Susanne Bier on After the Wedding
The marriage ceremony in Danish director Susanne Bier’s haunting After the Wedding, penned by frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen and one of this year’s five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, greatly alters more lives than those of the young heiress bride, Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), and her betrothed. Indeed, the film could be entitled Before, During, and After the Wedding. Anna’s father, burly, big-bucks exec Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), invites Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen), an expat Dane whose energy is totally tied up with the orphanage for street children he works at in Bombay, but who is reluctantly in Copenhagen to solicit much-needed funding from the wealthy potential donor. What Jacob doesn’t know, and Anna’s post-ceremony toast reveals, is that Jorgen is not her biological father. Having seen that Jorgen’s wife is his own ex, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who had abandoned him in India 20 years before, Jacob realizes that Anna is the child he never knew he had.
Jorgen has stage-managed the reunion of Helene and Jacob, and the introduction of the latter to Anna. He recognizes his own mortality, and, in an act that melds selflessness with a Mabuse-like need to control those in his orbit, he wants to reconfigure a nuclear family to insure the future happiness of his wife and daughter. How does a rich industrialist manage to succeed in this? With money, naturally. He essentially blackmails the equally headstrong Jacob by creating a huge fund for the orphanage, with the caveat that Jacob must remain in Denmark and supervise its financing with Anna. That Jacob has an “adopted” son, Pramod ((Neeral Mulchandani), at the orphanage becomes almost beside the point. The eight-year-old boy becomes dispensable in the grand scheme of things.
A graduate of Denmark’s National Film School, the 46-year-old Bier has been making movies about familial rupture since her first feature, Freud Leaving Home (1991), the story of a Swedish Jewish family in which the mother’s dying of cancer precipitates dramatic acting out by her three children–particularly daughter Freud, the one who never managed to get away from the nest until Mom’s demise liberates her. The filmmaker has continued to address this theme and does so in her first American film, the upcoming Things We Lost in the Fire, produced by Sam Mendes for DreamWorks and starring Halle Berry as a woman who loses her huBierand in an act of unnecessary violence and Benicio del Toro as the junkie who helps her cope. Among the features she has directed along the way, many of which have the same actors and creative team, are The One and Only (1999), interwoven tales of the stress endured by couples who exert pressure on themselves to have a child; Open Hearts (2002), a Dogma film about the affair between the fiancée of a man who becomes paraplegic after he is hit by a car and the doctor whose wife drove it; and Brothers (2004), the chilling story of how a military officer officially deemed killed in the war in Afghanistan returns to Danish suburbia with a dark secret about his time as a prisoner and proceeds to wreak havoc on his wife, children, and the brother who has risen to the occasion and matured in his absence.
Even though she is in the middle of editing her first Hollywood film, Bier maintains her longtime connection to Lars von Trier’s Zentropa company in Denmark. A cool if distant presence in person, very much entrenched in her Danish and Jewish roots (both of which are strongly present in her films), the director is ultra-serious about her work, and even more ultra-serious about maintaining her own vision in it. But, then, next to family, the issue of control is the overriding subject of her movies.
Filmmaker: How do you collaborate with your regular screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, who wrote After the Wedding?
Bier: We develop the story together. We sit down and play around with ideas and characters. Then he sits down and writes scenes, maybe 20 pages. Then I’ll read them and we’ll discuss them. Gradually the story will change. It’s really a completely organic thing. I’ll act the scene for him. I’ll act a horrible scene for him and he’ll write a good scene. But the idea of the scene might be in my head. It’s a creative and uncomplicated collaboration.
Filmmaker: Tell me about your relationship to Zentropa, in which Lars von Trier is a partner.
Bier: I went to film school with Peter Allbek Jensen, and I like working with him. I guess we have a very mutual uncomplicated relationship. Like I just did an American movie, but I did some of the editing in Copenhagen and some at Zentropa.
Filmmaker: You get such great performances out of the actors who appear over and over again in your films, almost like a repertory group. Do you have a particular method with them? Are you like Hitchcock?
