Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence, caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?
~ The Cranberries, "Zombie"
The referential title-drop in the 2021 Netflix political-comedy, Don’t Look Up, becomes a slogan and cosmic act of disobedience the government is able to convince their electorate base to follow: do not look up in the sky at a world-ending comet hurtling towards Earth. The film’s metaphor isn’t only about the Left’s perceived notions regarding the Right’s science denialism, but more interestingly how all of humanity can struggle with the inability to face a world-changing crisis and the effect these large-scale events have on our personal relationships, not to mention our individual mortality. For some, it’s easier to look away from these complexities rather than face the grim reality they present to us.
War is of course a huge issue that can be hard for many to look at too closely, let alone acknowledge it’s even happening in the idyllic pleasure bubbles we try and insulate ourselves with every day. But the cinema has always offered a voyeuristic safety distance for viewers to experience the macabre of human beings killing one another, the technical prowess of the machines and weapons they use to do it, and the individual stories of resilience and survival of the innocents caught in the crossfire. The Danish film, Skyggen I Mit øje ("The Shadow in My Eye") – distributed on Netflix on March 9th as The Bombardment – succeeds in offering us this spectacle. According to FlixPatrol, which tracks video on demand (VOD) and streaming worldwide, the film circulated in Netflix’s Top 10 ratings in just about every country who offers the famous streamer for over two weeks now and in many countries it continues to do so.
Viscerally written and directed by Ole Bornedal, it’s a haunting dramatization of the collateral damage wrecked by Operation Carthage, a British military operation in WW2 that involved aerial bombing a Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Danish Resistance Movement convinces the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to attack the headquarters, even knowing some of their comrades are being held prisoner inside. But when one of the RAF planes in the first wave of the attack accidentally hits a lamp post before reaching the target, it crashes into the Institut of Jeanne d’Arc, a French-language, Roman Catholic all-girls school nearby. The second and third waves of the British airstrike see the smoke from the school and mistake its location for the original Gestapo headquarters target. Before the smoke clears and the fire is extinguished, 86 children and 18 adults would be dead.
Fear from above becomes an important motif in The Bombardment. It afflicts children like Henry (Bertram Bisgaard Enevoldsen) when he witnesses a Danish wedding party massacred at the beginning of the film and becomes mute, as well as his friend Eva (Ella Josephine Lund Nilsson) when she watches the school being attacked. It traps Danish resistance fighters who are being held as prisoners in the Gestapo headquarters and used as human shields against the British. It tortures the spiritual and moral fiber of Teresa (Fanny Bornedal) – a nun caught in the school attack who already has been questioning her faith in God – as well as Frederik (Alex Høgh Andersen), a member of the Danish cooperation police whose interactions with Teresa force him to reconcile the position he’s taken against his own Danish community and the judgment that awaits him in both this life and possibly the next.
Obviously, this film comes to us at a particularly grim time as the war in Ukraine and many other military conflicts throughout the world rage on. The current news that hundreds of civilians reportedly remain trapped in a bombed-out theater in Mariupol draws a specifically tragic parallel to The Bombardment’s third-act rescue mission for the characters stuck in the school attack’s aftermath. However, the fog of war has shown us conflicting accounts of this and many other incidents coming out of Ukraine. Domestic propaganda and geopolitical trenches are being dug deeper every day.
The Bombardment is refreshing because it lacks the posturing our news and other war films tend to offer. There’s little to no partisan fat on this Danish work of art, opting instead for a completely focused narrative of the attack and a few days leading up to it. Perhaps that’s what makes it a difficult review to write for Western critics: there’s no political angle for them to co-opt; no lengthy prologue or bookend for interested media types or historians or politicians to twist into their own justifications. Everything takes a backseat to the pure cinema of character, staging, and plot in the moment. It’s a suspenseful disaster film without the happy Hollywood ending.
You would think an engaging war drama with the ability to consciously and subconsciously tap into the latest antiwar sentiment would be on the top of every critic’s writing list, given the relevant subject matter. But looking at review sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and you can count the professional articles written about The Bombardment on one hand. Compare this to the glowingly abundant reviews showered on other Netflix internationally distributed films like Cuties and Squid Games. Certainly there isn’t a lack of love for the genre or the language barriers that Netflix typically shows for international films and series, particularly war dramas like the recent 2021 Netflix distribution, Munich: The Edge of War, an Allied Powers-oriented story where the line between good and evil, enemy and civilian is more clearly defined.
If one had to guess, the cool to completely nonexistent critical reaction is not only because it chips away at the West’s hallowed WW2 mythology of the Allied liberators, but even more likely is that it reminds all the humanitarian interventionists in this country or its proxy allies that their own governments still commit atrocities like this in the 21st century. How many critics may have noticed the irony that the same American company distributing The Bombardment currently has a production deal with a former president who waged his own aerial assault on innocent civilians; whose National Security Advisor that helped wage these types of presidential attacks recently sat on said company’s board of directors?
That’s ultimately what makes the film such an elephant in the room for the Western media. They are forced to reckon with how their job may conflict with the current power dynamics of digital entertainment in the political world. But perhaps even more piercingly on a subconscious level, it emphasizes that it isn’t only Putin and history’s authoritarian regimes in the East that have innocent blood on their hands, no matter how hard they try and look away.