Nicholas, the author's alter ego, is catapulted into a military hell in the middle of the South African desert, portrayed in long shots that leave ample room for a sharp photograph devoted to wild and overwhelming nature. Here the only thing that matters is the defense of the country in the name of God and of the country. The enemy is the advancing communist danger, but so are the blacks, already victims of racial segregation since the establishment of the regime in 1948, and the "moffies", a derogatory term that indicates the weak, the effeminate, the homosexuals. It takes nothing to find yourself accused of being a "moffie", and at that point, after the public humiliation, you risk being interned in the notorious ward 22. The exhibition of physical strength and the extremeization of virility end up becoming a homophobic obsession, infecting Nicholas himself. Even in the bad memory of a childhood episode, also in the affinity and growing attraction towards Stassen, the only comrade in arms capable of a kind gesture. And, as already happened in Beauty, with which he won the Queer Palm at Cannes in 2011, faced with the danger of homosexuality, the only possible reaction is forced denial, followed by an inevitably violent response.
Between the harassment of the officers and the wickedness of the fellow soldiers, the two years of conscription turn into a struggle for survival in view of the border, where the enemy will finally meet to serve the nation. The macho and militaristic logic of the army manages to transform everything into war, even moments of leisure are reduced to the umpteenth opportunity to fight. But Hermanus does not fall into the error of exaggerating violence, reserving it for brief moments in which it suddenly and unexpectedly explodes. Rather, he prefers to linger in close-ups made of silences and gazes, in which emotions are stifled and words remain in the mouth. Because the trauma of war can no longer be expressed verbally, and, after seeing a man who dies, no one will be able to love as before. When hatred reigns supreme, "even birds are chained to the sky", even birds are chained to the sky.