It's hard to think of another Danish director whose career has such extremes as Thomas Vinterberg's. When he made his Dogme film "Festen"/"The Celebration" (1998), he and Lars von Trier were spearheading a movement of lasting film-historic significance. No other Danish-language film in recent times ever found a bigger audience or warmer international recognition than "Festen"/"The Celebration". To his credit, Vinterberg subsequently did everything he could to avoid repeating himself. Though it’s easy to find recurring themes in his work, his post-Celebration films struck out in directions, far different from the more straightforward realistic style that was his original and natural form of expression.
"I was going into this project with a sense of purity and nakedness. I didn’t have any bells and whistles or mannerisms to lean on, and that was a good feeling. I felt a bit like I did back in the day when we dressed down with the Dogme rules." – Thomas Vinterberg
Accordingly, the simplicity of Vinterberg's new film, "Submarino", may come as a surprise to some after the restless style explorations of his last films, "It’s All about Love" (2003) and "Dear Wendy" (2005 – from a screenplay by von Trier).
Insistent and muted, "Submarino" is a straight-up, intense look at two brothers burdened with such heavy social baggage that they inevitably sink to the bottom of society. The film tells an uncompromising story of failure and isolation, abuse and loneliness. Watching the film and discussing it with Vinterberg, you get a strong sense that his return to a simpler character-centred form of expression has set him free artistically.
How would you place Submarino in terms of your other films?
"I've returned to where I began 10-15 years ago, when I went into darker stories that all in some pretty direct ways were about confronting death. But "Submarino" is probably a shade darker than any of my past films and probably tougher than the others, too. The film’s environment is alien to me, but the story's grounding in parental guilt is very close to home. The film's theme – that we should take good care of our children – is universal, and I personally felt very strongly about it when I was making the film. I had just gone through a divorce and was alone with my kids for the first time."
"That’s the main reason why the novel affected me as much as it did and why I felt so close to its story. I may never have lived in a shelter or collected empty bottles to scrounge up cash, like these characters do, but generally we all try to do right by each other and our children. Where that’s concerned, it doesn’t matter where we live."
Would you say that in making Submarino you are somehow wiping the slate clean and starting over as a director?
"That might not be so far from the truth. There’s a definite connection between this film and my first films, and on this production I did have a wonderful sense of starting over again. The cast includes a number of actors making their big-screen debuts and the crew in several key positions has young people I never worked with before. My DP, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who went to the London Film School, never shot a feature before, and my co-writer, Tobias Lindholm, recently graduated from the National Film School of Denmark and this is his first feature, too."
"I had to face the fact that I’m the old boy on the team now. But that actually gave me a new, and much needed, eagerness, enthusiasm, crispness and fighting spirit – all the things I’d begun to miss a bit. Moreover, I was going into this project with a sense of purity and nakedness. I didn’t have any bells and whistles or mannerisms to lean on, and that was a good feeling. I felt a bit like I did back in the day when we dressed down with the Dogme rules."
Threw the novel across the room
How closely do you stick to the Jonas T. Bengtsson novel you're adapting?
"Pretty closely. Birgitte Hald, a Nimbus Film co-owner, sent me the book and, frankly, I'd had enough after the first 100 pages and threw it across the room. I called her up and said, What the hell did you want me to read that shit for? As it turned out, she'd had more or less the same reaction. But when you read on and make it through the first half, a greater meaning unfurls and you're as compelled by the book as you were first repelled. Consequently, I felt no great need to depart from the book and its structure or elaborate on it. In the book, the story about the children is spread out in flashbacks. We preferred to put it in the beginning and progress more or less linearly from there."
Because the scenes with the children come first, we never doubt that they are carrying some heavy baggage. It stays with us for the remainder of the film. Perhaps it gives us a basis of sympathy for them, too?
"Yes, that's probably how it works. And we need that, because once he’s grown up, Nick, the older brother, is the kind of bastard it's hard to feel any sympathy for. Probably, that's why we both had a problem with the first 100 pages of the novel. Mainly we were striving for great simplicity – partly inspired by films like "Control" and the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" that strip the story of all frills. Every time my co-writer, Tobias Lindholm, and I began to noodle, it didn't work."
