What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change:
A Review of the Danish WWII Film April 9th, and an urgent appeal to artists
by Lowell Bliss
Climate change is no longer a problem to be solved; it is a journey we all must undertake—both individually and collectively. Now, don’t mistake me: I am NOT saying that we must simply resign ourselves to the consequences of our inaction on climate change. I am saying that even our problem-solving will take the form of journey or narrative. For example, if enough Republicans in the US Congress finally join the bipartisan Climate Caucus, it will not be because some policy report touched their hearts, but because their own individual path (or party path, or institutional path) took an unexpected turn, like the climax of a story, and a whole new vista opened up for him or her.
Climate change is no longer a problem to be solved; it is a journey that we all must undertake. If true, this suggests that another transition is underway, and it is a transition that we would be wise to encourage. When it comes to climate change, scientists and politicians must decrease, and artists and spiritual leaders must increase. Consider this a call to action: artists of the world arise! As theologian Walter Brueggemann taught us in his book The Prophetic Imagination, the prophets of the Old Testament weren’t primarily prognosticators or preachers; they were poets.
By way of example, let me offer up a film review. The 2015 WWII film entitled April 9th is not about climate change, but only if the plot and setting of a movie is allowed to dictate what a film is about or not about. On the morning of April 9, 1940, panzer units of the Nazi army crossed the border from Germany into the Southern Jutland region of Denmark, and within six hours had occupied the entire nation. A Danish film with English subtitles, April 9th is the story of a bicycle infantry platoon that is deployed (too little, too late) to the border, ordered to hold the Germans at bay until reinforcements arrive from neighboring garrison towns. April 9th is the story of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, of the impending horror of watching the inevitable advance kilometer by kilometer, of what happens when a government abandons its citizens, and of how to care for each other during such a journey. Like I said, this film is about climate change.
Yes, you also heard me correctly: a bicycle infantry platoon. The opening scenes show them at drill, first firing single-shot bolt-action rifles, and then practicing changing flat tires. They can change a flat in an impressive two minutes, but could never manage to get their time down to 1.5. (And thus the whole war is in danger of being lost, I suppose.) While the Prime Minister puts all troops on high alert on April 8, he refuses to deploy units to defensive positions on the border, even when border patrols report German activity. The Prime Minister wants to do nothing to antagonize the Nazis. When the border patrol frantically radios in that panzer units have indeed crossed over the border, the bicycle platoon must quickly pedal the ten kilometers to engage the enemy. Technology which is insufficient to the challenge is a theme of April 9th, as it is of climate change. In one scene, the one surviving unit of the platoon, commanded by Second Lieutenant Sand and played by actor Pilou Asbæk, have commandeered a flat-bed delivery truck, thrown their bicycles in the back, and are using backroads to fallback to the town of Haderslev. One of the soldiers hears the drone of an airplane. Second Lt. Sand stops the truck, gets out, stands by the side of the road, and stares upward. You watch his face as he watches in silence as a squadron of Luftwaffe passes overhead on their way to Copenhagen. Sometimes one can simply not pedal fast enough.
