Thomas Vinterberg by Maria Mackinney

BOMB 66 Winter 1999
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Thomas Vinterberg. Photo by Robin Skoldborg. Courtesy of October Films.

In 1995, a group of Danish film directors, including Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier celebrated the 100th anniversary of cinema with something as anachronistic as signing a manifesto, DOGMA 95. With a mixture of solemnity and irony, they pledged to rescue film from the decadence of individualism and illusion by means of ten rules laid down as a Vow of Chastity. Aimed at undressing film, the rules ban any use of unnecessary ornamentation such as artificial lighting, props not found on location, filters, and soundtrack. All shooting must be done on location with hand-held cameras, and the director cannot be credited and must refrain from personal taste.

The first film to come out of DOGMA 95 is Thomas Vinterberg’s second feature film The Celebration, which won the Jury’s Prize this year in Cannes. His graduate film, Last Round, and shorts have brought him many prizes, including an Oscar nomination in 1994, at the age of 25.

The Celebration is indeed a naked film in both form and content. It is the story of a respected patriarch’s 60th birthday dinner. Friends and family gather in his country mansion-hotel to celebrate. Apart from the cloud cast over the party by the eldest sister’s recent suicide, all is perfect idyll. Perfect, that is, until her twin brother Christian stands up to toast his father, revealing that he and his sister were victims of sexual abuse throughout their childhood. The news only causes momentary trepidation in the decorum and the dinner rituals are dutifully resumed. However, as they reach dessert, several toasts and persistent revelations later, the makeup of deceit and hypocrisy is scraped away—only raw, exposed nerves remain.

Right before the opening of The Celebration in New York, I had a chance to speak with Thomas Vinterberg, golden boy and heartthrob of Danish cinema. Let the party begin …

Maria Mackinney Rule number ten of the Vow of Chastity in DOGMA 95: The director must not be credited. Are you going to have to write a confession after this interview?

Thomas Vinterberg No, the Vow of Chastity is only about the making of film; we cannot be in control of everything that happens after the film. Of course, the rule can only be seen as symbolic. The intention is not to hide who did the film, but to emphasize that we’re not the important persons in the making of the film.

MM So that goes for all the rules, they’re symbolic?

TV No, that goes for that rule. Some of the rules are very specific and therefore very easy to work with. Page one of the manifesto contains ambitions, so to speak, instead of rules. There are different levels of understanding to this whole idea.

MM There is a visionary side and a practical side.

TV Yes.

MM But is it a political or an artistic statement?

TV It works on every level. But the Vow of Chastity, the whole manifesto, is meant to be a political statement. The project works on three levels, a political level and also, for me, on a personal level and most obviously on an artistic level—so perhaps I should start with that one. It’s always ideal to have a frame to work within when you do a project. When the collective formed these ten rules, it was very liberating. Because of the rules you know a great deal about your next film. Knowing what frame to work within made it all a lot easier—it was very inspiring. In trying to avoid the obstacles, something else grew in their place.

MM Can you give an example?

TV For instance, we’re not allowed to add any music—so we ended up with a lot of songs within the film itself, sung by the actors. We’re not allowed to use artificial lighting—out of that rule comes the scene with the cigarette lighter, the dream vision where Christian sees his dead sister. All of the scenes contain elements which are made from rather than opposed to one of the rules. Normally I’m confused while doing a film, and this cleaned up the whole mess. It made it very simple for me to understand what I was doing.

MM Both in the writing and the directing phases?

TV Mostly in the writing phase, because a lot of choices were already made for me. If you’re not allowed to go that way, then you have to go this way. In the preproduction for instance, we had to find a place that would be able to serve food for the dinner scenes. You’re not allowed to add props to the set, which brings a limitation to your location research.

MM That’s why you chose a hotel?

TV Exactly. Then, choosing a hotel inspired me to shoot a lot of the scenes in the rooms. And suddenly we needed a receptionist … as I said, things grow out of limitations.

MM So it was liberating for you, rather than restricting?

TV A lot. I guess Americans have difficulty understanding that, but everybody has limitations when they start a project. If you’re a painter you have four sides to work within: the frame. On the political-cultural level the idea was, of course, to break with the conventions that exist in Denmark and all of the conventions you carry around with yourself as a filmmaker.

MM What kind of conventions?

TV We took all the standard film conventions and forbade them—music to close off a sad scene, artificial light, adding sound afterwards. All those things that happen automatically we felt were an unnecessary part of a film.

MM You wrote that DOGMA is a “rescue action” for film. Were you looking for innocence or an essence?