To me, the opening – with the boys, the baby, the christening, etc. – feels a lot like the core of the film, along with those scenes that most recall the tenderness and warmth of some of your other films when your characters carve out a world for themselves in the darkness. Novel or no novel, the christening is very much a Vinterberg scene.
"I guess so, though I never analysed it like that. For me it was about employing dramatic tools to get to the innermost layers of the characters. The two brothers have a kind of alliance. The film's dramatic engine, I suppose, is how the two brothers reach out to each other but always come up short. They are trying to get back to what they shared when they were kids. If they had found each other in time, they would have been able to help each other out."
Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg in "Submarino". Photo: Per Arnesen
Uncommonly true to life
The film is told in short declarative sentences.
"Yes. I usually like to meander, so that way the film is clearly different from anything I did before. It is far less whimsical than my other films. We were aiming for that from the outset. I never made a film before that I think works best when it just shows a man sitting in an empty room staring at the wall! I must admit that I don't quite understand why that is, based on normal dramatic criteria, but inside we felt that's how it had to be."
"It may have something to do with locating some violent events in the beginning, saddling the characters with some really heavy baggage. Then, when the film becomes tranquil later on, there is room to include that resonance. The book was amazing to work with, because it was a little bit like adapting a slice of reality. The book is thoroughly researched – to the point where I felt was dealing with a document of reality. That gave a natural respect and a special desire to be loyal to the book. Dramatically, it didn't look like much, at least not Nick's story, but there was a substance, a universal something, to it."
After the dramatic prologue the film quite thoroughly and consistently depicts Nick's eventless everyday life. Why this change of gear?
"We needed it to make the viewer feel present in this man's life. Hopefully, people won't be bored but feel a sense of presence, in spite of everything. We needed that gravity, since the film is about being at the absolute bottom of life and society."
To me, the nerve to take a chance on such 'eventless' sequences is a sign of maturity. It's not seen very often, at least not in Danish cinema.
"I wouldn't have risked it just five years ago, being that ascetic. We had to reach the bottom of this person's experience of life, really make the viewer feel his isolation and his lack of desire to communicate with the world around him. We had to get into his head and into his rhythm. The action in this sequence is constantly almost approaching zero. But only almost."
Patricia Schumann & Jakob Cedergren in "Submarino". Photo: Per Arnesen
A kind of arrogance
Jakob Cedergren is arguably one of Denmark's best actors. As Nick, he manages to sustain a constant intensity.
"Yes, he completely masters the minimalist expression we were going for. Once or twice times on the shoot I would urge him to make a stronger statement, but he generally nailed it with his more restrained version. Like everyone else on the team, he had to go through a process of eliminating the distance between 'us' and 'them', trying to overcome the obstacles of our being relatively well-adjusted, youngish people with decent incomes who imagine that we have something to say about life in a really tough, socio-economically deprived environment."
"There is a kind of arrogance and audacity in that, which we had to get over in the rehearsals. Cedergren spent several weeks in the kind of environment we’re portraying. Morten Rose, who plays fat Ivan, got into costume and started collecting empty bottles on the streets. And I went to the shelter where Nick is staying, because I'd vowed to spend a night there. I didn't. The shelter's managers told me, 'You really want to take someone's bed? You think that's fair, just so you can be lying there with your film project? Would you really do that?' It may sound romantic, but we somehow had to erase the difference between us and them. And I think Jakob Cedergren pulled that off with distinction."
How much research did you do?
"Not as much as someone like Per Fly, who derives the story from the research, would do. I already had my story, and my co-writer and I went to the locations where we would be shooting, places he knows really well because he's been living there his whole life. Also, I have a friend, a former classmate, who did heroin after we left school more than 20 years ago. He's clean now, but he gave us some acute insight into what it’s like."
"That gave us a good sense of these environments. It's not like I have to live there for six months or change my identity or anything drastic like that. Research can be overrated. What counts, after all, is the cinematic representation of reality. For example, when I did "The Celebration", I had never attended a bourgeois dinner party like that before."
"I work best when I let my curiosity rule and try to navigate by listening and observing. You have to be on your toes all the time when you do that. In that sense, I really prefer to be on thin ice rather than on too safe ground."