Interview: Susanne Bier Bemoans Violent Society And Modern Parenting For 'In A Better World'

by Christopher Bell
March 30, 2011 11:15 AM
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In one unattainable and colossally perfect universe, "Dogtooth" won the best Foreign Oscar statue. Our current universe is admittedly less deranged than that, with the Academy generally awarding whichever non-U.S. movie hits all the cliché buttons and shies away from originality. Thankfully, the 2010 winner "In A Better World" breaks their usual reductive routine. Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's (the Academy Award nominated "After the Wedding," "Things We Lost In The Fire") latest focuses on a friendship between two troubled boys and is told in a distant, completely unnerving way. Sure, it doesn't feature a woman being repeatedly beaten with a VHS tape of "Rocky" -- which, spoiler, happens in Yorgos Lanthimos' "Dogtooth" -- but you can't always get what you want.

Denmark's Academy-approved flick casts a glance on two families, one lead by Claus (Ulrich Thomsen "Brothers"), a man struggling with the death of his spouse and his reclusive son Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen); the other featuring Mikael Persbrandt (Beorn in "The Hobbit") as Anton, father of bullied Elias (Markus Rygaard), who spends most of his time volunteering his medical expertise in Sudan and trying to pull his marriage back together after an unspecified, souring act. While there seems to be a lot going on, the main narrative focuses on the two boys -- Christian, the new kid, defends Elias from being picked on. A friendship is born out of this incident, and when the children witness Anton being wronged by a stranger with a short fuse, Christian plans a disturbing revenge -- one that Elias is reluctantly pulled into.

The Playlist sat down with the Oscar winner to discuss the topics in the film that are most dear to her, including the role of parents and teachers in a child's life. We forewarn you, there's some spoilers ahead, but it's vague enough that it won't ruin things for you. You could be slightly confused in spots however if you haven't seen the film, so perhaps check back in again after you've seen it. "In A Better World" opens April 1 in limited release.

The Playlist: The majority of the film is very unnerving and tense - even from the very beginning, the tone gives a feeling of terrible mystery, an augur of something bad to come.
Susanne Bier: It's intentional. There's an undercurrent of violence all the time, and you don't feel safe because it can erupt at any time. I think most of my films all have a certain tone or intensity in them. They are tense, and you kind of anticipate some kind of catastrophe but you're not quite sure. It's done by showing all of the different elements, little by little.

Where does this rage stem from?
There are three violent characters in the film -- there's the Sudanese gang-leader "Big Man" [Odiege Matthew] who Anton eventually helps, the guy with the car repair shop that hits Anton, and there's Christian. You can say we don't want to concern ourselves with "Big Man" because he's just so evil and beyond redemption. So is the guy at the car repair, even if Anton tries to address him, but he's beyond reach. Christian is not. He's enraged because he's so unhappy. He's mourning and incapable of talking about it or having anybody to talk about it with. His pain has transformed into anger, but he's redeemable and represents the reason for the film. You can see that he's dangerous, but you can also see that with compassion and a lot of love he can get better. His danger will go away.

The revenge that Christian executes ends up hurting, possibly killing his only friend. But if that bomb had not hurt Elias, would he have changed?
Let's say the bomb went off and Elias had not been hit by it. It's such a strange path, with people becoming evil, it's like a build-up. And I think it could've gone wrong for him, but everything that happened to him made him very savable. It's about not being saved, it's about when there's a point where you're still savable.

Where do you see the parents fitting into this equation?
You can say the movie describes two different kinds of fathers, and some audiences think it's about absent fathers. I haven't seen it like that, but I see it as fathers who really want to do the right thing but are unable to. So you have Christian's father who keeps a stiff upper lip to protect his son, but by doing that he's alienating his child. And then you have Anton trying to educate the kids, but he's also sort of indulging in a project that's kind of ridiculous. I mean, this guy, the mechanic, he's not going to listen, and even the kids know this. There's something very endearing in what he did, I like that he did it, it's very sympathetic. But there are just certain people you can't reach.

But, of course, some things can have a profound effect down the line...
Well it's more about how to communicate values, especially to your kids. I think that you do communicate them by how you live and what you're consistent about, and I'm sure even if Elias realized that the mechanic wouldn't apologize, I think Anton being consistent will have a strong impact on the boy and his life. Those things aren't futile, they're just not instantly gratifying the way we'd like them to be.

After a phony make up between the two children and the bully, the latter tells the guidance counselor that he's making a musket in class. She laughs it off as if it's cute -- teachers can be part of the problem, too.
The thing is, the bully really has an issue with authorities. I don't think he feels a strong respect for school teachers, and I think it's his way of making fun of them. I mean, they are really daft, inexcusably daft. She's not dissuading him from it, but you know what? They're not great teachers. Parents can shape a child, but a great teacher can too. All the bullying in the movie and in general is often never solved because of the teacher never realizing or possibly not having the facilities to handle it. In this case the teachers are just not awake and they could've stopped it much earlier.

This film focuses heavily on cause and effect, so much so that an act of kindness or compassion can cause a myriad of things, sometimes something very bad. For example, Anton trying to help the "Big Man" ends up costing him respect, but when he kicks him out for laughing at a woman being raped, he's now in danger of being murdered himself. Similarly, Anton taking the kids to the mechanic to resolve their issue just causes the irate stranger to strike him more, and also causes Christian to construct the bomb that nearly takes Elias's life.
People don't necessarily do evil deeds because they want to, people happen to do something with horrible consequences even if they meant to be kind. It's not like an ultimate cause & effect, like if you're kind it's going to go wrong. But I'm very fascinated with the idea of wanting to do well, and then for some reason it goes wrong. Which I think happens quite often, unfortunately.

You mentioned in a previous interview that you don't let actors get too dramatic or cliche -- you have a "bullshit detector." Are you ever worried in being too subtle?
Yes, of course. There's subtlety and there's boring. So I'm definitely worried about, and when we talk about the script we discuss it. For example, do you need to explain the reason why Anton and Elias's Mother have broken up? Could you just say they had some issues, or do you need to understand that they broken up? And that's a thing where I thought we'd lose the audience if we don't somehow hint at a reason, because the audience would've been annoyed by not being told. You always deal with that, that is a big part of filmmaking. It's about that balance of informing and not over-informing.

Your next film, "All You Need Is Love," is a romantic comedy with Pierce Brosnan. Can you talk a little bit about that?
It's a little premature to talk about that… but I will say that it is bilingual, partly Danish and partly English. I'm not doing [the romantic comedy] "Which Brings Me To You" anymore, but projects fall apart, it's unfortunately the process of making films. Some of the ones you what to do, they're more difficult to pursue or get started.

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