At first consideration, it would appear that Brothers, the latest work from acclaimed Danish director Suzanne Bier, is an antiwar movie. Her tragic story of a soldier's misfortunes, his psychological wounds and his inevitable collapse certainly rejects conventional notions of heroism. But Brothers is more complex than that, and more interesting. Bier seems willing to embrace verities such as duty and honor and sacrifice, so long as she can place them in the context of contradictory human nature.
The film begins on a day of import. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen), an officer in the Danish armed forces, is readying his squad to ship off to Afghanistan to assist in peacekeeping operations. His younger brother, Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is being released from jail, having served time for attempted robbery. They clearly like each other, but they live in different worlds, hold different values.
Michael and his attractive wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen), have two young daughters, a small house they are renovating, a modest car...the middle-class trappings of a professional Scandinavian soldier. Although he is about to go off to war, Michael considers combat his job and exudes a quiet courage and confidence. "You will not encounter anything you have not been trained for," he tells his troops.
Jannik, on the other hand, has no job and apparently no skills, he smokes too much and drinks even more, and judging from his remarks during his homecoming dinner, he has little remorse for his past life and no regard for his brother's present one. He detests bourgeois values and dismisses them with supercilious platitudes that he mouths with moral smugness.
Both men will discover that their assumptions about the world, and their opinions of themselves and each other, are naïve when Michael's helicopter crashes soon after he arrives in-country. He's declared dead, though his body isn't found. (Bier asks her audience to suspend disbelief on this matter; she also manipulates the time frame of her story.) In reality, he's being held captive in an enemy camp, thrown into a crude hut with a young and frightened radar operator who, contrary to Michael's earlier assertion, complains he hasn't been trained for this eventuality.
Back in Denmark, Sarah and the girls cope with their grief, and Jannik realizes how much he loved and respected his brother. As they comfort each other, they find themselves fighting off a mutual attraction. (Bier is heavy-handed here, too.) Sarah is charmed by Jannik's free-spirited irreverence; Jannik rapidly matures as he accepts responsibility for his brother's family.
It won't spoil the movie to reveal that Michael is rescued, brought back from the dead, but not before he commits a heinous act. His behavior under extreme stress is understandable but cowardly, and he learns that he isn't the man he thought he was. He cannot rid himself of guilt-the Shakespearean aspect of Brothers is its chief strength-which turns to anger at Jannik, whom he suspects of infidelity.
Despite the contrived nature of her narrative, Bier sets up a dramatic reversal that works. Jannik, the self-centered malcontent, turns out to have inner resources no one, not even himself, suspected. Michael, outwardly solid, collapses when tested. Brothers does indeed raise protests about the futility of war and the price innocent people pay when distant cultures clash. It is far more affecting, however, when it moves past politics to the vagaries of the heart and soul. In this regard, the film is a poignant reminder that social issues, in the end, are personal matters.