Senseless and sensitivity
By John Esther
Another intense family drama by the director behind Open Hearts, Brothers, After the Wedding and Things We Lost in the Fire, the latest film by Susanne Bier, In a Better World, examines the various levels of tolerance some people will accept before retaliating.
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a doctor working in an African desert camp where girls are often brought in after being cut open by a local warlord named Big Man (Odiege Matthew in a role he seemed born to play).
Back home in Denmark, Anton's estranged wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), is trying to raise their son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), a socially misfit kid who gets into a heap of trouble after befriending the new boy in town, Christian (William Jørgennsen), and a bitter boy with a chip on his shoulder called Dad (Ulrich Thomsen).
When a plan of attack goes dreadfully awry -- it becomes clear that mother, father, husband, wife and son need to learn the value of forgiveness in a world riddled with revenge.
Days before In a Better World won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark) I met up with the Danish director in Beverly Hills. As she moved around on the slippery couch quite a bit, we talked about her latest film.
screenshot from In A Better World
UR Chicago: Why did you want to make this film, tell these stories?
Susanne Bier: Because I thought it was interesting. I thought the whole thing about revenge and forgiveness seemed like something which sort of creeps upon us in our vocabulary. It's about time to make a movie that dealt with those kinds of things.
UR: Do you think there is a greater thirst for revenge now than in the past?
SB: There's a greater acceptance of revenge as a notion. If you look back the past five or six years the notion has become an accepted term.
UR: Worldwide? In particular places?
SB: In the Western World, yes. It's very hard for me to say what it's like in Asia.
UR: What kind of political intentions did you have behind making In a Better World?
SB: I don’t think I had political intentions. I had intentions dealing with ethic or moral issues. I very consciously did not deal with political things. This film deals with moral issues: the whole issue of revenge and forgiveness; the whole notion of violence and non-violence; and the whole ideal about being a decent human being and what that implies. I didn’t want to set it in a definite political context or religious context either. That way we could keep the universality of the moral issues.
UR: Do you think Anton has the right response in these situations, incidences where people are seeking revenge?
SB: I don’t think he has a correct or non-correct response. He's trying hard to remain stoic upon what he believes is right and, like all of us, at some point he has a breaking point. His breaking point is an interesting point because that's where you as an audience feel, "Oh great, we got rid of this guy. We don’t want Big Man to go around doing the sort of atrocities we know he's going to be doing. Once he's well he's going to go out and cut up stomachs of small pregnant girls." You don’t want him to be able to do that so there's a strange sense of relief at the same time you clearly realize Anton is feeling defeated.
UR: Big Man's death is a self-defense mechanism for the "girls of the future."
SB: You can say that. I'm not sure that's the correct mechanics, but you can say that.
UR: How do you deal with your thirsts for revenge? How do you negotiate that energy into something else?
SB: The way we feel offended in everyday life and the way we want to deal with feeling offended is usually pretty easy to deal with. Unless you've been exposed to real atrocities, it's hard to predict your capability to deal with them. As a general rule I do believe in forgiveness. All adult human beings know that the spiral of revenge is terribly tragic.
UR: A lot of your films deal with tragedy. Is there a reason why you are drawn to characters with intense internal conflicts that manifest themselves outward?
SB: My movies are dramatic movies. If you look at great dramas, they are pretty violent, pretty powerful. There's been a particularly European tradition of being withheld and sort of subdued by your scale of dramatic expression and I don’t really believe in that. I actually believe in telling the stories with a lot of emotion. You're probably much more capable of reaching an audience if you feel you've got an important story or if you feel you have something in your heart which you think is important to convey.
UR: Do you see your films as a response to the lack of intensity in European drama?
SB: You don’t make sort of intense movies because you think other movies are boring. You make movies because you think this particular story is right. When I get the criticism of my movies being incredibly dramatic, I kind of go, "Yes, great. Thank you," even if it's not meant that way. I actually happen to think it's great.
UR: I was not posing it as a criticism –
SB: No, I know you were not.
UR: Do people actually criticize your films for being too dramatic?
SB: Actually it's interesting here, because I'm Danish, my movies are sort of "art house." In Europe I'm so mainstream, that I'm not entirely accepted among certain movie circles in Europe. I'm quite pleased with that. I mean, if you think moviemaking is about talking to two people in a very sophisticated cinema, far away from everything, be my guest. I just don’t believe it. I actually believe in making accessible movies with real content.
UR: Now that you say that, when I was at Sundance in January (where In a Better World screened), I was sitting around with a few Scandinavian filmmakers and there was a surprisingly intense debate over your films.
UR: What do you think about the film's Oscar nomination?
SB: I'm very happy. I'm very proud. I get to wear a long dress.
UR: Do you think the Oscars usually get it right with the winners?
SB: Nobody gets it right always. I do tend to like the Oscar movies.
UR: They are usually dramas.
SB: [Laughs]. Yeah. Sometimes certain comedic performances do not get appreciated because they are comedic performances. And those can be the most difficult to put out. So tell me about this Sundance Scandinavian discussion. I think that's very interesting.
UR: Some thought you were too commercial. They thought your Oscar nomination came through name recognition since you had done Things We Lost in the Fire (with Halle Berry) and Brothers was adapted into English (with Tobey Maguire). Others did not see how being commercial was a bad thing. And how could your films be so commercial since they were so intense? There were fans for Sweden's Simple Simon, which did not make the cut.
UR: You are also one of the few female filmmakers consistently working. Do you see progress for women trying to make it in this business?
SB: It's probably a bit easier, but society still places a big emphasis on women having to choose between their careers and having children. Society should change that. It's a huge pressure on younger women.
UR: Lastly, what do you think of these interviews where you discuss yourself and your work? Does it serve the film? Should the work speak for itself?
SB: That's a very theoretical question. Yes, I would prefer for my work to speak for itself, but that's not the reality. The reality is that I need to generate interest. If you are serious about your work, this is just as an important part as shooting the film.
UR: Do you read interviews with other directors?
SB: Sometimes. In Europe, particularly, directors can be very pretentious. That doesn’t make me terribly keen to see a film. I'm very sensitive to the education of a particular project. If I read a director, and the director seems sincerely dedicated, it is going to make me interested.
In a Better World opens theatrically in the U.S., Friday, April 1, 2011.