It's not easy to squeeze an interview into Susanne Bier's calendar. And she's done so many of them over the years. It's part of the job, if not the most fun part, for obvious reasons.
When Bier's assistant contacts me for the third time to reschedule, I grumble, protesting that we really need some time if it's going to make any sense at all. The reply comes promptly: Bier is very professional, she does not waste her time. True. That's apparent from every page of every interview with her I ever read. Sometimes I catch myself wishing for a crack or two in the professional façade of the 49-year-old director who is an undisputed success story in Danish film.
Hollywood versus Denmark
Bier is one of the rare filmmakers who is always engaged in work in Denmark. She has also made one Hollywood film so far – Things We Lost in the Fire, starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro – and excelled, though the film was no blockbuster. But Bier stayed true to herself in Hollywood and even added a small revolutionary twist by casting an African-American actress as the female lead. In the script the part was white. This may not be the kind of thing Danes are very conscious of, but in Hollywood it's huge. Berry even said as much. Meanwhile, the whole thing apparently never warranted more than a shrug from Bier.
Bier is not preoccupied with politics, though that doesn't mean she shies away from potentially volatile material. However, the issues in Bier's films always seem to be of a moral or ethical character: How far can someone's cultivated, humanist surface be stretched before it snaps, when their sorest spots are poked and prodded in a tight situation? In starker terms, how can someone like the good soldier in Bier's film Brothers live with himself after he's forced to kill one of his own to survive?
Brothers was recently remade in Hollywood, and critics generally agreed that Bier's original film was superior. Perhaps it's easier for Bier to fit into Hollywood than the other way around? Maybe there's something obviously Hollywood about the way she presents her stories with their grand emotions and effective epic drive. Professionally.
Bier once said about her Hollywood work that she has no problem with the studio managing things so closely. Even if, she said, that included they knew when she went to the bathroom. She chose to view the non-stop calls with her producer not as untimely intrusions but as opportunities for continuous feedback. Again, a form of pragmatic professionalism. In her own words, Bier is pretty much a no-frills person. All she needs is some good, healthy eats and a place to sleep. Let others have the custom trailers and perks.
First into the lifeboat?
Bier's new film, with the title In a Better World, moves in the classic Bier-esque moral-ethical universe, this time inhabited by two 12-year-old boys. One boy, a victim of bullying, meets another boy his age who won't put up with anything, and dramatic events ensue. The grownups don't have an easy time of it either. One of the adult male characters is a wealthy widower (Ulrich Thomsen), the other is an idealistic doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) stationed in unstable Africa with a neglected family in Denmark on the verge of divorce.
Like After the Wedding and Brothers, In a Better World mirrors the big in the small. Bier's dream team, the same people that brought us the first two films, is behind the new film as well. And, as with every one of her films, Bier wrote the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen, while Pernille Bech Christensen edited.
We're at Zentropa. I thank Bier for the screening of In a Better World, which I liked. Bier leans over the table with an intense stare and says, "Yes, but you didn't like After the Wedding." Leaning back in the sofa, she waits for my reply. "I have a memory like an elephant," she laughs dryly, noting my mild consternation. I mention all the plotlines that had to merge in After the Wedding – a few too many in my opinion. "Would you say it was too ... purple?" Mulling that notion over, Bier dismisses it. She doesn't agree. "We don't have to," says she, who of all people has critics and audiences on her side. We're off to a roaring start.
Did In a Better World start out from a child's or an adult's point of view?
"An adult's. It started with Mikael Persbrandt's character, in one form or another. But the kids very quickly took over, only the connection between the kids wasn't so clear. We had two different tracks, and we then linked them up. Persbrandt's character wasn't a doctor to start out, just an idealist. Then he's the victim of an assault, and how do you deal with that?"
"Where does anyone belong on the moral scale? If you were aboard the Estonia when that ship went down, would you have jumped into the lifeboat right away or would you have helped others at the risk of your own life? There's a range of moral dilemmas and they're all interesting. It's never black and white."
The Human Story
A location atop a towering silo in In a Better World figures prominently in the two boys' universe. Naturally, the kids were safely bodyguarded, shooting at such an unsafe location, by elite soldiers. In fact, it turned out, these soldiers had used Bier's Brothers in their training, especially the scene where the soldier kills his buddy to survive.
"That made me proud, of course, though I was surprised at the conclusion they came away with. Because all you do as a good soldier is making sure you survive. Even if it goes against your basic humanity. I found that incredibly interesting."
When you do a film with a weighty theme like war, as in Brothers, you're no longer occupied with the issue of "Denmark at war" but with the issue of personal choice?
