The past can be a prickly thing. One of the strengths of Anja Kofmel’s part-animated documentary investigation into the death of her cousin Chris in Croatia in 1992 is that it does not attempt to sand the troubled history it explores down to smoothness. Instead, Kofmel, who was a child when 27-year-old journalist Christian Würtenberg was found strangled in a Balkan field wearing the uniform of a mercenary unit embroiled in the Yugoslav War, uses a variety of approaches — talking heads, newsreel footage, excerpts from Chris’ diaries and her own hand-drawn animation — to embody those contradictions without claiming to understand them. It’s a multicolored wreath of roses to lay against her cousin’s legacy, thorns and all.
Chris was a good-looking, Bradley Cooper-esque young man with a thrill-seeking nature that Michael, still clearly furious with his brother after many years of grief and therapy, prefers to describe as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” At a young age, after a restless childhood that it’s hinted was spent chafing against the values of his middle-class family, Chris left Switzerland in search of adventure on several continents, before being magnetically drawn, as were so many young men back then, to the conflict in the Balkans.
But life as a war correspondent somehow did not satisfy his desire to be part of the action, and Chris fell in with the PIV (the First International Brigade), a dubiously motivated troupe of foreign mercenaries, career soldiers and adventurers under the shady leadership of the ambitious Bolivian Eduardo Rózsa Flores, aka Chico. Many years later Chico would himself be killed while planning the assassination of Bolivian president Evo Morales, and, as reported by a fellow PIV member, the outfit took its ruthlessness from him: targeting children and increasingly becoming little more than Chico’s personal, lawless militia. It’s impossible to conclusively decide now whether Chris actually believed in the PIV’s manifesto of self-interested violence, or whether, as he claimed in his diaries, he wanted to write a book about its workings (an outlandish third option is put forth by, of all people, Carlos the Jackal in a phone call from prison). The passage of time, some mysteriously missing pages from Chris’ notebook and the general hazy fog of war that hangs over that period in the region, have conspired to obscure truth.
But Kofmel’s film is not stymied by this discovery — if anything it is liberated from being a slavish work of investigative journalism and free to develop into a more compelling and artistic hybrid of memoir, biographical documentary and general discussion of why young men feel their pulses quicken at the idea of fighting in a foreign war. How much they are driven by the cause and how much their own ambitions and philosophies is a question that haunts Kofmel’s sensitive, if necessarily fragmentary portrait.
Her animations are particularly lovely, evoking the hero worship she felt as a child for her larger-than-life relative — the boldly drawn continuous lines of black and white, solid and simple, in which Chris forever wears an identifying stripy scarf, and the bad guys, like Chico with his dark-ringed eyes and widow’s peak, have the decency to look like villains. It’s a contrast to the uncertainty, contradictions and banality of the live footage, often shaky and amateurish, of a conflict that more than one commentator refers to as “filthy.”
The animation also provides the child’s-eye counterpoint to the journey Kofmel undertakes as an adult to retrace Chris’ final steps, which ends anticlimactically in a field like the one he died in. It may even be the exact one he died in, but there’s no way to tell, just as there’s no way to tell that these placid Croatian cornfields ever saw bloodshed at all. “I wanted to be just like him,” confesses Kofmel at one point, evaluating the role her glamorous and charismatic cousin played in her own early development. But, as all artists must do with the influences that shape them, with “Chris the Swiss” she honors her muse, interrogates him and, finally, moves past him.