Between war and peace, humor and hate, life and death—lies No Man's Land.
The breakup of Yugoslavia led to some of the most bitter, brutal fighting that the world has seen in the last fifty years. These various conflicts brought us a new term: ethnic cleansing. For better or worse they showed us that human nature is alive, well, and basically unchanged.
Out of this furnace comes Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land, a moving and frustrating look at the absurdities of the Bosnian-Serb conflict. The film allows us to see the soldiers of both sides as real people. It also gives us a surprisingly funny look at the Yugoslav and international politics driving the situation.
Facts of the Case
After a Bosnian volunteer infantry squad gets lost and suffers heavy casualties, the sole survivor finds himself taking refuge in an abandoned trench between the Bosnian and Serb front lines. The Serbs send out a grizzled old veteran and a greenhorn to check out the trench and root out any survivors. Soon Ciki (Branko Duric), the war-weary Bosnian, and Nino (Rene Bitorajac), the young, hapless Serb, find themselves trapped together in the "no man's land" between the two opposing forces. An uneasy truce ensues as each tries to make contact with his respective lines in order to be evacuated.
The situation gets stickier when Ciki discovers that the now-deceased old Serb veteran was teaching Nino how to use a "jumping mine" to booby trap the bodies of dead Bosnians in order to kill anyone who might come to claim them. The problem is that one of the "bodies" they rigged in this matter turns out to be very much alive. Ciki's friend Cera (Filip Sovagovic) must lie perfectly still or they will all be blown up.
Absurdities quickly multiply as UNPROFOR peacekeepers in their oh-so-stylish blue helmets are sent in to evacuate the men trapped between the lines. Well, that's not entirely accurate; French Sgt. Marchand (Georges Siatidis), in command of a small peacekeeping detachment, is bored with sitting around the base doing nothing. He catches word of the situation after both opposing forces request UN assistance and, despite orders to remain where he is, heads for the battlefield to see for himself what is going on. As soon as Sgt. Marchand and the "Smurfs" get involved, you can bet that the global news media is not far behind, followed by the ineffective, adulterous British colonel in charge of the entire peacekeeping operation and a German explosives expert. Soon the entire situation spirals out of control into a tragicomic mess of blunders, language barriers, bureaucratic snafus, and spin control. Forgotten in the chaos are the three men themselves, Ciki, Nino, and Cera, three real people whose lives and homeland have been devastated by war.
Few films are simultaneously as tense, funny, and thought-provoking as No Man's Land. There are harrowing scenes of battle, such as when Ciki's squad realizes that they have walked directly into the Serbians' line of fire; this scene is in its own way as powerful as the beach scenes from Saving Private Ryan, only on a much smaller, more intimate scale. There are amazing scenes of tension that will have you on the edge of your seat, such as the efforts of the German demolitions expert to defuse the mine underneath Cera. There are humorous scenes too, from Nino's treatment by his Serbian superiors, to the bickering between Ciki and Nino in the trench, to the inept machinations of the UN Peacekeepers and the "vulture" journalists hot for a scoop. Finally, there are scenes of real tragedy and real feeling, reminding us that war is, after all, something that each individual experiences on a very personal level.
Director Danis Tanovic accomplishes this with a fairly minimalist, conventional directorial style. There are not a lot of directorial tricks in this film, just solid shot selection and letting the actors act and tell the story through their characters' experiences. This is not a slick, Hollywoodized story, but a simple, honest tale of people trapped in a ridiculous situation. Perhaps most striking is the almost complete absence of music from the soundtrack; this absence makes the events unfolding on the screen seem just that much more real. Also, the lack of the emotional cues so often embedded in movie music allows us as the audience freer rein to make our own emotional judgments about the film and the characters.
Driving this human story are some fine performances by the lead actors. Branko Djuric as Ciki is a man tired to death of war and destruction, but he has retained a basic humanity and a sense of right and wrong. Rene Bitorajac's Nino is a young, fresh-faced, bespectacled recruit, sort of the Serbian version of Radar O'Reilly. The two actors handle their characters with skill, especially as they make often rapid transitions between outright hostility and an uneasy coexistence, or even for a fleeting moment something approaching friendship.
