Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier has amassed quite the following in her native homeland over the past couple decades. More than 850,000 people in Denmark flocked to theaters for her 1999 breakout hit, The One and Only, which is truly remarkable in a country with some 5 million inhabitants. Despite her enduring obscurity elsewhere in the world—she’s also continually overshadowed by her fellow countryman/provocateur, Lars von Trier—Bier is finally getting the international recognition she deserves, having recently picked up a Golden Globe and an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film race with In a Better World.
Driven by her favored dramatic device in which unforeseen calamities threaten to maroon her protagonists in unbearable annihilating grief, In a Better World tells the story of a doctor who commutes between his home in a rural Danish town and his work inside an African refugee camp crippled by the wrongdoings of a dispassionate warlord. It’s in these 2 very different worlds that he and his family face escalating conflict and are forced to address an eternal question: Is it ever okay choose vengeance over peace when you fall victim to an unforgiveable act?
In a Better World is now playing in select theaters.
Let’s start with the most obvious question: How did you get into film?
I started in architecture and then got interested in set design. It’s while I was designing that I kept fantasizing about the people who would inhabit these worlds and realized I should probably move onto something else. I think architecture is an incredibly good exercise and creative education for a filmmaker because you’re trained to have a blueprint. In a way, as a director, the most important thing is to have the blueprint of your film in the back of your mind at all times. So I think it was invaluable training for me.
I’ve found that a lot of accomplished filmmakers out there often have backgrounds in something else entirely. I spoke to Apichatpong Weerasthakul not long ago and he had a background in architecture as well.
There are definitely a lot of directors who have a background in art. I like how architecture is a little bit technical and academic. I think it’s been very good for me.
How did In a Better World come about?
There’s this notion that it takes one thing to set a project off, especially in film because it’s a very complex creature. Anders Thomas Jensen [the screenwriter] had written some scenes about kids who were being interrogated by the police, which I really liked. It was interesting because I’d previously had kids play parts in my films, but not in roles as big as the ones you see in this one. It was kind of stimulating for me and it was something different to explore. We were also talking about the fragility of the Danish idealist society, which was interesting to me because you always think that the threat comes from the “outside.” We started asking, “If we believe that it’s actually fragile, how are we going to describe the threat that comes from within?”
Anders is a frequent collaborator of yours.
Yes. We think very similarly. He’ll say one thing, I’ll say another thing, and we just build ideas together that way. I think a lot of directors have a very traumatic relationship with their story, but I find that I like to have an easy relationship and so does Anders. So, it’s very playful and fun. You don’t feel like you’re working. I mean, we’re working, but it doesn’t feel like a burden.
It sounds like a very organic process.
Where did you find the two young boys featured in the film?
They’ve never been in film, theatre, or any kind of dramatic arts prior to this. We held a huge casting session. The casting agent probably auditioned 120 kids. I looked at the kids that were selected and I especially liked those 2. It was interesting because I thought they could be friends, but they were still very different from each other. At that point, I chose the grown-up actors. I thought there was an eerie similarity there where you believe they could be the kids of these parents. I also auditioned the kids on my own, just hoping they would be talented enough. When they came in, I was hoping they were good.
You touch on the subject of revenge vs. forgiveness a great deal in this film. How do you apply this conflict to the real world? Is vengeance ever acceptable?
Forgiveness is obviously more important. The title of this film, In a Better World, suggests that a better world consists of compassion and embracing forgiveness. Firstly, in our part of the world, we never used to talk about revenge. It was really something that belonged to the middle ages or a different culture. At the same time, revenge is something that’s part of our everyday vocabulary, which I found very interesting and very frightening. Then I thought we also needed to understand it because revenge is really about reestablishing a sense of justice. It’s like when someone shouts at you at the post office—really anything where you feel that things are so unfair—where you have that instant of wanting to hit them or do something vengeful. For most of us, luckily, that urge goes away and we kind of let go. I found that whole process very interesting.
This film has been criticized as being too mainstream in Denmark, but for American audiences especially, this can’t be mainstream, at the very least because it’s subtitled. What do you make of this idea?
