Danish director talks about making films her way
Danish director Susanne Bier has had an interesting and at times adversarial history with the film culture of her native Europe. She also has an Oscar.
The director of "In a Better World," which won the Academy Award this year for foreign-language film, spent the early part of her career with one foot in both the commercial and arthouse worlds of European film.
Though she gained notoriety as a popular filmmaker in Denmark with 1999's romantic comedy "The One and Only," her first critical smash, "Open Hearts," came as a member of the Dogma movement. The loose-knit, avant-garde collective made stripped-down films that did not rely on lighting, costumes or music — among other limitations — with the intention of telling stories that focused on character and story.
After the 2002 critical success of "Open Hearts," Bier began to regularly defy the constraints of her filmmaking peers from Europe. "Brødre" ("Brothers"), the 2004 drama later remade in America about a love triangle borne of tragedy, and 2007's English-language "Things We Lost in the Fire" raised the filmmaker's profile internationally and led some in the European film scene to accuse the director of falling prey to commercialism.
The confident and thoughtful Bier, who visited Austin for the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival in March, makes no apologies for her style or motives.
"There is in Europe a kind of elitist culture — where it is not a good thing if you are actively engaging with the audience," Bier says. "I think it's incredible. I think it's from a time when anything considered innovative had to be rejected by the audience. Like any new school of painting was rejected by the public and then it became sort of recognized. I don't think the directors who are now never being recognized by the public suddenly will then be recognized in 100 years time. Because that's not what a movie is about. Movies are a mass media, and the way to treat movies is to tell stories with a real substance and then actually address an audience."
"In a Better World" artfully explores the pain of adolescence and the conflicting motivations of revenge and forgiveness. Danish boys Christian and Elias struggle to make sense of assaults on their family life brought on by death and separation. In bouts of violent youthful rebellion, the two lash out against bullies both at school and in their community.
Angered and confused, the newfound friends eventually fall victim to their misguided tempers in a violent outburst. Elias' father Anton, a doctor practicing at a field clinic in war-ravaged Africa, must simultaneously come to terms with his own pacifism.
Despite previous criticism from the cinematic elite, Bier says she felt welcomed home like a hero after her Oscar victory in February. It's a victory she shares with her fellow Danes and one she must put behind her in order to move on to her next project.
"I don't think anybody realizes the pride a country of 5 million people takes in winning this prize," Bier says. "It was crazy. I kind of saw it like winning the World Cup. It's very gratifying \u2026 I guess that any real accolade is really very dangerous. You're suddenly faced with the conflict of 'Will the next piece I do be as good or have the same amount of success?' And I think the real truth is to not even address these issues, not even ask yourself. Never look back and always look forward. I think there's a lot of artistic energy in being worried."