Danish Director Nils Malmros on Dealing With Severe Personal Tragedy in Film (Q&A)

Jakob Cedergren as Nils Malmros in "Sorrow and Joy"

Malmros' "Joy and Sorrow" -- his most difficult and personal film of his career -- is screening in competition at the Rome Film Festival.

ROME -- What can an acclaimed filmmaker -- one known for making highly personal and almost exclusively autobiographical films -- do when his life becomes too painful to examine on the silver screen?

It happened to Denmark's Nils Malmros, whose life was thrust into disarray nearly 30 years ago after his wife, Marianne, killed their infant daughter with a knife. Miraculously, they remained married despite the the tragedy, and Malmros said they grew much closer in the aftermath of the chilling events.

Malmros was a celebrated auteur at the time -- seen as the father of Danish cinema realism. His 1981 classic Tree of Knowledge (Kundskabens trae) is considered an international classic, and as the tragedy unfolded, Malmros was preparing to premiere a new film, Beauty and the Beast (Skonheden og Udyret), in competition in Berlin for the first time.

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The story of the horrible events appeared in newspapers around the world, and it was front-page news in Malmros' native Denmark, where natives of a certain age still recall the details with great clarity.

Malmros responded to the events by retiring and un-retiring as a film director a handful of times (he is also a trained surgeon and concentrated on that when not working on films). When he did return to filmmaking, he kept his professional spotlight off his personal experiences.

Until now.

Malmros' latest film, Sorrow and Joy (Sorg og Glaede) tells the painful and disturbing story of the tragedy from his point of view. The film had its world premiere in competition at the Rome Film Festival, where the 69-year-old Malmros spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the 1984 tragedy, the film it produced, and the four hours he left out of the film version of events.

It's hard to imagine how painful it must have been to reexamine these events, even after so many years. Did you wait until now to have enough distance from the events in order to make a film about them?

Well, yes and no. At first I didn't want to make the film at all. But people said to me that as an artist, I had the privilege to transform this story into a film about the tragedy. Eventually I changed my mind.

It certainly helps to have a certain distance from an event like this in order to retell it. But the real reason to wait until now was because I wanted my wife to retire from her work as a teacher. Once she returned from the hospital, from treatment, one and a half years later, everyone knew what happened. But with the years, I didn't want her new students, who knew nothing about what happened, to see her this way while they were still in her classroom.

Once you announced that you were making the film, did the press attention return in Denmark?

The Danish press at the time was very restrained, very empathetic. Did you know they didn't even print my name or my wife's name? People knew what happened, particularly in our community. But it wasn't in print, and in the 30 years since then, very little was written about it. When I announced I would make the film, of course they wrote about it. And they'll write more after it is released this weekend. I've given them a reason to return to the story.

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In the film, the character of your wife pushed you to make the movie, but she also said she didn't want to see it once it was made. Is that actually what happened? Has your wife seen it?

I certainly couldn't have made the film without her permission. But when she gave me this, what I call this 'love gift,' I had to make it. But she didn't have anything to do with the script, the filming, nothing. The only thing she did was help pick the protagonist, the woman who played her in the film [Helle Fagralid], who was very good.

And yes, she saw it when it was completed, but only once, about two months ago. We saw it alone, together, in the cinema. She cried … even now I get a lump in my throat thinking about it. At the end, she said it was a big victory for both of us. But she doesn't want to see it again.

Was it therapeutic for you to make the film?

It was 30 years ago, and long ago I came to terms with what happened. But making the film was so challenging that making it created a sense of relief.

Now that you have this sense of relief, do you feel unblocked? Might this process clear the path for you to do more films?

No, this is really my last film. I realize it was the last story I needed to tell and I have now told the whole panorama. I have told the whole story about little kids in love, anal fixation, then you go to school and fall in love with the pretty girl and you're happy in love and then unhappy in love, and continue in high school and still unhappy in love, a young man, and so on. This was missing.

In the hands in another director, this might have been a film about forgiveness -- your forgiveness of your wife, the community's forgiveness of your wife. But as you tell it, the forgiveness is assumed. What do you think the film is about?

A lot of people will be scared to see the film because they will think it is too horrible to see a film about the death of a infant child. But the film is not about that, and it is not about forgiveness. It is a film about love.

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In my mind, it could not be a film about forgiveness because she was psychotic. She hadn't slept in ten days. Any of us would be psychotic under those circumstances. She destroyed the most important thing in her life. But she cannot be blamed for what she did, there was not evil in what she did, and so she cannot be forgiven. Of course, I realized this from the first moment.

It was surprising to me that through the tragedy in the film, the main character, I mean you, still took the film to the Berlin Film Festival. Did you think about not going at the time?

No, I am a filmmaker. It's what I do. I had to go. But I must say I was not enthusiastic about it. Because of that, I grew to hate Berlin. I still hate it, even now.

In the film, one of the tipping points was when an anonymous female fan sent you a letter that made your wife very jealous. You didn't know who sent it at the time. Do you know now?

No, I still don't know. I don't have any idea. Maybe now that the film is coming out she will reveal herself finally. Maybe she will send me another letter.

Given the impact of that first letter, maybe another letter wouldn't be a good idea.

[Laughs] No, no. It's different now. My wife has grown up. After all we've been through, she believes in my love for her now.

It seemed like a painfully honest film. What did you leave out? What was the biggest compromise you had to make to fit the story into two hours?

Everything there is true. But of course some things had to be left out. For example, I didn't show what actually happened [the murder]. You see, the film is a circle. It started when the tragedy just happened, and it ended when it was about to happen. What is missing is the four hours in between. That was a promise I made to my wife -- that I would leave that part out.

Twitter: @EricJLyman