Helpless Helpers in Iraq

The German film "Waffenstillstand" ("Ceasefire") highlights the dilemma of the aid workers and journalists caught between impotence and commitment, tremendous courage and bitter political reality – a journey into hell, based on actual events. Petra Tabeling has been to see it

​​ Fallujah, April 2004. Following the invasion by US troops, the name of the Iraqi city becomes a byword for the Shiite resistance which led to so many dead and injured.

Following the lynching of four Americans a few weeks earlier, after which the bodies had been put on public display, the US army launched an offensive against the city. It was met by fierce resistance with more than 600 civilians killed in the bombing.

Starting point for this, the first German-Swiss film co-production on the Iraq war, which also marks the debut of young German director Lancelot von Naso, is a 24-hour ceasefire during which the head of an aid organisation and a young doctor act on impulse, putting their lives at risk to get much-needed medical supplies and assistance out of Baghdad and into the only hospital in Fallujah.

They are joined by a young, ambitious TV journalist, determined to make a name for himself and, reluctantly, by his experienced cameraman whose warnings of danger are ignored.

Cramped together in a spartan transport vehicle, without any protection, the four set off with their Iraqi driver on a risky race against time through a devastated country to Fallujah. Along the way they are confronted not only by deadly external dangers, but also by inner conflicts, questioning their humanitarian motives, struggling with their own limitations, and the futility of war and suffering.

Shared destiny of war

(photo: &copy Marc Schmidheiny / WAFFENSTILLSTAND)
Caught in the middle: the film "Ceasefire" shows the helplessness and the dilemmas faced by humanitarian aid workers and freelance journalists in war and crisis zones

​​ There is the French surgeon Alain, played by Matthias Habich, who after many years in conflict zones can now only get by with the help of morphine, and the aid worker (Thekla Reuten), who arranges the transport without permission and the experienced cameraman (Hannes Jaenicke), who recognises the danger and refuses at first to go along.

And above all, there is the initially naïve TV journalist Oliver, played by Max von Pufendorf who senses his big break in bringing exclusive live coverage of the suffering of the civilian population to the world and who, in the end, is almost driven to breaking point himself.

The four, idealists and careerists, are forced into a shared destiny and after overcoming initial mutual aversion ("you make your money from the blood of other people too"), are forced into learning to get along with one another.

Ceasefire's great strength is the brilliant cast of top-class German actors that Lancelot von Naso's screenplay attracted to the project. In contrast to many action-packed international productions where it is often the warring military or political factions that are the centre of interest, "Ceasefire" concentrates exclusively on the other sorts of people who also become involved in armed conflict.

They work behind the front lines, involved with the civilian population, but so far have been largely ignored by the film industry. The result is an exciting film, where the audience is given the feeling of travelling along on the back seat of the aid convoy – "a mix of drama, political thriller, road movie and psychological study rolled into one" as the director himself has described it, and which, at many points, does actually come across as authentic, even if the scenes of devastation and war in Iraq were actually shot in Morocco for reasons of safety.

Authentic background

(photo: &copy Marc Schmidheiny / WAFFENSTILLSTAND)
Journey into the hell of the Iraqi resistance: Kim, the logistician of a small international aid agency, played by Thekla Reuten and Oliver, the TV reporter, played by Max von Pufendorf, risk everything in their efforts to enter the embattled Fallujah

​​ It is a blend which was aimed at from the beginning and one based on actual events. It was after von Naso had read a newspaper article about a woman who had organised an aid convoy to Fallujah, alone and on her own initiative, that he developed the idea of a film.

"I wanted to make a film from the perspective of the NGOs and the journalists who operate in crisis areas," von Naso says, "the kind of people one generally hears little about, or who tend to attract negative headlines, a 'they-only-have-themselves-to-blame-if-something-goes-wrong attitude.' But how do such people feel? What goes through their minds when they set off on such missions to carry out this admirable work?"

Von Naso did his homework in advance, spending four years researching what the conditions were really like, talking to journalists and aid agencies and interviewing correspondent who had been "embedded" in Iraq. Even the Iraqi driver in the film, played by Husam Chadat, works as a correspondent for Al Jazeera in his day job.

"Ceasefire" is a film that neither takes political sides – and though this may seem like a deficiency to some, it is actually the film's strength. It makes very clear what war means for a civilian population – "news programmes usually tend to show dead bodies, in a film you have the opportunity to show the ones who survive," von Naso says.

It also makes clear the mental and physical cost incurred by those who try to help out in or to document war – for many it costs their lives.

A glimpse behind the headlines

(photo: &copy Marc Schmidheiny / WAFFENSTILLSTAND)
Looking down the barrel of a gun: Max von Pufendorf (Oliver), Thekla Reuten (Kim) and cameraman Hannes Jaenicke (Ralf), are stopped at a US army checkpoint near Fallujah

​​ The film also takes a searching look at the cliché of the hard-boiled reporter. For the actor Max von Pufendorf this represented a particular challenge.

"Before I did this, I always thought that I was rather well-informed about what is going on in the world. We watch the news headlines from Iraq and we are liable to forget that the journalists involved are subject to particular codes and practices and despite that, and with great courage and risk to their own lives, are able to convey something in those few minutes. The news will never be the same for me again."

The tragic ending to the film raises questions not only about the safety of journalists and humanitarian workers in war and crisis zones but also about dealing with the traumatic after-effects of such assignments: the war that goes on in one's head, the war, that even at a great distance from the conflict zone, is never really so far away.

Petra Tabeling

© 2010

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

Ceasefire Ger. 2009. Director: Lancelot von Naso, screenplay: Lancelot von Naso, Kai Uwe Hasenheit, Collin McMahon, camera: Felix Cramer, cast: Matthias Habich, Thekla Reuten, Hannes Jaenicke, Max von Pufendorf, Husam Chadat …

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Website of the film "Waffenstillstand" (in German)