"I'm occupied much more with morals than politics. I'm definitely a pragmatic person, though I have a hard time relating to the kind of pragmatism that makes someone a good politician. This doesn't mean that I don't want to make a 'political' film. I loved The Constant Gardener and All the President's Men, for example, although I would probably have done some things differently. Because films work so much on the emotional level, there's a conceptual layer that's hard to include in that kind of story. Even in most so-called political films, it's the human stories that move you."
The psychology of places
Bier's road to film took a detour through religion and architecture at university, before she was admitted to the National Film School of Denmark. Studying architecture sparked her interest in production design and she applied to a programme in London. During the admissions interview, Bier blurted out that she would really rather direct. Not the best approach when applying to production design, she laughs, and they sent her home to think things over.
"As an architect you're trained to take a comprehensive view of things. That's helped me a lot. I applied to the National Film School with some photographs I did while studying architecture, a series of sequences. They were very narrative, but I'm sure they would seem pretty pretentious if anyone saw them today. I was incredibly lucky, because my instructors were Mogens Rukov and, not least, Jørgen Leth. Leth is such a distinctive aesthete. You always knew exactly who he was, and that was enormously useful to a student. Sometimes his response was brutal, sometimes euphoric, but I could always really use it because I knew who he was."
Do you see a pattern in your path to film?
"I think I do. Architecture, after all, is more than any building you walk into. Take St. Peter's in Rome and all the stories tying into that kind of a structure. A building can have real sensuality, like a film. It can take you places."
Clearly, your characters tend to move through some very beautiful places, including in In a Better World.
"No, the places aren't always beautiful. You're wrong about that. It depends on the story. But the places are always distinctive. It's very important to get them right. To me, the places contribute psychologically every bit as much as the characters."
How little does it take?
When the time comes for Bier to think up a new story, a period uninterrupted by day-to-day concerns is essential, and she and Anders Thomas Jensen always go away to write.
In a Better World has three adult characters. Were they a struggle?
"We were unsure about the format for the three leads, because the actors are so incredibly skilled. We resisted the temptation of giving them too much history in proportion to the film's real pivot."
How many characters in a film can hold your attention before it starts flagging?
"I don't think it's possible to make any rules about that. In a way, this film could just as well be about the potential of anyone becoming a terrorist. If you think of that as the central part of the story, there's a limit to how many other parts you can go into and follow. So it's really less of a question of who the characters are than of how the story coheres thematically."
Is it hard to direct children in roles that are as raw as in In A Better World?
"I don't really look at these characters as children. Having a plan for justice and cleaning up the world, like Christian does in the film, is a very adult project. It's a Western kind of project. Obviously, these are 12-year-old boys. Of course, when you're working, you can't talk to them like you talk to grownup actors, but, in principle, almost."
Could the roles of these two boys actually have been adult roles?
"I thought it was interesting to look at the possible reasons why a child would act in such a fatal way. In our part of the world we believe that, if we treat our children humanely and instil proper values in them, they will grow up to be decent people."
That's not entirely wrong, is it?
"No, I don't think it's wrong, but our experiment in this film is about looking at how little it really takes before a child – or an adult – thinks something is deeply unjust. It really doesn't take much, and I find that profoundly interesting. And scary."
What is it that always seems to be driving you towards these moral and ethical dilemmas? I know your Jewish background has given you an awareness of how life can suddenly drastically change, but that's the really big narrative. Were you ever forced to make significant moral decisions in your own life?
"I was never exposed to any personal, ethical dilemmas like that. My father was always very moral, and I was raised extremely morally. His parents were also very moral. I think I've been fascinated by that since I was a child. My grandparents were refugees from Germany and their unshakeable 'that's right and that's wrong' attitude in light of what was going on at the time, impressed me. They had this old-fashioned, unshakable idealism about right and wrong, which was quite distinctive considering that the world was in chaos."
Do you have very clear concepts of right and wrong?
"I think I do, and I don't know if it's good or bad, but there's a very hard core of things that are inarguably 'right' or 'wrong'."
Does that belong in the Ten Commandments department?
Bier laughs, "I wouldn't say it's the Ten Commandments consistently, though, in principle, they are the foundation of all legislation and thought in our society. I think all my films show how reality reflects that."
Do you prefer to write your own screenplays or work with others' good ideas?
"I prefer to have Anders Thomas write! I don't write myself. I more or less go blank if I have to sit in front of the computer alone."
No auteur longings?
"Oh no, I wouldn't like that at all."