A reawakening for ‘Commune’ director
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.