A reawak­en­ing for ‘Commune’ di­rec­tor

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN Q&A michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com

Has Thomas Vin­ter­berg, with his lat­est film, found him­self ?

While still in his 20s, the Dan­ish prodigy won a stu­dent Os­car for his 1993 film-school the­sis “Last Round.” In 1998, Vin­ter­berg’s “The Cel­e­bra­tion,” which dealt with child sex­ual abuse, was met with shock and ac­claim when it tied for the Jury Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. “The Cel­e­bra­tion” was the first film to be re­leased as part of the “Dogme” move­ment, a half-se­ri­ous, half-tongue-in-cheek ex­per­i­ment dreamed up by Vin­ter­berg and his fel­low Dane and artis­tic provo­ca­teur, Lars von Trier. As part of Dogme’s stated “vows of chastity,” films made un­der that ban­ner had to be shot us­ing only hand­held cameras and nat­u­ral light and ob­serve other re­stric­tions.

What fol­lowed, how­ever, were many years in the cre­ative wilder­ness. Un­til Vin­ter­berg’s Os­carnom­i­nated film “The Hunt.” But as pow­er­ful as that 2012 film is — with, again, a child-mo­lesta­tion theme — his new movie “The Commune” may be his most per­sonal project yet.

Based on Vin­ter­berg’s child­hood in Copenhagen, where he and his par­ents lived for many years in an up­scale commune with a group of jour­nal­ists and aca­demics, the new film cen­ters on ar­chi­tect Erik (Ul­rich Thom­sen) and his TV-news­caster wife, Anna (Trine Dyrholm), who move into a sprawl­ing group home with their teenage daugh­ter Freja (Martha Sofie Wall­strom Hansen) while wrestling with in­fi­delity, jeal­ousy and di­vorce.

Vin­ter­berg, who turns 48 this month, took a break from shoot­ing the movie “Kursk,” a drama about the 2000 Rus­sian sub­ma­rine dis­as­ter, to re­flect, by phone, on the long, strange trip of his ca­reer. (This Q&A has been edited for length and clar­ity.)

Q: “The Commune” ex­plores the theme of grow­ing up, grow­ing older, per­haps grow­ing a bit dis­il­lu­sioned as well. Were you in­ten­tion­ally try­ing to ham­mer home those themes by cast­ing Ul­rich and Trine, with whom you first worked al­most 20 years ago in “The Cel­e­bra­tion”? A: That’s a beau­ti­ful way of an­a­lyz­ing it. I’m not sure I’m ready to say “dis­il­lu­sioned,” but yeah, grow­ing older, the loss of in­no­cence and what life brings when you come of age, is a very im­por­tant theme of this movie. And, yes, I was de­lib­er­ately think­ing of the cast­ing. The pos­si­bil­ity of bring­ing Ul­rich and Trine back to­gether ap­pealed to me, be­cause we had es­tab­lished that young, lov­ing cou­ple 20 years ago. I thought it would be in­ter­est­ing to see where they are now. It may ap­pear that I’m dis­il­lu­sioned by my time in the commune, but the truth is I’m ac­tu­ally miss­ing it and long­ing for it.

Q: How did the spirit of Dogme in­form your work af­ter “The Cel­e­bra­tion”? A: The Dogme move­ment was very par­al­lel to the commune I grew up in. It was a bunch of peo­ple do­ing some­thing that hadn’t been done be­fore, jump­ing off a cliff, hold­ing each other’s hands. When my par­ents moved into this house, they felt very naughty.

Q: What hap­pened to that house, by the way? A: I’m ac­tu­ally sit­ting in that house, in my old bed­room, right now. I’m in Copenhagen for 20 hours for a funeral. But to go back to your ques­tion, the Dogme move­ment — be­ing a part of a film crew — in many ways, these ex­pe­ri­ences par­al­leled my child­hood. I’ve al­ways been at­tached to com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple who are will­ing to ex­plore and to move them­selves onto thin ice, be­cause I grew up like that.

There was def­i­nitely a mix of play­ful­ness and ar­ro­gance with Dogme. We were nar­coticly ob­sessed with the courage that we en­joyed shar­ing. Ev­ery­body warned me against mak­ing the first Dogme film. They said, “It’s sui­cide. It will kill your ca­reer.” And yet it was so en­liven­ing.

I ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered, at one point, mak­ing “The Commune” a Dogme movie. It has much in com­mon with “The Cel­e­bra­tion”: a bunch of peo­ple around a ta­ble telling truth to each other, lov­ing each other, be­ing a fam­ily. But then I re­al­ized, in think­ing a lit­tle more, that Dogme was all about re­volt­ing against some­thing. Back in 1998, at Cannes, Dogme be­came a kind of overnight fash­ion. Now it’s an old dress. To make this movie a Dogme film would have been like put­ting on a uni­form.

