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If the movie description above sounds preposterous that’s for a reason. Erna at War is one of the most absurd and bizarre war films I have seen in a long time. And not purposely so. This is intended to be a serious war drama with a central female character. It cast two of the finest Danish actors in the lead roles: Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen. Despite the strong talent, this is a story so far-fetched that it fails to enrapture viewers.
It goes more or less like this: the formidable Erna Jensen (Dyrholm) leads a quiet and peaceful life with her timid son Kalle in Jutland during WW1. The Danish region has been occupied by German forces and men of all ages and physical strengths have been summoned to join the army, and Kalle is no exception. Erna does everything she can in order to prevent her only family member from departing. Upon realising that his refusal to join the War would be qualified as defection, which is punishable with the death sentence, Erna picks up the uniform of a murdered defector and joins the regiment herself, under the name of “Julius Ramussen”.
Just imagine a nagging mother in the WW1 trenches. Bombs are dropping and limbs are flying while Erna makes pancakes for her son’s birthday. And she will furiously stand on the way of anyone who bestows any remotely dangerous task upon her son. She constantly describes him as “stupid”, insisting that there is some sort of nobility is such ignorance. She also becomes some sort of motherly figure to the young soldiers, while two senior officers develop a different of affection for her. They include the besmitten Meyer (Thomsen). He juggles Erna’s whims (in the hope to marry her once WW1 is over) with the orders from his occupiers. He pretends to be faithful to the Germans, yet carries a Danish flag in his pocket. He’s the most profound and psychologically complex character of the film. The other ones are mostly flat.
Erna is a very strange role for Dyrholm. Firstly, she doesn’t even remotely resemble a man (particularly at closeup). Secondly, such motherly obsession is hardly palpable. Halfway through the movie, Erna clarifies the unusual circumstances under which Kalle came into this world, in an attempt to justify her extreme attitude – but such explanation is even more bizarre. As a result, the constant closeups of an actress recognised for her inventive use of facial expressions are just awkward. Ultimately, Dyrholm’s character is just silly.
This Danish/Belgian/Estonian co-production is based on Erling Jepsen’s novel of the same name, and I cannot comment on whether it’s loyal to the book. Perhaps this story would fare better as a more lyrical and non-conventional piece of storytelling, taking a lot of narrative and creative freedoms. It doesn’t work as a straightforward war drama with action sequences. The director said in an interview: “our budget didn’t allow us to have spectacular battle scenes”. Thank God. That would have been a waste of money and made the film even clumsier. Plus: be prepared for a cringeworthy ending.
Erna at War has just premiered at the 24th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It is part of the Main Competition.