In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Islamic terror was viewed as much as an existential threat as a literal one. Neoliberalism had assured us that the West’s benevolent secular liberalism was supposed to reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! But if history was as ended as we’d been assured, then how could theocratic killers be striking the West across such bastions as New York or London? As the subsequent War(s) on Terror set the Middle East on fire, mass immigration from conflict displaced Arabs flocked to a Europe that was primed to view them with fear and suspicion. As the 21st century rocketed towards our current apogee of Trump, Brexit and Love Island, it became clear that History had only popped out for some milk and was now very much back in the driving seat.
‘Sons of Denmark’, the directorial debut by Ulaa Salaam, is set in the near future of Denmark in 2024. Racial tensions run ever higher after a terrorist bombing leaves nearly 30 people dead and has acted as the catalyst for a pervasive xenophobia. Salaam works in broad didactic strokes: the film opens as a group of Muslim teenagers stare appalled at a snarl of racist graffiti daubed in pig bloom whilst Mozart’s Lachrimosa’ blares ominously. One of these young men is Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), a 19 year-old of Arab descent who feels compelled to stand up against the rising tide of anti-Muslim hate. Zakaria’s fears are personified by Martin Nordhall; a chilling believable Rasmus Bjerg, a soft-spoken cosmopolitan politician who calmly and reasonably advocates ‘ethnic cleansing’
.’ Sons of Denmark’ is unusual in that the religious aspects of the Islamic terror are almost completely ignored; Zakaria even sneers when a peer states that Allah dictates that they will prevail. Instead, terrorism is reduced to a desperate attempt to strike back against a savage tide that will drive them in to the sea. Salaam has an excellent grasp on camera work, with an almost Refnesque approach to lighting which sees the neon of street lights reimagined as a nightmarish pulsing throb over slack faces. His impressive technical skills help to elevate some of the more unrealistic elements and coincidences that begin to pop-up in the less grounded second half of the film.
The strongest element of the film is the queasy argument that is made on behalf of political violence. Nordhall sets the film moving inexorably towards ultimate power whilst advocating policies that are only a hop, skip and a jump away from mass killings. The film tacitly leaves the implication that assassination could only improve matters hanging in the air like smoke from the barrel of a gun. Nordhall should feel absurd, a racist bogeyman from Salaam’s imagination, but somehow there remains a sheen of recognition. What he stands for is recognisable across the world since liberalism has begun to stutter nervously. One of the most effective scenes in the film where Nordhall is interviewed by a jokey Jimmy Fallon-esque talk show host whose lighthearted mockery only serve to normalise Nordhall’s monstrous policies,and even make him a cuddly figure. We have seen this so much over the last few years with obsessional “both sides have good points” faux-equivalence that the feeling of watching a monster being politely welcomed in from the cold thrums with uncomfortable recognition. ‘Sons of Denmark’ is a bravura, if rough edged debut that unnerves as much as it entertains.