The Bosnian war is coming up to its 10th anniversary, and in a way it is surprising that there are not more films being made about this astonishing and grotesque episode of history - a bloody, racialist, nationalist war fought in the heart of Europe, where EU political grandees unceasingly congratulated themselves on their vision of peace. But much of the international political class has moved on from the headache of the Bosnian question; the Labour government repudiated the spurious non-interventionism of yesterday's men like David Owen and Douglas Hurd; the Bush Jr administration moved away from the Nato policy of Bill Clinton - and al-Qaida forgot or ignored the fact that in Kosovo, the Americans and British could be said to have sided with the Muslims against the Serbs.
But movies about Bosnia are a reminder of this uniquely horrible - and still cinematically underexploited - period. Emir Kusturica's Underground, Srdjan Dragojevic's Pretty Village, Pretty Flame and Goran Paskaljevic's Cabaret Balkan all evoked an anarchic and amoral nightmare of bloodshed and hate, and Jasmin Dizdar's Beautiful People satirised the British connection.
Danis Tanovic's movie, about a Serb and a Bosnian soldier caught together in a trench in no man's land, is in the same fiercely astringent vein. But it has the mainstream feel of an old-fashioned anti-war satire, like Catch-22 or M*A*S*H, and in fact Rene Bitorajac, who plays Nino, the baby-faced, bespectacled Serb, does look oddly like Gary "Radar" Burghoff. It is less virulent, and more discursive and more accessible than many of the more disturbing Bosnian movies, and this may be part of what won it the Oscar for best foreign film. Sometimes, because it is set entirely within the trench and the surrounding terrain, it looks almost like a stage play, with Tanovic writing in a kind of postmodern Shavian idiom, denouncing the fact that so much diplomatic and military firepower is being deployed to so little effect.
Tanovic brings his principals together with the simple and again pretty stagey device of fog: a Bosnian advance party gets lost in the mist somewhere near Tuzla. They are fired on; Ciki (Branko Djuric) takes refuge in an abandoned trench and takes captive Nino, one of the Serb soldiers sent to investigate - but the discovery of a fully primed "spring mine", positioned under an injured soldier, puts them in a tense standoff in which the UN's toothless "peacekeeping forces" declare themselves powerless to intervene.
The movie deploys some pretty broad archetypes in the international gallery of shame, and the British come off worst. Simon Callow plays a cynical, incompetent British military commander with a sultry, sexy translator. Any resemblance to our own Colonel "Bonking" Bob Stewart is presumably entirely accidental. There is also a bleeding-heart TV reporter played by Katrin Cartlidge, who initially seems like the nearest thing the movie has to a moral centre, but comes to exemplify the naive and exploitative western media. The Bosnian and the Serb bicker ferociously about whose fault the war is, and there seems nothing to choose between them. In fact, the nationality that comes out best is France: a French officer in the international forces, Sergeant Marchand (Georges Siatidis), has the guts to defy namby-pamby rules and try to do some good. How often do you see a film that shows the French military in such a flattering light? It certainly doesn't happen much in films about the two world wars or Vietnam.
But this is how the Bosnian war upends the stereotypes of the established war movie, and provides for a genuinely novel internationalist look and feel. John Moore's recent Hollywood thriller Behind Enemy Lines was widely derided as a mendacious fictionalising of the story of the real-life US pilot who found himself shot down in Serb territory. But it did show a realisation that in the Bosnian situation a new terrain, with new opportunities, had been found for the war movie as a genre - and did, incidentally, have a similarly creepy moment with a "spring mine".
So what is the take-home message of No Man's Land? Certainly it indicts the British. But it conspicuously fails to adjudicate in the matter of the war itself. At one stage, Ciki and Nino discover that they have both known, and perhaps, it is implied, been to bed with the same girl in Banja Luka. Under their uniforms, it seems, they are flesh-and-blood guys from the same home town, and - who knows? - in peace-time they might have been buddies. So is Tanovic saying that both sides are essentially equivalent, and the war is just a crazy mess in which they are equally culpable? Perhaps.
Or perhaps the suggestion is more opaque: that the grievances and hatreds of this region are a difficult, implacable business, and that outsiders have no business sticking their noses in. Either way, Tanovic has made a smart, entertainingly acrid thumbnail sketch of the ironies and absurdities of the Bosnian war. With the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic grinding on, and the Dutch government having so recently given us a symbolic mass resignation over the Srebenica issue, it couldn't be more timely.