Director Susanne Bier on Being Labeled a Voyeur

Susanne Bier - Photo by: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In her films, Danish director Susanne Bier specializes in taking good, decent people and putting them through hell. In a Better World, Denmark's candidate for the 2011 Foreign Language Oscar, is no exception. The film moves between a Sudanese refugee camp, where Danish doctor Anton tries to keep the peace, and Anton's home in Denmark, where his marriage is on the rocks and his son is being relentlessly bullied at school. Bier spoke to THR's German Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough.

The Hollywood Reporter: The story has similarities with After the Wedding. Again you are contrasting life in the Third World with rich Western society. What interests you about this contrast?

Susanne Bier: First of all I think I have an interest in showing that we are not all that different which is I think is important. And I have an interest in making it clear that the 3rd world is part of our world. We don't live in a privileged secluded island. I'm not interested in making a topical, political movie but I am interested in making a film that engages people. In so many European films, the political topic is the main interest and I've always hated that. I don't like topical films. I don't like films that have all the answers ready. I personally like to be entertained and engaged and them make up my own mind.

THR: Violence is a major theme in the film and the main link between the two worlds in Denmark and Africa. Was that there from the start?

Bier: It's not just violence. Forgiveness and revenge are themes that link the two stories. In Danish the movie is called Revenge (Haevnen). Revenge is something we are all thinking about a lot at the moment or at least doing more openly than we have in a long time. It's extremely timely, extremely relevant and extremely frightening. We are all brought up to think revenge is a bad thing but it is something that is very understandable. We all have an instinctive desire to restore justice. The film could also be called Forgiveness but that's a pretty boring title.

THR: The film has gone through a couple of English titles -- Civilization and now In A Better World.

Bier: Yes and I like both of them. Civilization was the original Danish title of the film but it's a hard word to pronounce in Danish so we decided to change the name. In A Better World is also a relevant title because the film is also about how extremely difficult it is in the modern world to be a decent human being. That's something most of us struggle with to a lesser or greater degree.

THR: Anton, the doctor, is a prototype 'decent human being.' But in the war zone in Sudan or even at home, his pacifism doesn't seem to help.

Bier: It does help. I just think it's not that simple. I actually think he's right. His marriage isn't going all that great -- because he has made a mistake. He's a real human creature. He has flaws. I think a real idealist struggling in the real world is interesting.

THR: How much has your way of working been influenced by the Dogme 95 school? Open Hearts (2002) was a Dogme film.

Bier: It's been very influential in general. The Dogme rules force you to deal with just the story and the characters. There's no icing on the cake. But I do enjoy filmmaking, too. I enjoy adding sound, divorcing sound from the image, using lighting and so on. I have a lot of respect and a lot of affection for Dogme. But I like using the art of cinema as well.

[pagebreak]

THR: You went to the U.S. to make your English-language debut Things We Lost in the Fire. What was your experience making a film in the U.S.? How did it compare to the European system?

Bier: It was a wonderful experience. But I think what I'm doing as a filmmaker is the same in US or Europe. As a director you aim to create a scene that is alive. The director channels all the elements into one vision and it's irrelevant where you are. And there are a few issues I have with the European tradition. The European auteur tradition has great advantages but distinct disadvantages as well. Look at the amount of European films made that are really boring. You have to ask if never questioning the director's autonomy is all that healthy. Another issue I have is why actors in European films have to look so ugly. Why is it a virtue that they should be unattractive? There is a tradition in Europe of indulging in misery and I'm not particularly fond of that.

THR: But In a Better World doesn't shy away from misery, particularly in the scenes in Africa. Aren't you afraid of being labeled a European voyeur?

Bier: As a filmmaker you are always a voyeur. If you are a compassionate voyeur then maybe you can manage a story that is relevant. All I can do is try to be interested and engaging and to communicate honestly what I'm seeing. So I'm not worried about being a voyeur.

Vital Stats
Born: April 15, 1960 in Copenhagen, Denmark
Nationality: Danish

 

Filmography (selection)
In A Better World
Things We Lost In the Fire (2007)
After the Wedding (2006)
Brothers (2004)
Open Hearts (2002)
Once in a Lifetime (2000)
The One And Only (1999)

Awards (selection)
Oscar nomination, Best Foreign Language Film/European Film Nomination, Best Director for After the Wedding
Sundance Audience Award/European Film Nomination, Best Director for Brothers
Bodil Award, Best Film/Toronto Film Festival Critics' Award for Open Hearts
Bodil Award, Best Film for The One And Only

comments powered by Disqus