The established auteur Lars von Trier and young, untested Thomas Vinterberg co-conceived Dogme 95, launching the "Vow of Chastity" in Paris, March 1995. But Dogme 95 had four founding members when the time came to put the manifesto to the test in actual film projects, and "The Four Dogme Brothers" soon became a household name in Denmark.
"Is Denmark the quaint little country we like to extol in song, or could highly undemocratic activities conceivably be taking place behind our cosy, smug facade? That was our premise when Rasmus Heisterberg and I set out to write a story in a genre we both love, a genre I'd never tried my hand at before: the political thriller. The story takes place on many levels, though it mainly revolves around the Danish Defence Intelligence and a secret that our protagonist naively vows to unravel. It allowed me to offer big parts to Maria Bonnevie, who I've wanted to work with for a long time, and Anders W. Bertelsen, who I really enjoyed having in front of my Camera in 'Mifune"'. Søren Kragh-Jacbosen
The two other brothers were Kristian Levring, a relatively unknown director of TV commercials, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, a veteran filmmaker best known in Denmark for his sympathetic films for children and young people.
Early on, most people probably thought of Vinterberg, Levring and Kragh-Jacobsen as von Trier’s stooges, a group alibi for the Danish bad- boyfilmmaker's crusade against a staid, overstuffed cinematic tradition. That soon changed.
First, Vinterberg's directorial debut, "The Celebration", beat von Trier's "The Idiots" at Cannes in 1998, winning the Jury Prize and later becoming an international hit.
The next year brought a second wave of attack from the Dogme brothers that was surprisingly effective. "Mifune", a Dogme film directed by veteran Kragh-Jacobsen, won a Silver Bear in Berlin. "Mifune's" female lead, Iben Hjejle, won critical acclaim that propelled her into a starring role in Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity".
In Denmark, Kragh-Jacobsen's membership in the Dogme gang of four was met with mild astonishment. Not exactly known as an experimental filmmaker, Kragh-Jacobsen was seen more as an empathic, lyrical storyteller, an actor's director with a special talent for bringing out the best in young actors. To be sure, while von Trier's "The Idiots" set the Dogme standard for pure daring, "Mifune" was the most conventional of the first four Dogme films.
But exactly for that reason, "Mifune" highlighted an important point of the Dogme project: there is no rule stating that the product has to be wildly experimental. The Dogme rules and their inherent limitations could be like a window thrown wide open. A knife cutting away all excess fat. Or, in Kragh-Jacobsen's case, a veteran director's key to rediscovering the joy of filmmaking. A chance to invent a simpler, fresher approach to a complicated medium with its stuffy conventions, perhaps even to reclaim a lost innocence?
That Kragh-Jacobsen went in that direction – and hit home with audiences in Denmark and all across Europe – was no coincidence. His films all show a fundamental, forthright joy in working in the film medium that is nothing if not infectious. Even his dark films glow with a discreet, impregnable light that seems to come from somewhere inside his humanist worldview.
You could say that his distinctive feel for credibly depicting children and young people reflects a sensitivity to innocence that has survived all his years in this cockamamie business, no matter how many knocks and blows it received. You always come away with the sense that somewhere inside the seasoned filmmaker there is a longhaired kid whistling a merry tune.
"What No One Knows". Photo: Ole Kragh-Jacobsen
A SENSITIVE MAN MAKES A TOUGH FILM
Perhaps that sounds like a pretty odd introduction to the man who directed the new Danish, political thriller What No One Knows. Innocence will not get you far in that dark maze of deadly intrigue!
There is nothing naive or guileless about the chilling, tightly crafted story of a man, Thomas, who is whirled into a nasty affair involving a murder in his family and shady dealings in the secret service – crimes of such magnitude that no one in his right mind will believe Thomas’ rambling. Meanwhile, the film’s political points clearly reflect what some modern cynics would call an old-fashioned, antiauthoritarian view of life and its political wheelerdealers.
Denmark is a country divided by the "War on Terror". A nation with a deep-rooted tradition never to take up arms, unless it is attacked, or to assist international conflicts with humanitarian aid and peacekeeping troops – that same nation has been among America's staunchest military allies in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is the Danish government adverse to the notion of using information obtained through torture. Nothing less than an earth-shaking political inversion of the standard Danish practice and mentality was pushed through without any public debate or significant protestations.