Bier: (laughs) No, I’m definitely not like Hitchcock, in no way. I expect that they take a lot of responsibility upon themselves. I expect them to be very dedicated and very much in charge of their character. I also challenge them a lot. I might change things. I don’t have a method but I have a very specific mix of complete trust but also never ever wanting to compromise my own vision of the movie. Sometimes I spend a lot of time discussing things with them. Sometimes we just do it. I make decisions about mise-en-scene in terms of psychology, and never what is pretty for the light or anything like that.
Filmmaker: Maybe that’s why what happens in your films is so unpredictable. Things go off in different directions.
Bier: That’s like with human beings, right?
Filmmaker: Can you say something about Mads Mikkelsen, the former dancer who stars in both After the Wedding and Open Hearts, and recently played the bad guy Le Chiffre in Casino Royale?
Bier: He’s terrific, he’s wonderful. He’s fun and down to earth.
Filmmaker: In Freud Leaving Home, one of the characters says, “Families are a torture chamber.” Your films all deal with fractured families. In Open Hearts, everyone becomes abandoned. Brothers is more optimistic. In After the Wedding a revised family emerges. They are all different. You probe deeply the notion of family.
Bier: It’s true. I guess that many artists have some kind of obsession. I have this thing with family. I also have it in my personal life. Families are incredibly important to me. I believe that in our scattered society it’s our identity. Our home is our family. Maybe being Jewish, the family IS the home. It’s not a physical thing. I never had that thing like many of my non-Jewish friends, the sense of a physical place. They might have this cup that they were drinking tea from in their holiday home. Jews don’t have that. I guess our sense of where we belong has to do with the family.
Filmmaker: I wonder if that’s from our nomadic heritage.
Bier: I think it is. And I think we have an urge to embrace people into the family. It’s almost like you want to have that kind of relation to people. My close friends and collaborators are like family. My editor and I went to film school together. It’s very important to me to have that kind of closeness in my life.
Filmmaker: Is your family from Denmark?
Bier: My mother was born in Denmark, my father in Germany. They came to Denmark in ’33.
Filmmaker: In After the Wedding, there seems to be a battle of wills between the Jorgen and Jacob, the male characters. They thrash about. They do what they want. The women have to be the gatekeepers. They clean up. They are more mature. They observe the mess. Jorgen and Jacob are both control freaks in different ways. They are opposite on the surface but very much alike, like doppelganger. I see that in your other films, like Connie Nielsen’s character in Brothers. In Open Hearts, Mads Mikkelsen’s married doctor doesn’t have control of his situation, though his lover, the girlfriend of the paraplegic, knows exactly what she’s doing.
Bier: I think there is a difference between the male and female characters, but I always had a lot of male friends. I always feel very comfortable in a world of men, more so than in a world of women. Anders Thomas writes the script, and he’s a man. I think he feels a lot more comfortable in a world of men than in a world of women. I could definitely describe a woman as well, but I feel very comfortable and very curious describing men.
Filmmaker: I find the men interesting, but I do find them immature compared to the women.
Bier: That’s probably true. But that’s probably true in general as well (laughs).
Filmmaker: I do find Jorgen and Jacob very much alike. Was that your intention?
Bier: Certainly you could say that the energy of the movie has to do with those two men, the meeting of those two men.
Filmmaker: You even show that formally. Like the recurring mounted deer heads, Jorgen hovers over the frame as a corporeal presence, whereas Jacob is smaller and performs within the frame.
Bier: Yeah. It is about the meeting of those two men, and the crossing of lines, where you think one thing about one of them, then you realize things aren’t so black and white. As the movie goes on, they become fairly blurred.
Filmmaker: The moral issues?
Bier: Yeah, yeah.
Filmmaker: And also the guilt. Jorgen even says, “I’m buying remission for my sins.” I think Jacob is trying to make up for his past, in a sense.