TV It’s important to understand the irony. DOGMA exists in a very nice area between play and deep seriousness. That can change from day to day, but we sincerely meant to try to come closer to the naked film, the film that doesn’t have layers between the actor and the audience … layers of makeup and music, stuff like that.

MM And when you peel all that off, it comes down to the actors, no?

TV The story and the actors are the raw material.

MM And the actors were free to improvise?

TV Well, they didn’t improvise as much in my film as they did in Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. I’d been doing a lot of improvisation before filming The Celebration and I was bored with it. Also, the actors in The Celebration do not normally improvise, and you have to use the actors for what they’re best at.

MM Did it make them uncomfortable to improvise?

TV Some of them. To turn that around, some of them were very good at using the words written on paper, making the text vivid, and others were very good at improvising. I always let them do what they were good at, and then I took it from there.

MM What do you look for in a good actor?

TV A good actor has technique and is able to understand, to receive, the director’s words, and to read. For me, it’s very important to work with actors who I want to share my summer with—not that all of them are my friends, but they are … people who awake an interest in me, who make me curious about who they are and what they can perform. The most important thing about actors is that they’re there for the film and not for their own performance—that they’re generous people.

MM There’s a very fresh, raw and enthusiastic feel to the movie.

TV They were very committed. They’re all actors, of course, always fighting to be in the frame, but they were quite loyal to the project and they did a lot of work to make the film come true. It took a huge amount of energy to do this project. It’s also important to me that the film works for them and suits what they do.

MM How do you mean?

TV These actors are very good, but it’s not just a question of being the right guy for the right part. There’s some who can and some who can’t.

MM I understand that the script was developed for these specific actors, written around them. I thought it was very daring of you to take Henning Moritzen, the grand gentleman of Danish acting, and cast him in such an unlikable role as the father’s.

TV He was courageous. People have an image of him which is now 40 years old; they expect a certain something from him and he went in and completely broke down that expectation, fooling around with a video camera and the Vow of Chastity and a bunch of young guys. He was the most courageous member of the whole project. He did it and then he had to defend this abusive character.

MM I know the next time I’ll see Henning Moritzen I’ll just think, Ugh, the nasty guy.

TV But of course, that’s also very good for his career because now nobody knows what to expect from his next performance. And he agrees. He made it very easy for me. It was a lucky punch that he said yes. He has such charm. He’s a gentle guy and has a reputation for conventionally good behavior, which is very good for the film, of course.

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Gbatokai Dakinah and Paprika Steen in The Celebration. Photo by Lars Høgsted. Courtesy of October Films.

MM Did you come up with the story before or after you wrote the DOGMA principles?

TV After. The DOGMA rules are partly responsible for the story, but the story also contains elements that I heard from real life, on the radio, about a guy who stood up at a party and made a speech—just as in The Celebration.

MM The rules say that you have to refrain from personal taste, but it seems like a very personal movie.

TV I must emphasize that I have a very nice family and did not experience anything like the abuses described in the film. But the moment you put things on paper, it’s a matter of personal taste. Your selection of actors, your casting is personal taste. I tried not to be the kind of director whose very personal taste colors the whole film.

MM Does that mean that you recorded what the actors were doing more than you actually directed them?

TV Yeah, exactly.

MM I’m thinking of your short film, The Boy Who Walked Backwards, which is about a little boy who loses his mother and tries to walk backwards to reverse time. Last Round, your graduate film, is about a man who has leukemia saying good-bye to his friends, and The Celebration is about dark family secrets. They’re all very dark topics.

TV Well … I don’t see them as very dark films.

MM They’re dark and funny at the same time.

TV Last Round is one long party. And the same is true of The Celebration, in some sense. I’m glad you say they’re funny—funny in a very cynical way. But yes, there are great similarities in these films and their topics. They all work on a very sad or cruel foundation, and they all try to ignore it. I hate to talk about them like this because it sounds as if I have this recipe in my drawer, but I guess if you’re looking for similarity, it’s there. My ambition is to make each project as different as possible. I just don’t seem to succeed at it.

MM I saw The Celebration again this morning and it’s so aesthetically minimal, almost unforgiving. The form and the content complement each other in this film, there’s this starkness and then you allow the atmosphere to be, at times, almost ugly.

TV It is of course meant to be very cruel and cynical … sometimes ugly, although I think it’s very beautiful. The director of photography did very good work; he took the camera, which as you know was hand-held, and followed the atmosphere of the scenes.

MM If Hollywood approached you with a big bag of money would you remake The Celebration in a Hollywood version as was done with The Vanishing? Did you ever consider that?