What should the role of the Danish military be? How close should Denmark's ties be to the United States and its secret services? The "War on Terror", in combination with exponentially growing possibilities for monitoring the populace in the digital society, presents a democratic challenge some say ought to concern the country's citizens and voters more than the ongoing struggle to save a popular tax freeze.
A conspicuously more authoritarian Danish society, with a beleaguered prime minister routinely playing the stern patriarch reasoning with his disobedient children, hardly seems like the kind of development that would please the director of "What No One Knows".
THE PRIC E OF SECURITY
Thus the mental and political backdrop for Kragh-Jacobsen's new political thriller. The screenplay was co-written by Kragh-Jacobsen and Rasmus Heisterberg, the rising star of Danish screenwriting. The protagonist, Thomas Deleuran, is played by Anders W. Berthelsen, who will be familiar to international audiences from his leading performance in "Mifune" that gave him his breakthrough in Danish cinema. Berthelsen has been all over the Danish film crop ever since.
In "What No One Knows", Berthelsen plays an everyman Dane, a namesake of the Bible's Doubting Thomas. Losing his girlfriend under traumatic circumstances when he was young, Thomas left his upper middleclass home in anger at his authoritarian father and went to India to slack off. After returning, he has slowly sunk into a somewhat hazy state, muddling through life as a puppeteer in a children's puppet theatre. Thomas does not expend much energy on life's thornier questions. Not one to get involved, he just wants to pass time with red wine and half-baked projects in his cocoon of light inebriation where nothing really matters anymore.
Until the moment, that is, when he is forced to get involved. Then all hell breaks loose!
"What No One Knows" is a Danish thriller set in Denmark and partly in Sweden. The film's authentic atmosphere carries a sting in its portrait of its rather resigned and self-involved protagonist that is sharply critical of the current Danish mentality. No one can be engaged and detached at the same time.
"Democracy isn't free", a key line in the film goes. Secure living comes at a price. What we ought to be discussing, the film suggests, is how high a price we should be willing to pay for that security. What if the price is restrictions on our civil rights and devalued social ethics? That’s a universal question and a highly current one.
There's nothing provincial about the ingredients in this Danish thriller. Behind its tense action, the film is about an individual’s personal responsibility for preventing the balance between necessary secrecy and destructive shadiness from tipping to the point where it undermines the spirit of democracy.
Though the pure thriller format is new to Kragh-Jacobsen, the basic conflict of individual freedom and imagination versus the authorities and all its father figures is a familiar theme in his films.
Freedom, imagination and humour used to be the order of the day at DR B&U, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation's "Children and Youth Department". For years, the B&U was a prime incubator for new Danish talent. Among the most successful talents hatched there was a dyslexic, former electrical engineer named Søren Kragh-Jacobsen.
By the time he broke through as a popular TV personality, he had already made his name singing and writing popular songs for teens. In 1978, he made his directorial debut with a film for young adults, "Wanna See My Beautiful Navel?" From the outset, it was obvious that he was a director with an uncommon ability to be on the same wavelength as his youthful performers.
In 1982 he made "Rubber Tarzan", which won the children's film competition in Berlin. Warm and funny, the film became a collective symbol for the ambitions of Danish children's films, which hadjust gained a privileged status by in the new Danish Film Act. The act wholeheartedly backed up "Rubber Tarzan's" motto that everybody’s good at something – you just have to find out what it is.
The dream of creating a humanist Danish children's film tradition was off to a flying start thanks to Kragh-Jacobsen. Then came "Thunderbirds", his first venture into grown-up films, though in "Shower of Gold" (a children's thriller adapted from a TV series) and "Emma’s Shadow", both 1988, he soon returned to the world of children.
At the same time, he was consumed by a deep passion for historical films. "Emma's Shadow" is set in the 1930s, and his next two films, "The Boys from St. Petri" (1991) and "The Island on Bird Street" (1997), are powerful World War II dramas starring children and teens.
"What No One Knows" is his third film in a row about adults – though they don't always act like adults when the going gets tough! Grown-ups can be remarkably childish and insecure, while the kids in his films tend to display a courage and resourcefulness that the grown-ups would never have suspected they had. Even when there are no kids in his films, Kragh-Jacobsen tends to take their side. In many different ways, he is a forever-young filmmaker in Danish cinema. "Something smells goddamn fishy around here!" may not be the most original line you ever heard in a thriller. Then again, there is nothing fishy about Kragh-Jacobsen taking on the thriller genre and proving true to himself and his youthful view of the aberrant ways of the world.