man with a plan. I'm sure James Cameron couldn't help but think up a dozen solutions. Heck, even I figured out something worth trying: Cut the front of the soldier's clothes open and stake them down hard to the ground to maintain the pressure on the mine while he gets up.

Indeed, "No Man's Land," works best as an allegory not about the absurdity of war, but about its brutal logic. Like the two fighters, Balkan ethnic groups slaughter each other for depressingly understandable reasons. Until Americans comprehend their logic, however, all our can-do practicality won't be able to help these unhappy peoples.

In Bosnia, hate can be hard to avoid. Imagine that in 1943 your Croatian neighbors had murdered your uncle and stolen his farm. Memories fade, but real estate is forever. Picture the killer's son, enjoying your land, now.

Yet, when authority is up for grabs, fear can be as deadly as vengeance. Assume your house was seized by your grandfather from the Muslims he killed in 1912. Their descendents might try to take it back. Wouldn't it be safer to strike them first?

"No Man's Land" miniaturizes this kind of appalling history. Still, only a "Godfather II"-style multi-generation epic could help Americans fully understand the Balkans tragedy. Perhaps someday, the promising Tanovic will be ready for that.

"No Man's Land" is opening in New York City on Friday, and expanding over the next two weeks. Rated "R" for a reasonable amount of blood and a lot of Serbo-Croatian bad words.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


A. Taidt Sfinctre said...

"Ultimately, the man on the mine is left laying there..."

Steve, I don't normally correct people's English, but it should be "lying there". The spreading misuse of "laying" is one of the more depressing developments in the ongoing degradation of the English language, almost as bad as "between he and I". This stuff is spreading like kudzu, and it has to stopped. It takes people like you, Steve, to stop it.

Join the fight.

Paul said...

If I'm going to stick my nose into tribal vendettas, let it be under gleaming blue skies, as in "Lawrence of Arabia" or "The Man Who Would Be King."


You are always telling us about how you predicted such-a-so by referring back to an earlier article. Will you hereby officially eat your words this time? :-)

Steve Sailer said...

My point was cinematic -- blue desert skies make for better-looking adventure epics than does drizzle. Poking their noses into Kafiristani vendettas didn't work out too well in the end for Danny and Peachey in "The Man Who Would Be King," but it made for a good looking movie.

Anonymous said...

"Steve, I don't normally correct people's English, but it should be 'lying there'."

Fortunately, I normally mock misguided pomposity and I shall do so right now:

You don't know what you're talking about, your 'correction' is not at all substantive, and you've revealed yourself as a shining example of the tragically ironic insecure elitist.


It's only the man with nothing to say who corrects someone else's grammar. No one appreciates it, and it reflects poorly on the critic (and not the author).

Steve Sailer said...

Actually, I do appreciate it. I've had a problem with "lay" and "lie" for years. I hope I've gotten past it since 2001, but if I have, it's only because John McCarthy, the computer scientist, sent me an email pointing out my error in that regard.