Filmmaker: I want to get back to the issue of control with Jorgen and Jacob. Jorgen has power with all his money, but he is unable to stop death. Jacob thinks he can control his life and perhaps the kids in Bombay, then he finds he can’t on account of money, then personal obligations. Perhaps fixing matters begins at home rather than abroad with the poor. Anyway, these guys attempt to exert control. I find this in your other films, too: Michael in Brothers, for example. These guys don’t have control over situations they would like to control.
Bier: But you don’t have control. And that is very much what the movies are about. Open Hearts is also about that. It’s about, if you want to be cynical, embracing the loss of control.
Filmmaker: Which Jorgen never does.
Bier: He does and he doesn’t. He does whatever he can in order to make sure that everybody is okay, but at the end he’s scared of dying. He also allows himself to be terrified.
Filmmaker: Earlier in the film Jorgen comments that Jacob is aggressive, then he becomes that way himself.
Bier: He said to him, “You are an angry man.” I don’t know whether he really likes that, or if he becomes that. He just shows more and more who he really is.
Filmmaker: Both men are caught between two worlds. Jorgen is from a working-class background but has lots of money; Jacob is caught between East and West. Anyhow, with Jacob it seems you puncture the myth of Scandinavian altruism, the cliché of the do-gooder liberal who does good works in foreign places.
Bier: Let me make one thing clear about Jacob: I don’t care what his motives are. If you go to work in an orphanage, you do a lot of good. Even if you do it in order to escape something in yourself, you still do a lot of good. I’m not going to judge anybody. It does, however, interest me what his motives are as a character. It doesn’t make me in any way judgmental of what he does. I am unconditionally unable to do that. If a lot of Scandinavians do that, it’s wonderful.
Filmmaker: I want to ask you about death. Watching your films again, it appears that often the death of one person is the beginning of liberation for another. Both Freud and the carpenter huBierand of the shrewish wife in The One and Only grow after a loved one dies. And a new, promising family begins after Jorgen’s death. Death and tragic accidents recur in your work, but they lead somewhere.
Bier: The movies are very much about that. That’s what I mean by embracing the loss of control, embracing whatever happens to you in life. Maybe I’m just making movies in order to escape my own fear of loss of control, maybe I make movies in order to tell myself that you can actually get over it, but that is what the movies are about. There is a lot of hope in them. Horrible things might happen to you, but there is a way of dealing with them. There are ways of overcoming them.
Filmmaker: Is the interest in death something Scandinavian? Or is there a Jewish component?
Bier: I don’t think I am obsessed with death at all. I think I am recognizing that a catastrophe might occur, and I think that’s a Jewish thing. Being Jewish, you have this clear notion that the unexpected catastrophe is a possibility. After the 11th of September, it has become much more a notion that is part of this world. I’ve seen a change. Until the 11th of September, it was, particularly in Scandinavia, like catastrophes are somewhere affecting somebody else. Being Jewish, I’ve always felt it might happen.
Filmmaker: I see testimonials in a lot of Danish films. In After the Wedding, you have them at the wedding, where Anna first mentions that Jorgen is not her biological father, and later at Jorgen’s birthday dinner.
Bier: It’s a Danish tradition. It’s a custom. Whenever anyone has a celebration of some kind, there will be a lot of speeches. Like at weddings, there are normally 15 speeches. It’s a Danish custom to make a personal speech.
Filmmaker: It’s a great place to set a confession, or give information.
Bier: Yes, but it also happens all the time.
Filmmaker: I love the inserts in the film: the plants growing up toward the sky, the animal heads, the eyes, which you also use in Brothers and The One and Only. What I like also is that you also use eyes in close-up to show characters looking at one another. When you do that, it’s always an eyeline match.
Bier: It’s also a personal obsession. I love it. When you get that close to a specific part of the face or whatever, it becomes an abstraction, almost like a wide shot. It stops being a close-up. So you have an element of its being very close but in a strange way alienating in a good way. It’s almost like, we can be talking and I can be looking at your shoe, and it doesn’t take away the concentration of the conversation, it just becomes part of it. It gives you that airiness which is usually a part of the conversation. For me it’s a way to see the world.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me the significance of jump cuts in your films? I like the way you use them in After the Wedding, just enough to create some uneasiness. Yet in the Dogma-certified Open Hearts, they are more prominent.