Another fine performance comes from Georges Siatidis as Sgt. Marchand, the French Peacekeeper who bites off more than he can chew. Siatidis has a lot of fun with the character, especially in scenes involving language barriers. He also manages to hit just the right serious note when it is called for, and shows us Marchand as a man who believes in what he is doing, believes in the cause of peace, but is unspeakably frustrated at his inability to do anything significant about it.
No Man's Land comes to us from MGM in a DVD package that is technically solid but sorely lacking in extra features. The disc is two-sided, with the film presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on the "A" side, and a 1.33:1 Hack-and-Scan version on the flip side. One wonders why MGM bothered with the full screen version; people smart enough to read subtitles (actually, people smart enough to read at all) usually are savvy enough not to complain about the dreaded "black bars." In any case, the widescreen transfer is anamorphically enhanced and looks very good. Colors are true to life, with bright, crisp reds and deep, solid blacks. With a few exceptions, almost every scene is sharp and clear, with excellent detail resolution. There are a few minor flaws; edge enhancement crops up occasionally, especially in scenes with faces silhouetted against blue sky. The opening scenes of the film, which take place at night in pea-soup fog, are quite grainy and maybe show some signs of digital crawling, but nothing outrageous. Shadow detail is not as good as it could be at times, and flesh tones do look just a bit pink once in a while. Occasional scenes look just a bit soft, but this is probably due to how they were shot, rather than issues with the transfer. Overall, No Man's Land looks great.
The audio on this disc is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and is excellent. In the opening scenes all is deadly quiet, except for some tense whispering and joking among the members of Ciki's squad. We can hear every movement, every sound of belt buckles or field equipment. We hear the soft breeze in the rear surrounds, and we can hear every footstep in the grass as the men make their way across the battlefield. In later scenes, with battle noise or vehicle sounds, the sound environment is quite robust and enveloping, with some good directionality across all surround channels. Battle sounds are probably going to sound a bit weak if you are used to the likes of Saving Private Ryan, since they do not seem to have been "sweetened" quite as much in post-production as would have been the case in a Hollywood film. However, they seem very realistic and pack adequate punch to get the job done. There is no hiss or distortion at all under the audio. A stellar job by the filmmakers and by MGM in this area.
The main area of disappointment is the lack of any noteworthy special features. All we get is a theatrical trailer, which plays up the humorous aspects of the film. No Man's Land cries out for more than this. Fortunately, MGM does have a nice official site for the film, which provides some good background information. I've included a link to this site along with this review. It's just a shame that they did not see fit to at least include a minimal amount of this information on the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is only one element of the film that falls a little flat for me. There is an extended sequence that features a faux British newscast relating the history of the Bosnian conflict. For most of the film the audience is allowed to observe for themselves what is going on and make their own judgments about the small-scale events shown on the screen. This newscast feels like directorial intrusion into our personal experience, and smacks of a misguided attempt to give the human events of the film a larger context. If nothing else, it is certainly a major case of infodump, and we could have done without it. This sequence is coupled with an even more jarring live report by Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), the British reporter on the scene, who ends with some statement about how "the absurdity of war continues." While this fits the tone of the film and the judgments the audience is already making by that point, it feels wrong, again like excessive directorial intrusion into our own viewing experience and thought processes.
The list of awards that No Man's Land has earned is long and well-deserved. The film won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, as well as a Special Jury Prize for Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2001. But don't just take my word or the word of a bunch of snooty film experts—you really ought to check out this fascinating, funny, and tragic film for yourself.
No Man's Land and all those involved in making it are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. MGM is released on a split decision: they get credit just for making this film available to us and providing a good video and audio transfer, but a film this good deserves more in the way of special features than just a measly trailer.
We stand adjourned.
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