Frankly, I think the European notion of the “arthouse film” is so stupid. Are my films considered “mainstream” there? Yes. But it’s mainstream with real substance. Is there anything better than that when it comes to making movies? In Europe, there’s this virtue that it’s almost like a quality if you make a movie that no one wants to see. That just makes me wonder, “Why makes movies, then?” Movies are meant to reach big audiences. The real quality and thoughtfulness of movies is that you can communicate to a lot of people. And if you can communicate to those people with something of real importance, that’s the best you can do as a filmmaker. I’m just so fed up with that European snobbish attitude. I find it so old-fashioned. These are virtues that were very attractive in the 70s and they’re still stuck there. It’s like, “The world has moved on.” Art isn’t about being elitist or charging people for it. Art should be about communicating to the masses.
Cannes comes to mind. I love that whole festival experience, but it’s so much about exclusivity and extremely elitist. You go to places like Sundance, which has a totally different vibe.
You’re right! At Cannes, it’s either big American movies that get invited because they want big stars there or these very elitist and extremely sophisticated European films. It’s like, “Maybe you should invite some broader European movies as well.” The thing is that all American festivals are about communicating with their audiences. All the American festivals might have some strange movies, but it’s always about communicating. The European festivals are about communicating with film critics and they alienate audiences. I think European festivals need to rethink what they’re about because otherwise, they’re going to die out. If you look at who is part of those festivals, they probably have more and more grey hair. [Laughs] It’s the same with the European Film Academy where half of the speeches are about how superior European films are to American ones, which isn’t true—it’s bullshit.
Hollywood continues to remake all of these cool foreign films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In. They also remade one of your films, Brothers, not long ago with Jake Gyllenhaal and Tobey Maguire. You’re obviously not opposed to it…
It’s a difficult thing to argue against because if people don’t want to read subtitles, they simply won’t watch it. As a filmmaker, I personally find it flattering if they see a universality in my films that’s attractive enough to remake it. I would obviously much rather have people see my film than see a remake of it, but I’m not really opposed to that.
If a major studio were to come along wanting to remake In a Better World for American audiences, would you have any qualms about that?
I’ve done my film. I’m really proud of it and no one can touch that. So, I’d be open to it. I’m sure it would feel like someone’s entering into a private world in a way, but I would do it any way. I would still feel that the story would broaden itself out somehow. The thing about winning the Oscar is that, hopefully, more people are going to see this film. I do think that winning the Golden Globe and winning the Oscar made it less attractive to remake In a Better World, though.
Well, that certainly wasn’t the case with The Secret in Their Eyes, which picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last year.
When you win a Golden Globe or an Oscar—both, in your case—do you find that the trajectory of your career changes almost instantaneously?
Yes. It’s really important. It affects how interested people are in you. Also, I think the great thing about being nominated twice is that you begin to believe the first nomination wasn’t just a stroke of luck. I think the worry is that when you get all these accolades very early on in your career, it can paralyze you. You learn a lot from the mistakes that are made on films that don’t work, which happened to me with my second film. It was a complete disaster. It got the worst reviews and had no audience. It was such an educational experience. And my first film was a success, so it taught me to not believe in success and also to not believe in the failure. You have to believe in your own creative abilities; you can’t start believing what other people say about you. It’s a healthy way of looking at it because you don’t fly to the moon on a balloon, but you also don’t fall out of the sky. All artists are bound to fail once in a while. All artists are bound to make things that are not successful. I think it’s important to learn to forgive yourself and to learn from the mistakes that were made. You can’t let it take away the courage.
Are you working on a new screenplay with Anders?
There’s a script in place. It’s a romantic comedy. No one’s going to die this time! [Laughs]
I recall hearing a lot of sniffling and the crumpling of tissues at the In a Better World screening I went to.
I’ve been wanting to do something lighter for a long time. It’s not that it’s difficult dealing with these important topics, but it kind of inspires you to do something different. I want to do something softer and then I’ll go back to doing more heavy-handed stuff. As a filmmaker, I think it’s all about maintaining a sense of curiosity. If you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, you’re going to lose that curiosity. I also think the dangers of winning prizes is that you get scared thinking, “I have to do something as good or as popular next time.” I sort of decided a long time ago that I’m never going to look back. I’m going to look forward.