Henrik Ruben Genz' new film "Terribly Happy" is another adaptation of an Erling Jepsen novel, following up last year's big hit, "The Art of Crying" directed by Peter Schønau Fog – although Genz' film is all its own. It's the story of a Copenhagen policeman Robert, who is transferred to a Southern Jutland backwater. Though we don't know the back-story, he clearly considers his new job a sentence to be endured.
"In classic oaters, the hero arrives to civilise a place. But here, it's the hero who becomes civilised on the terms of the new place."
Meanwhile, the job of a small-town cop turns out to be a lot less laid-back than he expected. Country life may look simple, but the locals are nothing if not twisted, and Robert has a hard time adjusting to village life and the macabre, reigning social order.
Genz knows what he's talking about. A Southern Jutlander himself, he was born in 1959, three years after Jepsen.
In fact, the two boys, Henrik and Erling, grew up on opposite sides of the same street. "It's almost impossible to live any closer than we did," Genz says. "Erling's parents had a grocery store on one side of the street and we lived on the other side. From my bedroom window, I could keep tabs on what was happening in their house. Back then, I wasn't aware of all the grim events he describes in The Art of Crying. But his house had a special atmosphere of something sealed in and claustrophobic – though, as a child, you don't have the words to describe it."
NO MIND FOR GENRES
Genz originally majored in drawing and printmaking in 1987 and later attended the National Film School, graduating with his student film Cross Roads in 1995. Subsequently, he worked at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation DR, directing a number of short films, documentaries and episodes of TV series, including the popular dramas "Nikolaj & Julie", "Better Times" and, most recently, four episodes of "The Killing".
Genz' short "Teis and Nico" was nominated for an Oscar in 1999, and in 2003 he directed his first feature, the children's film "Someone Like Hodder". His next film was a comedy, "Chinaman" (2005), about a construction worker who falls in love at his local Chinese takeaway.
"Terribly Happy" is hard to pigeonhole. It has traces of many disparate genres, including folk comedies, westerns and horror films. "I don't know squat about genres, and I don’t really think in terms of genres when I make a film. But of course, my film has certain genre characteristics. I'm obviously aware that opening with 'a man rides into town' sets a certain western mood. Still, in our day and age, isn’t it okay to take things off the shelf and use a bit of everything?" Genz asks rhetorically. "Instead of thinking in terms of genre, I wanted the film to be experienced as a nightmare in a surreal, parallel world where things are fairly realistic, but everything is always shifting ever so slightly."
WHAT THE BOG HIDES
Robert comes to town as a good cop. Though he tries to keep cool and concentrate on his job, he soon falls for the local beauty, Ingelise. But there's a price: Ingelise's husband is the most dangerous man in town. Adapting Jepsen's novel, Genz chose to focus on Robert's development, as he switches from one code to another. "In classic oaters, the hero arrives to civilise a place. But here, it's the hero who becomes civilised on the terms of the new place," Genz says.
Some directors would balk at taking on a Jepsen adaptation on the heels of Peter Schønau Fog's huge success with "The Art of Crying", but Genz is taking it all in stride. "For one, I started "Terribly Happy" before "The Art of Crying" was even finished," he says. "That it became such a big hit is great, but it didn't affect my work. At best, it will help my project, because a lot of people are looking for another helping of Jepsen. At worst, people will compare my film to his and be disappointed by the differences."
Genz' film has traces of the novel's characteristic magical realism. "In the reality we usually inhabit, people are convicted and punished when they commit a crime against society. But here, the pub is judge and jury, and anyone who threatens the community literally ends up in the bog. The bog is an image of the community’s lawlessness. That’s a radical break with reality, of course, but I hope the viewer will accept it as part of the film's context," Genz says.
"Terribly Happy". Photo: Karin Alsbirk
THE TYRANNY OF SILENCE
Do you recognize the novel’s image of a provincial town in Southern Jutland?
"It's hard to say, because memory is always a bit diffuse," he says. "People are always asking me, amazed, 'Was it really that bad?' That I'm not amazed may be because I don't see how weird it is myself. Maybe because it's familiar to me. The thing about Erling's descriptions is you think he’s lying – or at least laying it on thick – but he’s really very exacting about the truthfulness of his stories."
How much is true and how much is made up?
"Uh-oh, don't ask me that," Genz laughs, turning serous. "The scenario is fictional, but there's a certain truth to it that’s about the tyranny of silence. Though the description isn't 100% realistic, thematically there’s something there that I think will be familiar in a lot of places: Everyone knows everything, but as long as no one says anything, it's not really happening. That's one of the rules: We keep quiet and as long as we do that, things never happened."
"It's about putting all the demons into the bog. In that sense, the bog is a psychological place where all the truth that can't be handled is concealed, a mental bog. But the moment someone comes in from outside and scratches the surface a bit, everyone turns out to know everything."
"I recognize that from real life. That's how a small town works. Everyone is at everyone else's mercy and you have to keep quiet about what goes on in people's homes, or the community breaks down," he says.
OUTSIDE TIME AND PLACE
The magical realism renders "Terribly Happy" oddly timeless. No outer signs reveal whether we are in 1968, 1988 or 2008.
"Maybe because I trained as a printmaker, I long for a classical expression. What's hip right now may be terribly outdated three years from now, whereas classical things have a lasting modernity. I don't need to be in on the latest thing. I actually pull back from it," Genz says.
Is there a straight line from Someone Like Hodder to "Terribly Happy"?
"Stylistically, there's a connection. But content-wise, my films are widely different," Genz says. "Probably, what they have in common is that they strip reality of all unnecessary things, leaving a somewhat artificial, detached or staged reality. Some people like real life with all its sprawl – I try to get rid of everything insignificant."
"A lot of my work is made in doubt, and out of that doubt I have to create a framework that I believe in and that will last beyond autumn 2008. That's why I go for a kind of non-time and non-place in my films. I have a need for the fantastical, for distancing myself from reality. When I watch films set in the reality I move in every day, I'm bored. I think films should strive for an element of magic – lifting the action out of the day-to-day. Well, reality simply bores me, I guess. Can you say that?" Genz asks with a shy laugh. "The material should have a level of fantasy that allows you to re-experience the film in any given period of your life and always get new aspects out of it. I think that goes for "Terribly Happy", too. It's not 'clear' or complete but open. Then, it doesn't really matter what genre or type of story it is, as long as it’s fresh every day".