Arthur Jeffries enlists in the war against Germany as the Great War rages, joining the British army. He leaves behind a pregnant wife and makes his way to training camp, and then later, to the battlefield.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Nikolaus Seifert also takes leave of his wife and readies himself to enlist. Already an expert marksman, he distinguishes himself on the battlefield.
Both men do all they can to survive the First World War, to make it back home to their families. But they both eventually confront the harsh reality of war, which intertwines the fate of two men in devastating ways.
What's most striking about this dramatic historical short -- written and directed by Max Mason -- is its palpable humanity. The theatre of war -- the battles, bloodshed and intimate hand-to-hand violence -- is portrayed, with classically elegant craftsmanship ranging from the cinematography to the expressive musical score. But the storytelling is steadfastly focused on the moments of introspection, as well as intimate, soul-searching conversations in the relationships that both Seifert and Jeffries have. The result is a heart-wrenching, thoughtful look at the sacrifice that war demands of ordinary men -- and questions just what the cost is, and why we have to pay it.
Much of the film's expansive humanism is built into the excellent writing's structure. The two protagonists from each side of the war are taken through a series of similar parallel events, as they enlist as soldiers and join the battle. They take leave of their wives, find their footing on the battlefield, then scrutinize their previous attitudes about the war itself with their fellow soldiers.
Jeffries and Seifert have different languages, temperaments and personalities, but it's their similarities that are underscored. Portrayed by actors Hamish Riddle and Des Carney, Jeffries and Seifert are ultimately both just dutiful men who are trying to survive a war that they increasingly see as senseless. Both actors beautifully elucidate the toll that war takes on them, becoming disillusioned in their ways. Both know that the men they are fighting on the other side are not so different from them. Yet both are ultimately honorable and dutiful and go out onto the battlefield -- where they will ultimately meet.
"Their War" has a vastness and ambition in scope that is unusual for a short film, but its expansiveness is not about a more complex plotline. Rather, it honors the film's larger, broader vision of humanity itself, one rooted in moral conviction and compassion. It's not a stretch to imagine that Seifert and Jeffries, in their ordinary yet compelling lives, could be colleagues, friends or neighbors. Yet the business of war has made them enemies, and they meet as such on the battlefield. The film's gift -- beyond its masterful craft and immersive storytelling -- is how it helps us realize what a tragedy this is.