The film features the character of 2nd Lt. Sand. He is an officer, but as the lowest commissioned rank, he is not in charge of much. Decidedly, authority and control over one’s own destiny—what little there is of both—is a theme of the movie. Sand is repeatedly stopped short by his commander, the First Lieutenant who is not allowed to ask questions of his commander, the Lieutenant Colonel, who in turn can not violate the commands of the generals who must follow the lead of the Prime Minister. That same regimentation, Sand passes on to his own men. Nonetheless, this is not a movie about the ridiculousness of the chain-of-command, similar in that way to Gallipolii or M*A*S*H; it is about coming to grips with having no control over protecting what is precious to you. At one point, while temporarily hiding out in a farmhouse, the farm wife tries to convince Sand to hide his men in the hayloft until the inevitable but as-of-yet unspoken surrender occurs, thus possibly sparing the young lives of the men. Sand tells her that he will do his utmost to protect his men, but he will not hide them while the war rages. (It is a line which will come back to haunt him, though I will not spoil for you the tragic twist at the end.) The woman says, “Twenty years ago [Southern Jutland] was Germany, now it’s Denmark. Shame on me as you may say, but it’s never meant a whole lot to me.” Sand tells her, “It means a lot to me,” and then leaves to sneak his unit out to the next fallback position. As the unit moves from fallback position to fallback position, each location—whether it is a woods, a stretch of road, or a village—is revealed to be familiar to one of the soldiers. It is home. It means a lot to them. With the issue of sea-level rise alone, certain homelands like Tuvalu and the Maldives are in danger of being lost altogether, but each of us have landscapes, and ecosystems, and ways of life that mean a lot to us. If we could protect them, we would. I confess that for all its imperfections, the Paris Agreement is precious to me; I was there in Paris at COP 21 when it was written. Then, on June 1, 2017, one man, elected President by a minority of the popular vote, against the advice of his senior advisors, decides to take my nation out of the world’s first cooperative good-will climate treaty. Sometimes, I find my powerlessness heartbreaking.
Second Lt. Sand does have authority over seven men, and the arc of his story touches on the theme of how we treat one another as a devastation unfolds beyond our control, as our own leaders begin to abandon us. It was apparently the custom at the time in the Danish Army that officers refer to infantry soldiers by their assigned numbers. Sand orders “225” or “218” to do this or do that. By the end of the movie however, he refers to them by their names, even in the heat of battle. He bothers to learn that Private Juestesen wants to be a “grocer, find a nice girl, have lots of children, lead a simple life,” just like pretty much everyone else here in the Anthropocene Era. Whether circumstances will allow that for Juestesen is part of the end of the movie, but how Sand will care for Juestesen and the other men in those circumstances is the story of Sand’s journey. Considering what we know of Denmark’s history on the day of April 9, 1940, it is no spoiler to say that Sand must agonize over his own moment of surrender to the Germans. Perhaps his anguish was the same experienced by the Danish King, Prime Minister, and High Command; but I doubt it. Sand shows us what it means to be overwhelmed by circumstances beyond one’s control, but to do so with bravery and with your first thought being given to those who have been given into your care. The final scene—following one last act of betrayal, the tragic twist—is of Sand and the surviving members of his unit riding in a bus back to their barracks. The Germans never disbanded the Danish military. These men would continue to journey together, and Sand would continue to be their leader on into a changed and unknowable future. These men could do worse than having Sand as their leader during the remainder of World War II. I aspire to be such a man.
I find so many parallels between April 9th and climate change that I am tempted to write a scholarly article. Let me mention one last scene. When Sand’s bicycle infantry unit fallback into another village, one of the soldiers is handed a leaflet that had been dropped from a German plane. It is an appeal to Danish citizens to not offer resistance. The leaflet however is written in Norwegian, not Danish. The Germans didn’t even grant the Danes the dignity of their own language. For that matter, the occupation of Denmark wasn’t even a “victory” for the German army. It was just a staging ground for the Nazis to attack Norway. When the German officer refuses to accept Sand’s pistol, when he offers him a ride back to the barracks in his own vehicle, when the Germany army decides not to disband the Danish army, the apparent effect is of the common trope: “the noble and worthy adversary.” But no, Denmark is just one more “shithole country” on the road to whatever Superpower is determined to be First, or Great Again, or uber alles. I aspire for my country to travel more graciously in our collective planetary journey.
April 9th is written by Tobias Lindholm and directed by Roni Ezra, and we desperately need more such artists to journey alongside us in a warmer world. Perhaps you yourself are a film maker, a poet, a painter, a novelist, a dancer. Artist, arise! We need your help in making sense of what is happening. We need wisdom and counsel. We need help in moving from our heads to our hearts. And, while you are at it, throw in some literary critics as well, because as April 9th demonstrates, nowadays we will inevitably be talking about climate change even when we are not.
April 9th is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.