TV Not really … but of course it has been going through my mind. I have a lot of skepticism about making a film twice. It takes two years to make a film and dealing with the same story again would be boring. But still, it would be funny to see how differently The Celebrationcould be made. If I should do it, it would be with English actors in England because they have such huge amounts of ritual within their family structures. They have so many years of tradition behind them. And the money, in terms of music and costumes, goes in complete opposition to DOGMA. That perhaps, I would consider—but in the end, I think I would turn it down.

MM You’ve also said that if you won the Jury’s Special Prize in Cannes, which you did, you would wait a year before making another film.

TV Yeah, and I’m still waiting.

MM Three hundred and fifty days to go.

TV Well, you know, I feel very good about that. I don’t work at the moment, I do some commercials, but otherwise I do nothing.

MM So it was more of an exercise than an actual life project; or are you going to do more DOGMA movies?

TV The next films will definitely not be, because that would be a repetition and that’s against the whole idea of DOGMA. But coming back to the rules sometime in the future would be very nice. I would like to do it again because it’s been the most inspiring thing I’ve tried, even the process was good. The whole thing was a very happy affair.

MM You sympathize with New Wave French film by being anti-bourgeoisie in principle. But are you and Lars von Trier and the others going to start a new movement that you dedicate all your work to?

TV We try. I think at this moment we’ve really thrown the stone into the water, we’ve tried to invite other directors.

MM Really? Like who?

TV I mean Lars is not humble on that point. He asked all of the big guys like Coppola, Scorsese …

MM And have they responded?

TV No. So I guess we’ll have to try on another level. The film has only been shown in Cannes and Denmark so far; I’m a bit disappointed at the moment that we haven’t gotten any reactions yet. What worries me is that because the film won a prize in Cannes other directors might not want to make a DOGMA film since this one has already been recognized as having been done so completely. You know, DOGMA is not some elite project—quite the opposite; it’s part of a democracy. We try to spread it out; we’re missionaries.

MM Both DOGMA movies, The Celebration and The Idiots, portray a group of people. The Idiots is about a group of people who go out and pretend to be mentally retarded, and yours is about a birthday party for the family patriarch. You grew up in a commune; does that have anything to do with working out these group dynamics? Or is that reading too much into it?

TV No, that’s the only similarity there is. And there will be a third DOGMA film. The project invites that kind of story. I don’t know why. Maybe the fact that a collective stands behind the films reflects into the story.

MM If you just read the rules, you might imagine the resulting films to be either documentaries or high-art conceptual pieces. But these films are extremely emotive, almost raw.

TV The characters yell and scream and spit and throw up. There’s a lot of pathos in both The Celebration and The Idiots. You cannot show human feelings in any other way. There are no strings, no effects to emphasize how the characters feel at the moment. The actors have to do the whole thing themselves. And that’s why I think it becomes so dramatic and so full of pathos. That’s why Christian faints in the reception—out of sorrow and suffering.

MM It must have been emotionally draining for the actors.

TV No, actually it was the opposite.

MM Really?

TV They felt that they were doing something that worked and was very fun to make. There are two kinds of stories, the story that keeps on not working for anybody, which turns into an organism that eats up your calendar and all of your time and energy, and then there’s the opposite: every time you put an idea into the script, five new, very good things turn up. The Celebration seemed to be that kind of script. It was fun for the actors to work on. They felt good about working with something that wasn’t ordinary. They felt that the story was important, and that what they did with it was in some sense important.

MM So the whole group felt that they were part of something major?

TV Yeah. It sounds a bit solemn, but that’s as close as I can get.

MM Why did you choose a topic like incest? It’s almost a clichéd topic.

TV That was the story I heard on the radio. It contained interesting layers of taboo and the accusation of incest and so I felt, Why not? I mean, it’s the worst thing that could happen, and nobody wants to talk about it, and every tenth kid in our country is abused in some way.

MM Really?

TV In every class two kids are sitting there with their own little secret, so why not bring it to the screen?

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Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen in The Celebration. Photo by Lars Høgsted. Courtesy of October Films.

MM Do you think it’s a very Danish film? There are so many formal dinners, and the speeches and all the traditions and songs.

TV All of the rituals and traditions are very Danish. But when it comes to the main topic of
the film—the family secrets and the suppression of truth—that is universal. At least, the audience’s reaction showed me that it was not only Danish.

MM How does an audience normally react to the film?

