A tragic accident of war is remembered in the quiet and wrenching Danish World War II drama, “The Bombardment,” a film about the day the RAF came to destroy Copenhagen’s Gestapo headquarters and hit a nearby school as well.
Titled, “The Shadow in My Eye (Skyggen i mit øje)” in Denmark, writer-director Ole Bornedal’s film hews to classic disaster movie formula, following several story threads — the lives of those who will be thrown together on that fateful day in the last months of the war.
Frederick (Alex Høgh Andersen) is a working class lad who joined the wrong side, something his enraged father never lets him forget. He’s in the HIPO, Denmark’s secret police, collaborators with the Gestapo who often do the Germans’ dirty work for them. He’s conflicted, but realistic enough to know “the war is lost” and “I’m a dead man.”
Teresa (Fanny Bornedal) is a nun, a teacher at the French Catholic School, so upset at what she’s seen in this war that she questions her faith.
Eva (Ella Josephine Lund Nilsson) is a student, as are cousins Rigmor (Ester Birch) and Henry (Bertram Bisgaard Enevoldsen). He’s witnessed another bloody accident at the start of the film, a wedding party strafed by an RAF Mosquito as they drove to the ceremony. Henry has stopped speaking due to the trauma, and his sister and her friend Eva have little luck getting him to talk again.
There are Danish Resistance fighters, many being rounded up as the Gestapo and HIPO close in, even with the war going so badly for the Axis elsewhere. These fighters know that they only thing that will spare those not already rounded-up and being tortured is a raid on a commandeered Shell Oil building in the center of the city where they Gestapo and HIPO hold prisoners as “human shields” against an air raid.
Some of those Resistance prisoners even know that the RAF has reluctantly agreed to carry out that raid.
Bornedal sets his film in the normalcy of civilian life — families eating and quarreling before school, where the children of Nazi officers inject anti-Semitism into lessons, gently-corrected by the less anti-Semitic nuns. But “Bombardment” is weighted with the doom that the Resistance, the jackbooted HIPO “traitors” and the nervous aircrews prepping for a deadly, little-margin-for-error rooftop level air raid, “Operation Carthage,” that they all know is coming.
I was convinced during the film’s first act that Bornedal (“Nightwatch”) had over-reached, included too many storylines and sidebars. It’s hard to keep everything and everyone straight in your mind and their place in the story.
The troubled, questioning nun is into self-flagellation as she seeks evidence of God in the middle of mass murder.
“We’re not 15th century Jesuits,” her prioress (Susse Wold) scolds her, in Danish or dubbed into English.
Sister Teresa also has dangerous interactions with the traitor Frederik. Young Henry struggles to recover his speech with little effective help from a bullying doctor. The RAF crews are flying in guilt, as they know about their previous mistaken strafing. And more and more Resistance members are picked-up and tortured or summarily executed.
But the sound of “ticking” on the soundtrack takes us into the crowded cockpits of those two-seat bombers, into the school and inside the infamous Shell Building as the picture thunders towards a climax.
“Bombardment” pulls you in, and like the worst videos from Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, doesn’t flinch from showing us the heartbreaking slaughter of war and its frantic-search-for-survivors aftermath.
If you’ve seen other Danish films set during World War II, you’ll know that they generally adhere to a couple of basic narratives. There are stories of the plucky little country’s defiant Resistance to the murderous, morally bankrupt invaders. And we get versions of the oft-repeated account of how they smuggled most of the Jews living there out of the country before the Germans could seize them. Here’s a movie that shows us that not all Danes were righteous, that reminds us that the “neutral” Danes were occupied as a protectorate.
I was struck by how current and topical it all feels. There are still air attack accidents that hit wedding parties and schools and the bad guys are still in the habit of using “human shields” and compiling hit lists of those who resist tyranny.
The flying scenes, bathed in rain and fog, are quite convincing and the delayed fuse (“time bomb”) explosions are more grimly realistic than theatrical.
And the faces of the rescuers, the weepy, frantic parents and the victims will leave you gutted, no matter how numb we’ve all become to the horrors of war and its grisly body count.
Rating: TV-MA, torture, graphic violence
Cast: Alex Høgh Andersen, Fanny Bornedal, Ester Birch, Bertram Bisgaard Enevoldsen, Alex Figueiredo, Casper Kjær Jensen and Olaf Johannessen
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ole Bornedal. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:39