The ongoing presence of ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan has inspired some politically inflammatory war dramas — most recently Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor” — to which Feo Aladag’s sophomore feature, “Inbetween Worlds,” acts as a strenuously humanist corrective. Sensitive if over-schematic, this story of the gradual alliance between a German military unit, the Kunduz village they are assigned to protect and the young interpreter who binds them takes great pains to be fair to all non-Taliban parties in the equation — though it also avoids presenting any one character with a complex moral decision to make. Topicality represents the chief draw to distributors for this well-acted, glowingly shot pic; a harder, more sensationalistic approach might have made for an easier sell, if not a better film.
In terms of formal nous and narrative ambition, “Inbetween Worlds” represents a substantial step forward for actress-turned-helmer Aladag from her 2010 debut, “When We Leave,” an earnest, somewhat turgid study of German-Turkish femininity that nonetheless earned her a shelfload of newcomer prizes. Having graduated from Berlin’s Panorama strand to the main competish, she confirms her promise without exactly confirming her directorial identity. The film’s visual palette, as well as its marriage of classic melodrama with contempo grit, is most strongly reminiscent of Susanne Bier’s earlier work; if seen in the right places, it’s slick enough to potentially secure her an English-language assignment. (Before anything else, however, something needs to be done about that grammatically incorrect English title: “Between Worlds,” however uninspired, will do just fine.)
Per press notes, Aladag was prompted to make the film as a more positive representation of Germany’s military than that usually held by the local and international public; actually shot on location in Afghanistan, the film goes so far as to present itself as an efficacious product of German-Afghan collaboration. Stray boos over the closing credits at its Berlinale press screening suggest not everyone’s going to buy its viewpoint, but it’s a worthy enough stance.
The film’s dialogue-free opening beats, meanwhile, cast a literally flattering light on kind-eyed German army commander Jesper (the sturdy Ronald Zehrfeld, reminiscent in his physicality of a younger Russell Crowe). We learn upfront that he’s mourning the recent death of his brother in Afghan combat, though that doesn’t deter him from returning for his own second mission in the region: the protection of a remote village from growing Taliban influence, while waiting for the Afghan National Army to arrive. Assisting the Germans in their efforts — by facilitating communication between them and the villagers, as well as the Arbaki militia — is young, enterprising interpreter Tarik (Mohsin Ahmady).
Orphaned and living with his university-going younger sister Nala (Saida Barmaki), Tarik has his own personal beef with the Taliban, from whom his involvement with the Germans and Arbakis invites increasingly ominous threats. Jesper, meanwhile, swiftly grows close to his bright, wiry ally, and is compelled to break military protocol to keep Tarik safe. It’s a fraught situation that Aladag (who also co-wrote the script, inspired by real-life events) lays out with clarity and tension, but it’s not an especially conflicted one: Though his actions may come at some professional (possibly even human) cost, the film is in no doubt over the “right” thing to do, which thins the drama somewhat.
That Jesper and Tarik are both equally sympathetic protags — neither one especially deeply defined, but both granted equivalently poignant backstories — keeps the film even-handed to a fault, though outstanding work from Ahmady and Zehrfeld (also a notable presence in another of this year’s Berlinale selections, Dominik Graf’s “Beloved Sisters”) ensures they at least feel more like characters than constructs. Less so the servile but progressively educated Nala, whose graduating class is told they represent the generation “that will make Afghanistan’s hopes and dreams a reality” — though the film’s abrupt ending is, probably by necessity, a little less idealistic than that.
Technically, “Inbetween Worlds” reps a very polished package indeed, though it could use a little less of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s lushly mournful score. Judith Kaufmann’s lensing does rich, sun-bleached justice to the film’s impressive location work, without making the proceedings too self-defeatingly picturesque.