Cannes 2018 review: Chris the Swiss (Anja Kofmel)

While watching Girls of the Sun, the mind sometimes wandered (the film leaves plenty of space for that), and one rumination was: what drives people like Emmanuelle Bercot’s war reporter character Mathilde to do what she does? Why would anyone pick up a pen or a camera and immerse themselves in a situation where any footstep could be your last? And where is the line between reporting and becoming what you are reporting on?

These are the questions that gnaw at Swiss documentarist Anja Kofmel too, and for a personal reason: in the early ’90s her cousin Christian Würtenberg was working as a war reporter in Croatia during the Balkan War. Chris had never been easy to pin down. At the age of 17 he surfaced in Namibia joining the South West Africa Territorial Force. After adventures elsewhere on the globe, he tries to establish himself as a journalist and takes a train to the wartorn former Yugoslavia to report on the war from the Catholic Croatian side, in conflict with the Muslim Serbs to the south. One of the fellow reporters he meets at Zagreb’s Hotel Intercontinental, the gathering place for Western reporters covering the war, is Eduardo Rósza Flores, a Bolivian national reporting for a Spanish paper. Flores has perhaps an even sketchier background than Chris: enrolled in a Soviet military academy in Hungary, rumored to be a KGB agent, a close friend of infamous terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

In 1991 Flores establishes the first mercenaries brigade tied to the Croatian army, the PIV (First International Brigade). Young men from all over the world join the brigade, and one of them is war journalist Chris. The task of the brigade is clear, and former members don’t talk around it when interviewed: the ethnic cleansing of villages in the border area with Serbia. Chris is an outlier in the brigade. He maintains contact with former journalist buddies in the area, and on Christmas Eve Austrian reporter Heidi Rinke is invited to spend Christmas with the PIV. She uses the opportunity to interview Chris, and he tells her that he is writing a book about his experiences in the brigade. Twelve days later he is murdered, and everyone close to Chris is convinced this was done by order of Flores. Unfortunately, Flores himself could not be interviewed for the film, as he was killed in 2009 when carrying out an assassination attempt on Bolivian president Eva Morales.

Kofmel struggles with her cousin’s life. In her memories, Chris was always a hero, and her personal relationship with Chris is depicted in the film in animated sequences, in which she herself is still the little girl who looks up to her mysterious cousin. Animated Kofmel follows him through the fields of Croatia in Chris’s last days. In real life she takes, as her cousin did almost three decades before, a train to Zagreb, where she meets Chris’s former fixer. Armed with Chris’s notebooks, she traces her cousin’s last days. The final moments remain in the dark, as the last pages are missing. Through interviews with colleague reporters and former militia members, she tries to figure out what drove Chris, at first in going into a war zone, and subsequently in joining a group of men slaughtering innocents. What is it that attracts some people to violence so much that they want to get so close to it, like a moth to a flame, even if it can kill them?

Unfortunately, the documentary does not lead to a definite conclusion on Kofmel’s part, yet her journey is still engrossing, informative, and at times even shocking. The ease with which some of the former mercenaries explain how they killed small children, or how you turn a group of recruits into killers without a conscience is perplexing, all the more so because they don’t show much remorse: for them this is just the way of the world, and the way of war. Kofmel doesn’t quite get to being able to put her cousin somewhere in that picture, and you still feel residual love for him preventing her from being totally neutral, but in this personal documentary that’s lovingly made that is not much of a problem.