A certain amount of controversy among film fans accompanied the awarding of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002 to Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land (2001) because it beat out Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much loved Amélie, a film that had seemed a shoo-in based on it having taken the honors on almost every critics association list. Stylistically and judged solely as filmmaking, there’s no denying that No Man’s Land won’t get you as high as Amélie, but it’s ultimately impossible to compare the two films. It’s also pointless, and six years later, who cares anyway? On its own terms, No Man’s Land is a brilliant and brilliantly disturbing film. Comparisons have been made to Mike Nicholl’s Catch-22 (1970) and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1971), and while these are not inapt, they’re slightly misleading. Black as the humor is in those films, it’s never as desperately, bitterly black as it is in No Man’s Land, a film that manages to be, in the words of Robert Young in James Whale’s Remember Last Night? (1935), “humorous without being funny.” If it’s a comedy, it’s a comedy without any laughs.
Set in 1993 Bosnia at the height of the war between the Serbs and Croats, the film maroons two characters, the Croatian Ciki (Branko Djuric) and the Serbian Nino (Rene Bitorajac), in the same trench between the two fighting forces. The situation has echoes of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1969), but that quickly changes when a second Croatian, Cera (Filip Socagovic), comes “back to life.” Suddenly, arguments about who started the war (neither one really knows) take a backseat to the more immediate problem that Cera has been booby-trapped by being placed on a mine that will explode and kill all three of them if he gets up. (Yes, it’s meant to be symbolic as well as suspenseful.) Both sides call in the UN for help, only to find everything tied up in bureaucratic red tape and the PR-obsessed, high-ranking UN official Soft (Simon Callow). A well-intentioned contingent of French UN soldiers try to intervene, but, like the troops in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), they’re defeated by no one speaking the same language—not to mention being ordered off by Soft. A pushy, self-obsessed TV newscaster (Katrin Cartlidge) involves herself—not for humanitarian purposes, mind you, but only because it’s a great story (shades of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951))—and things take what may be a turn for the better, except … well, to find that out you have to see the film.
While I’ve deliberately pointed out that No Man’s Land draws on a great many other films (and there’s at least one other, since this film’s ending is a hopeless variation on Chaplin stuck on the border between countries in The Pilgrim (1923)), I’ve only done so to note its pedigree, because ultimately it’s its own film—as is evidenced by its very look. The trench apart, the entire film takes place in a beautiful pastoral setting with bright blue skies and fleecy clouds. The irony is clearly not accidental.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke