Portraying a real tragedy without being inhumanly objective or having a Spielbergian approach to sentimentality is quite the high wire act. When the tragedy in question is related to the Western Front of the Second World War, it may as well be a foregone enterprise for most films. Netflix’s latest Danish offering, ‘The Bombardment’ (previously titled The Shadow In My Eye (Skyggen i mit øje in Danish)), directed by Ole Bornedal, is by no means an unforgettable masterpiece, nor is it a film that Haneke will approve of. But it’s still a genuine and powerful attempt at fictionalizing an event whose horror was not caused by the usual suspects of the period.
The incident in question took place on the 21st of March, 1945, when the Royal Air Force bombed the Shell House in Copenhagen, under use by the Gestapo as their headquarters in Denmark. The Nazis anticipated the attack and placed incarcerated members of the Danish resistance on the top floor of the building as a way of deterring the British from taking action. In the attack that ensued, a necessary measure for the greater good, the Shell House was successfully bombed, but so was the French School, mistakenly. Inside the latter were children and nuns, a large number of whom died as a result of this mistake. The film, without one central character, focuses on a number of people whose lives were impacted by this.
In the beginning of the film, Henry. a child (Bertram Bisgaard Enevoldsen) in the countryside, witnesses a fighter jet fly above him which had just shot down a taxi with a bride-to-be and her maids-of-honor in the back. The violent sight of this renders him mute and catatonic at the sight of clear skies in what seems like an archetypal story about someone who was witness to such an incident during that time. This opening also withholds a key bit of information from us. As the story moves into Copenhagen, the other characters whose lives will intersect during the climax are introduced to us. These include a nun, Sister Teresa (Fanny Bornedal), whose diminishing faith makes her see the world with a binary perspective, Frederik (Alex Høgh Andersen), a member of the HIPO, the Danish police working under the Nazis and two young girls, Rigmor and Eva (Ella Josephine Lund Nilsson).
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As a film portraying the fallibility of the Allies, which it foreshadows with an incident from the very beginning, its human element is a crucial aspect. The de-centered approach to the character then is a wise one to delve into the collective trauma of the tragedy without losing out what Kirk Douglas would call ‘human interest’.
Given that the disaster involved a school and a large-scale death of children, the loss of childhood innocence creeps into the narrative quite early. Henry and Eva, both witness violence and become germane to the hazards of the world they’re living in while Rigmor remains ignorant and this ties into the conclusion of the arcs of the children. The friendship between the three of them is never maudlin and Rigmor’s attempt to make Henry speak are the most heartwarming moments in what is quite a grim film otherwise. This is made possible by the child actors, who are all so proficient with their material that the performances never ask for attention and blend into its world perfectly.
The film’s most powerful scene involves Sister Teresa’s plight owing to her helplessness. The sheer tragedy of this moment is conveyed with an excellent combination of her dejected expressions and dialogues from an offscreen character, creating a heartbreaking dynamic between the two. While on the technical front, the film is perfectly competent and largely unremarkable, there is a single take right at the end of it which is so purely cinematic that it succeeds in being the exact grand moment it clearly set out to be.
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Its problem seems to be that it does bite off more than it can chew. Given the number of characters it has and being just short of 100 minutes in length, there are parts of it that feel unresolved by the end. There’s an aside in it where the kids buy buns from a shop run by a supposedly monstrous woman they call ‘Hippo’, possibly because she’s morbidly obese. The essence of the game is that the buns are meant to be poisoned but Rigmor has the antidote to them. While it’s clear that Bornedal meant for this to be a glimpse into the fantasies of childhood, which are soon to be irreparably destroyed, it feels half-baked and unnecessary. There’s also a conflict that Frederik shares with his father, whose resolution feels too conveniently quick, and his subplot with Sister Teresa, though otherwise fine, has a few avoidable awkward moments.
Without taking the Hollywood route, ‘The Bombardment’ still manages to be emotionally resonant and gives us a look at one of the innumerable local catastrophes of the Second World War that the world at large remains ignorant of to this day. It’s smart enough to not go for fully rounded character arcs, which does partly affect it negatively, and with a brisk narrative, retains attention throughout. Its portrayal of the shortcomings of the forces of good during moments of great conflict makes it an unintentionally appropriate release given the status of global affairs at present. History enthusiasts can use this to add some obscure trivia to their arsenal while for the average filmgoer, it has all the motions to make it an informative and satisfying watch.
The Bombardment is now streaming on Netflix
The Bombardment (2022) Links – IMDb
The Bombardment (2022) Cast – Alex Høgh Andersen, Danica Curcic, Susse Wold, Caspar Phillipson