Q: There are two chil­dren in “The Commune” — a lit­tle boy and an older teenage girl, Freja. Which char­ac­ter is you? A: I con­nect with Freja. I made her a girl, and I changed a lot of things. In writ­ing this film, I saw many things through her eyes. Hav­ing said that, like the char­ac­ter of Erik, I also di­vorced my wife [Maria Wal­bom] af­ter 20 years and mar­ried a younger woman [the ac­tress He­lene Rein­gaard Neu­mann, who plays Erik’s lover, Emma]. So I also saw the story through Erik’s eyes.

Q: Erik and Anna seem a lit­tle square to be start­ing a commune. Why did you de­cide to avoid the stereo­type of the hip­pie? A: I wrote what I ex­pe­ri­enced. On my street, there were, I think, 32 houses, and eight of them were com­munes. This is in North Copenhagen, the posh, rich area of Copenhagen. Aca­demics could only af­ford to live there by liv­ing to­gether.

And in this vil­lage of com­munes, each one was dif­fer­ent. There was a much more hip­pieish, hash-smok­ing, ide­al­ist house right across the street. We shared par­ties and all that with them. But my par­tic­u­lar commune was more of an ex­tended fam­ily. It was pretty es­tab­lish­ment: well-off aca­demics eat­ing to­gether ev­ery night. Of course, on Thurs­day, Fri­day and Satur­day, din­ner de­vel­oped into a party. But our house was the rea­son­able place in the vil­lage. So I leaned up against my mem­o­ries while also steer­ing away from camp­fire singing and hash and red flags. I re­mem­ber as a child hear­ing po­lit­i­cal de­bates. They were al­ways very bor­ing.

Q: Speak­ing of politics, the char­ac­ter of the im­mi­grant Al­lon, played by the Le­banese-born actor Fares Fares, is the sub­ject of some big­otry when he’s be­ing in­ter­viewed to live in the house. Does a film about the 1970s have any­thing to say about Dan­ish so­ci­ety to­day? A: Den­mark, along with most of the coun­tries of Europe, has closed its bor­ders since then. We’ve al­ways been a fear­ful lit­tle shire here that shiv­ers when it re­ceives for­eign ob­jects. But now, that fear has been over­taken by a hos­til­ity and a bru­tal way of re­ceiv­ing for­eign­ers. [Still,] things have changed. Back then, Den­mark was a very white coun­try. You can see that re­flected in some of the hu­mor against Al­lon. You saw that in “The Cel­e­bra­tion” as well. When I was a child, if you were black and your name was Ge­orge, you would be called “Black Ge­orge.”

Q: You’ve said, in ref­er­ence to your 2003 film ” It’s All About Love” — an English-lan­guage ro­man­tic scifi thriller star­ring Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes that is con­sid­ered a flop: “It’s my trou­bled child: the dear­est one to me, but also the one who be­haves the worst so­cially.” What did you learn from that mis­take? A: The years af­ter “The Cel­e­bra­tion” were ad­ven­tur­ous but also very painful, be­cause I had to re­find my­self. With “The Cel­e­bra­tion,” I had gone down a path that went no fur­ther. I felt I had made the ul­ti­mate film in that di­rec­tion. So I turned, walked an­other way and started all over. That was very, very dif­fi­cult. I found my­self free-float­ing at first.

Ev­ery­thing was torn apart: my ca­reer, my fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, my mar­riage, my re­la­tion­ship to my [former pro­duc­tion] com­pany [Nim­bus Films]. I left ev­ery­thing. “It’s All About Love” is a fable that comes from a very hon­est and wor­ried and beau­ti­ful place, ac­tu­ally. As a nar­ra­tive, as a piece of drama, it’s pretty dys­func­tional, I guess. Only one per­son in 10 gets it — on a good day.

Q: “The Commune” be­gan in 2011 as a play at the Burgth­e­ater in Vi­enna. Tell me about that jour­ney from stage to screen. It sounds like theater might have saved you, as a film­maker. A: Let’s zoom out. Sev­eral years ago, some­one flew up here ask­ing me to do theater. Hav­ing de­stroyed my ca­reer and my fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion, I said no at first, be­cause I don’t know how to do theater. But I was with­out my com­pany. I was with­out my monthly pay­check. This guy said to me, “This is what I will pay you.” Then I said yes be­fore know­ing what to do.

It was a very cre­atively lib­er­at­ing thing for me to stop mak­ing work for money. I hadn’t tried that be­fore. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Tell me about yourself.” The minute I told him about the commune and my up­bring­ing, he was like: “I in­sist you do that play. Write it with the ac­tors. Write six or seven scenes, and im­pro­vise the rest. See if it works, and if you like it, go do the movie.” On open­ing night, there was cry­ing and a stand­ing ova­tion. I felt a warmth, like com­ing back to my child­hood.

The Commune (Un­rated, 111 min­utes). Opens Fri­day at Land­mark’s E Street Cin­ema.


“The Commune” may be Thomas Vin­ter­berg’s most per­sonal project. The movie is based on his child­hood in Copenhagen, where he and his par­ents lived in an up­scale commune. Vin­ter­berg, be­low, turns 48 this month.

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