A German soldier back for a second tour in Afghanistan, Jesper is a man in turmoil: His brother, also a soldier, was killed there, not far from where Jesper is now stationed as commander of a squad protecting the village of a local (and friendly) militia. Tarik, a young Afghan working as a translator, is also troubled -- someone is threatening his sister and him, the same someone who murdered their father because he worked “for the wrong side.” Representatives of their respective worlds, Jesper and Tarik do their best to bridge them.
It isn’t easy. German/western values and rules of behavior don’t hold a lot of water here, such as when Jesper orders his soldiers to put a cow with a broken neck out of its misery. One man’s mercy killing is another man’s murder, and the outraged villagers want compensation. But German military rules forbid it unless the soldiers had done something wrong, which they don’t believe they have. In the end, Jesper finds an unconventional (and very, very European) way to pay back the cow’s owner, to build trust.
Austrian director Feo Alabag is known primarily as an actress and writer, but you wouldn’t know it here. If she has drawn the lines a bit obviously -- as suggested by the title -- "Inbetween Worlds" ("Zwischen Welten") is nevertheless a strong, affecting drama, sure to do well in the German speaking countries and perhaps beyond. The themes are not new, nor are they treated in particularly new fashion, but for many, the non-American uniforms and stereotypical character will be new enough. Berlin actor Ronald Zehrfeld, who played opposite Nina Hoss in Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” (2012), is a physical screen presence who deserves a wider audience. And Mohsin Ahmady as his counterpart Tarik, understated and soulful, is a find.
About halfway through "Zwischen Welten," the militia commander tells Jesper an old Afghan saying, "You have the watch, we have the time." His country may well be a no-win situation for foreign forces -- history certainly suggests this is so, and so does the film, as fate begins to play its terrible hand. To her credit, Alabag does not flinch; this is not a movie about U.S. soldiers, and there will be no Hollywood ending.
This past summer, I met an Afghan refugee living in Germany. "Afghanistan is a beautiful country," he told me. "I love my people. But some people there are very, very, very bad." I’ll leave it at that.