Director: Thomas Ross
Writers: Thomas Ross & CH Engelbrecht
Cast: Lasse Kenneth Holm Hansen, Behruz Banissi, and Lucas Miklik Stolar
Running time: 1hr 29mins
Thomas Ross’s feature, The Man in Between, is both fascinating and ambitious. Fascinating as Ross gives us a historical drama set around the events of September 11th 2001, 20 years later, asking us to think about the causation of the attacks on the US. Ambitious, in that Ross combines the historical drama with an exploration of one of the great themes of the tragic form – on how someone can live their life after they have betrayed through cowardice someone, they held dear.
The film opens at night with a young man on a bicycle holding a bottle of vodka. Cycling and alcoholic spirits are, in my experience, not an ideal combination – and so it proves – the man (played by Lasse Kenneth Holm Hansen) crashes the bike.
A caption reads… Six months earlier – 2001. We see the young man visiting his family in rural Denmark. The reunion with the family allows Ross to give the viewer the young man’s life story. He is called Steen. For philosophy buffs out there the family name is – Kierkegaard – so we get a clue that the film might be referencing old Søren’s interest in melancholia and despair. Steen has just returned from backpacking through Central America. Steen does not want to go back to his job as electrician – to the family’s dismay – he plans to move to the big city, Copenhagen, and find work in development aid. The family are portrayed as a rebarbative group – both sexist and racist.
Ross has set the scene with great economy and develops the story well with depictions of Steen’s move to the city. This is not an overwhelming success – apartment where the water does not work, rejection by girls, employers, and derision from co-workers at the electrician job he somehow finds. All this is beautifully filmed, the cinematography by Rune Vistisen is excellent throughout, the pale washed out tones of the apartment and city streets set the mood of failure and anomie fittingly – anyone who has had a difficult time when moving to a city will get what the filmmaker is doing here – one feels protective of Steen. But – the director gets us to realise that Steen is pretty fucked up. The device Ross uses to achieve this is a series of flashbacks, as though we are invited into Steen’s consciousness – Ross employs the device throughout the movie. The flashbacks are a mixture of the violently disturbed, bloodied hands, hooded figures, and the idyllic – sun dappled azure waters with Steen making love to a woman on a paradise beach – we late discover the woman is called Maria, what else could it be (played engagingly by Brigitte Njri Stjernholm). Use of flashbacks can go disastrously wrong but these work extremely well, mainly down to some excellent editing – one of the terror images had me actually gasping for breath.
I am afraid the English language subtitles did not extend to the production credits, so I cannot namecheck the editor which is, given the quality of their work, a pity. However, this is only a minor criticism of the translator. I did find out that English sub-titles were the work of CH Engelbrecht who co-wrote the screenplay with Ross. In international releases, the importance of getting sub-titling right is often underestimated and treated as an afterthought but Englebrecht’s contribution is first class – idioms and nuances rendered perfectly – it adds so much value to the production.
The flashbacks initially allow Ross to insinuate the idea that the reasons for Steen’s disturbed state of mind must be found somewhere in his experiences in Central America. And then… Ross introduces us to the splendid Carlos. Otiosely, we are given us a caption reading 2 Carlos – I am not a fan of chapter headings, but I digress…
Carlos (played by Behruz Banissi) is the upstairs neighbour who helps a drunken Steen home. Carlos is all that Steen is not – possessing a coherent sense of self and successful in relationships. He is Honduran whilst Steen is Danish and a wannabe aid worker. Carlos is a Marxist revolutionary. Troubling so, as Ross has Carlos wearing Che Guevara t-shirts and saying si hombre at apposite moments. However, any trouble is dissipated by the stunningly powerful performance that Banissi puts in – he makes Carlos and his commitment to revolutionary struggle eminently believable.
The scene where Steen and Carlos meet was for me the most powerful and well-crafted in the movie. Steen is watching videos when Carlos arrives. Steen comments that the video he has on – is a load of shit about Kennedy being killed. Steen suggests watching the other video on the table – Rambo. Carlos insists they watch the Kennedy film – which is, you guessed it, Oliver Stone’s JFK. Ross uses generous amounts of footage from the Stone movie as Carlos launches into a discourse on the history and machinations of the CIA. Carlos shows Steen a book detailing the CIA’s overthrow of elected governments in Central America and the agency’s promotion of genocidal wars against indigenous peoples. Ross accompanies Carlos’s discourse with archive newsreel footage of the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala. This is all compelling stuff and Steen the liberal is persuaded of the justness of Carlos’ s case. In an elegant touch from the filmmaker, Steen puts the Rambo cassette in the trash along with the detritus from a McDonald’s meal.
By using the JFK footage, Ross cleverly sets the scene for later developments in the movie. As we the viewers have been told this is 2001, we know that some bad shit is going to come down. The last JFK take we see is Kennedy public speaking where he declaims, we are all mortal. Ross is presumably conjoining the Kennedy assassination (where were you when you heard), the only other great television historical spectacle, with the Al Qaeda attacks. The historian, Benedict Anderson, famously drew attention to the role of newspapers in the formation of nation states with their manufacturing of imagined communities. The visual power of the spectacle in the Kennedy killing and the Twin Towers was such that it created imagined communities of TV viewers all sharing thoughts such as, in the latter case, we are all New Yorkers now. An honorary knighthood for Rudy Giuliani – well there you go. TV empathy would build the political base for the subsequent military actions of the US and its allies, the war on terror – the consequences of which are still with us.
In an odd section of the movie, Carlos and his new acolyte proceed to act with some faintly bizarre agitprop undertaken in the dead of night, involving vandalism and hanging anti-US imperialism banners from public buildings. This comes across as somewhat inauthentic – the vast vertical banner they manage to fix up in central Copenhagen would have taken a team of people to prepare and install – we do not see any other comrades just the two valiant souls. Perhaps, Ross is hinting that the scenes are to be taken as fantastical, but it all comes across as somewhat ludicrous.
Ross then gives us the events of 11th September. We meet Jimmy (strongly played by Lucas Miklik Stolar) – again we have a chapter heading – 3 Jimmy. Jimmy, like Carlos, has a strong sense of self – he is introduced as Steen’s friend from childhood. Jimmy represents the forces of reaction – common sense and looking after one’s own. Jimmy has rushed to Steen’s apartment as he has heard of the New York attacks – they watch the events unfold on television with Jimmy readily expressing his opinions. They become part of the imagined community – “we are all New Yorkers” – the spiritual West against the evil Other.
Steen, the easily swayed liberal, follows Jimmy’s lead – his earlier conversion to Marxism has evaporated – all that is solid melts into air. Carlos joins them in the apartment and later over a beer and a game of pool proceeds to expound a critique of the origins of the attack derived from one particular strand of Marxist thought. Carlos’s line develops from his earlier reading of JFK – the CIA and Bush have planned the attacks using Bin Laden in the same way that LBJ and the CIA recruited Oswald to kill Kennedy – in the latter case to unleash the war in Vietnam, in the former to declare the coming war against an abstract noun. All good, heady stuff – had me reaching for a copy of Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost. The argument between Carlos and Jimmy now supported by Steen is beautifully scripted and filmed – an extraordinary piece of cinema.
In the remainder of the movie, Ross has Carlos and Jimmy re-appear as avatars that appear in Steen’s consciousness locked in a struggle for Steen’s political soul – this works extremely well and helps build the picture of Steen’s world falling apart. We are given a climactic scene when Steen attends his brother’s birthday party back in his hometown – in a nod to non-linear time – Ross has this involve the vodka-fuelled bike crash. We finally have a coda helpfully captioned 4 Maria, with an extraordinary turn, which shows us what happened to Steen in Central America and how the choices he made there, helped form the increasingly disturbed young person we have been trying to gain some understanding of, since the opening credits.
The Man in Between has so much going for it. I mentioned the quality of the cinematography earlier – there are so many stand-out shots – but for me the most memorable comes just after the bike ride as Steen is drawn toward his apotheosis – we see a fluorescent stairway to a railway station – the lighting against the black of night is, there is only one word – numinous. A wonderful shot. As this is a historical drama, it is gratifying to see that the production team get the technology and commodities right – clunky mobiles, cars, and believable hairstyles. The period feel is helped by the smartly chosen soundtrack which has popular songs of the time, electro for dramatic pieces and even arias from Julio Iglesias – it all melds together well. It would have been a hoary MOR classic even in 2001, but the choice of Hotel California to play in the background whilst Carlos enumerates the crimes of the Bushes, father, and son, was perfect.
Yet, it has to be said this is not a movie for the faint-hearted – it is unremittingly grim. I would suggest an element of humour might have helped provide a little lightness in the darkness. Difficult to do with through the Steen character as they are being established as being driven to the edge by their inner demons, but it might have worked with the more grounded personalities of Carlos and Jimmy. The only attempt at humour comes when Steen’s charmless younger brother tells a ‘joke’ that involves killing black people – grim gets grimmer. I did laugh once – Steen finds a tacky imagined community memento in a wash basin in the toilets – a little plastic flag with the Danish cross on one side and the Stars and Stripes on the other. He picks it up, pisses on it and flushes it down the toilet. (This is when Steen is back under the influence of the Carlos avatar) Probably not humorous intent by the filmmaker – more about your reviewer’s aversion to the trumpery of the nation state.
I had difficulties with Holm Hansen’s portrayal of Steen as I found it somewhat one dimensional. It must have been a tough job for a young actor as they are on screen for most of the movie and credit to him for a solid performance but, again, a little light and shade might have been helpful. But possibly, Ross wanted Steen as merely a thin reed to be bent by the strong wills of Carlos and Jimmy which are reflected in the bravura, barn-storming performances put in by Banissi and Stolar.
I noted earlier that this is an ambitious movie and I feel there is an element of over ambition – a feeling of reaching too far. By inserting the coda at the end, it feels as though Ross is, in effect, giving us a choice of endings. And I am always dubious when filmmakers give the audience that choice. The political drama reaches its end point with the family birthday party – the roots of the personal tragedy are laid out in the coda. While watching the final part of The Man in Between I was drawn to the conclusion that two good movies had been spliced together – and the sum was not, necessarily equal to the parts. My personal take is that Ross does not quite get that most important fusion right, which is a shame.
With that being said, the distinct parts are wonderful in their own right and prove that Ross is a talented and visionary filmmaker. Watch this movie and much of the political dialogue and the extraordinary scenes from the coda will stay with you for a long time but be prepared for hard work and do not expect a bundle of laughs. Hopefully, like your reviewer, you will come to care about Steen. My advice to him would have been the old Socratic solution – if you cannot be a good person, at least live your life as though you were one.