Bier: I…don’t…really care, honestly. For me it’s just a matter of keeping the psychological momentum. And I don’t care whether it’s one sort of color or the other. I’m not interested in aesthetics. If it works, it works. I think if I want to stay within the same side of the frame, because I want to stay with one particular person, I’m going to do that. I think that the aesthetics of movie language have changed so much through video, whatever, the audience has a much broader notion of what they like and what they don’t like. I don’t think it’s really an issue., honestly. For me it’s just a matter of keeping the psychological momentum. And I don’t care whether it’s one sort of color or the other. I’m not interested in aesthetics. If it works, it works. I think if I want to stay within the same side of the frame, because I want to stay with one particular person, I’m going to do that. I think that the aesthetics of movie language have changed so much through video, whatever, the audience has a much broader notion of what they like and what they don’t like. I don’t think it’s really an issue.
Filmmaker: So it’s intuitive. Like when you’re editing, something feels right, rather than your analyzing it.
Bier: Yes, yes, exactly.
Filmmaker: I like After the Wedding’s eerie score. Do you work with Johan Soderqvist regularly?
Bier: Yes. I’ve worked with him a lot. He even did Freud Leaving Home.
Filmmaker: You shot India and Denmark in very different ways.
Bier: It wasn’t the way we shot them that was different, but the way we accentuated the difference in coloring. The colors are REALLY different. Even in summer in Denmark you never have the feeling of it being hot, but in India it’s always hot. It’s a completely different sensual experience to be in those two places. We wanted to convey that difference quite solidly.
Filmmaker: There seems to be a yellowish tint to the Indian scenes.
Bier: Yes, it is yellow. But it’s yellow there. Even the sea almost looks yellow, or gold. It’s amazing.
Filmmaker: There is something that bothered me a little bit. Pramod chooses not to go to Denmark, but he’s out of the picture once Jacob meets his biological daughter and sees that she has problems—although I find her a completely uninteresting character. Maybe she’s just supposed to be a catalyst. But I would be dishonest if I didn’t ask you this: We can get rid of the little brown kid now, because Jacob has this spoiled brat/heiress daughter that he feels he needs to take care of. To me his invitation to Pramod to go to Denmark with him is pro forma, like, okay, you should be part of the family, too. The boy just suddenly disappears. Am I projecting something here?
Bier: You have every right in the world to perceive it the way you perceive it. I don’t perceive it as such. I do perceive it as Jacob’s being very attached to him, and actually sad that he has to lose contact with him. You win some, you lose some.
By the way, one reason Pramod doesn’t want to go to Denmark is because things have gotten better at the orphanage on account of the fund. They’ve gotten all the money that they needed. They’ve gotten football goals.
Filmmaker: The Los Angeles Times referred to the Allan Loeb’s script for your new film, Things We Lost in the Fire, as “an intermittently mawkish melodrama about family, grief, and redemption.” The themes mentioned seem to fit into your body of work.
Bier: They do fit into my body of work in a very organic and natural manner, which is why, after reading the script, I felt that it would be right for me to do it. It would be a challenge. It had some things I hadn’t done before but it was also a natural development.
Filmmaker: So that was the attraction, as well as trying something new by working here?
Bier: Exactly. I thought it would be fun to make an English-language film and see whether what I do would work in a language with a much broader audience, comparatively. I thought it would be a great challenge.
Filmmaker: Do you find much more interference here, or is it just different making a movie in Denmark and Hollywood?
Bier: I find it challenging in a good way. I have felt no push like, they want it to be mainstream, nothing like that. Sam Mendes, the producer, is totally supportive of my vision of the movie, and so is DreamWorks. There hasn’t been interference but there have been discussions and questions, which I think is healthy. In terms of artistic development, I don’t think it’s so healthy when people stop asking questions. When people take for granted that everything you do is good, that’s when it becomes really dangerous.