Ulaa Salim’s tense, complex political thriller shines a light on the very modern terrors of far-right nationalism, and the radical violence that rises in response.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Ulaa Salim’s Sons of Denmark begins, quite literally and terrifyingly, with a bang. Close-ups of a pleasant, loving young Danish couple are quickly interrupted by a bomb going off in their coffee shop, claiming 23 lives. It’s a shocking image, right out of the Children of Men playbook; an indicator of how far the social fabric has crumbled. But this isn’t a science fiction dystopia – this is 2025, six years from right now, just down your figurative doorstep. With this confrontational move, Sons of Denmark sets itself up to interrogate your own reactions to political violence and does it with potent (if unsubtle) aplomb.
For the first lengthy stretch of Sons of Denmark, we follow Zakaria (Mohammed Ismail Mohammed), a 19-year-old Iraqi refugee living in Denmark amidst the rise of the far-right National Movement, whose message is accentuated by the bombing. The group’s charismatic leader Martin Nordahl (a terrifyingly slimy, and realistic, Rasmus Bjerg) runs for prime minister on a platform of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Zakaria and the rest of his Muslim community see graffitied death threats and severed pig heads in their neighborhood, which slowly but surely radicalizes him into a terror cell headed by the equally-embittered Hassan (Imad Abul-Foul). He’s a young man with plenty to live for — a loving mother, a baby brother — but he’s committed to the cause. “People die in Syria every day and no one cares. One person dies here, and everyone’s up in arms.”
Along the way, he’s trained by a more experienced member of the cell, Ali (Zaki Youssef), who quickly befriends him and recognizes how much he has to lose — especially as Zakaria is quickly assigned to assassinate Nordahl in his home. “You have a family. Get out of this,” he warns him. But it’s too late for that now; events are set in motion.
Sons of Denmark sets itself up to interrogate your own reactions to political violence and does it with potent (if unsubtle) aplomb.
It’s at this point that Salim’s twisty, complicated script throws a major curveball I won’t spoil in this review; the reveal is far too deeply ingrained in the film’s narrative to give away. But suffice to say, as the film goes on, and the focus turns more to the government agents tasked with tracking terror groups like these, Salim begins to explore the messier aspects of his world. A Muslim counterintelligence agent wrestles with the moral weight of protecting Nordahl’s life, even as the man’s rhetoric against people like him intensifies. Investigations into a far-right nationalist terror group (the titular Sons of Denmark) turns south in unexpected ways, especially as its ties to Nordahl become even more apparent.
Salim’s debut is nothing if not confrontational about issues of racism, xenophobia and the complications of political violence. Events play out like an epic gangster drama, complete with haunting montages set to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” and Eddie Klint’s neon-soaked nighttime cinematography. His script certainly relies a great deal on contrivance and tragedy — the major twist requires no small amount of narrative tweaking, and a character’s road to darkness is solidified by a well-timed racist acid attack on a family member late in the film.
And yet, given the absurd popularity of these ideas, and the tyranny of white supremacy in the last few years, even the most implausible plot turn, the most cartoonishly racist politician, seems terrifyingly realistic. Bjerg, in particular, spins a hauntingly familiar picture of a straight-talking politician who masks virulent hatred behind a smiling veneer of relatability. While we don’t get much chance to dig into Zakaria’s skin, Mohammed finds some humanity in the layers of a boy-man pushed to retaliate against a culture that hates and fears him. And Youssef imbues Ali with a similar sense of pathos, a man with torn loyalties and an inevitable path to walk down.
That Sons of Denmark feels so timely is both a testament to the skill of its filmmaking and a tragic reminder of the global rise of far-right white nationalism and Islamophobia. It’s a film that shouldn’t feel so of this moment in a just world. But then again, if it were a just world, there’d be nothing for Salim to say, however intensely and directly he says it. For all the threats, bombings and knives pulled, the most terrifying moment of Sons of Denmark comes when Nordahl pals around on a late-night talk show, proof positive that a man with such frightening ideas isn’t just normalized, but accepted. It’s an all-too-familiar image that chills more than the loudest gunshot.