TV The best reaction in Denmark was when two people fainted—left the theater, fainted—and when they woke up, went back in to see the rest of the film. Danes laughed through the first half of the film, but they did not laugh in the second part. They went very silent, but then stood up and clapped their hands for eight minutes afterwards. At first, Danes seem to find it amusing when Christian stands up at the dinner party and says these horrifying things about his father. I don’t think they were being cynical.

MM You told me that working under restrictions was very liberating for your work process. How long did it take to write the script? I heard a story about you and Lars von Trier having a competition.

TV The whole script process was about three months, but toward the end of the three months, Lars started to call me and tease me. He said he wanted to do this in a week, and then he did his script in four days. He provoked me a lot, I went from a 20 page treatment to the final script in seven days, just to be in the competition. And still I didn’t beat him. So, the final script was done in seven days—quite quick.

MM And how long was the actual shoot?

TV Six weeks.

MM The film seems to cover a 24 hour time period, it’s a cycle.

TV Almost 24 hours, it’s 22.

MM Like a classical play, with unity of place and time and action, it’s very traditional in that way—like a Greek tragedy with the monologues, family betrayals, the cooks in the kitchen as a chorus …

TV Yes, it is very classical and traditional. It has been compared to many of the classical stories and that’s not the only tradition there. I think you find that the hero and the antagonist are easy to pinpoint. I felt there should be no extravaganza connected to this, not with the topic of incest within this upper-class family. Also, I felt that it was very interesting to make this modern project of DOGMA meet the classical.

MM The result is something very recognizable and at the same time very unrecognizable. It’s impossible to categorize.

TV I like the clash between the avant-garde of DOGMA 95 and the very traditional story. At that point, you can see what’s what. Using tuxedos and butterflies and a formal structure, and a hand-held video camera, attracted me a lot.

MM It is intriguing. People are always reading all sorts of traces into The Celebration from Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Hamlet, to Chabrol’s This Man Must Die and Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Is that something that you were conscious of, or are people reading too much into your film?

TV I’ve been very proud of that.

MM Did you borrow from those films?

TV Let’s call it theft. The only theft I’m aware of was from Fanny and Alexander. I love that film very much.

MM The chain dance through the house … you needed noise and to move the people out.

TV We couldn’t come up with anything better than that so we thought, Well, he took it from Visconti’s The Leopard so … We didn’t try to hide anything, we just did it and I felt very good about it all the way.

MM Is that what happened with the references to The Godfather, too?

TV The Godfather was not theft or borrowing. That’s my favorite film in many ways and I looked at its family structure and was inspired by his mixing up very different actors. I mean James Caan and Al Pacino—you would never believe them as brothers if Coppola had not been so decisive about it. The difference between these brothers inspired me to allow that huge difference between the two brothers in The Celebration, one refined and reflective, the other crass and punitive.

MM The French New Wave contained an almost nonchalant real time in which existential stories unfolded, long takes in which the actors got to reveal their characters, their inner thoughts. This certainly sounds like The Celebration. How have you been influenced by the New Wave?

TV I saw all those films at film school, I don’t remember their names—it’s a big gray mess—but somewhere in the back of my head—I’ve been compared to a lot of films from that era—and I’ve seen them all and have taken from them, but I don’t remember what, because, you know, I was sleeping a lot in class.

MM You went to the film academy in Copenhagen?

TV Yeah, the National Film School of Copenhagen.

MM How does it feel to start at the top like that? You graduated in ’93 and were nominated for an Oscar for your graduate film, Last Round, in ’94.

TV It felt good; it was relaxing in some sense. I felt that I was on the track—if you know what I mean.

MM But you’re not afraid of falling?

TV Of course, I actually did fall pretty soon after. Then I did The Boy Who Walked Backwardsand that kept me up on the surface. I had a lot of prizes for that one as well. The punishment was The Greatest Heroes, my first feature film, which I don’t think was bad—that was when I came into the shadow. Actually, I knew it would come. I realized when I did Last Round that I couldn’t keep up that speed the whole way. That’s why I won’t follow this one right away with another film.

MM But what do you think went wrong with The Greatest Heroes? Were you too confident? I think it was a good movie, mind you.

TV Yeah, I think so too, but it became too much of a compromise. It was not that naive and not that consequential. We had a lot of trouble with that film. It ate up much of my life. And I think we made a decision very early that we didn’t want to do the film anymore. We were tired of this “prize” thing, this very refined and sad story. We wanted to do something more popular and vulgar, something that could come closer to a normal audience; and so we sat between two chairs, so to speak. At the end of the day we tried to make some art out of it anyway—it became a mix. Also, we mixed genres on purpose.

MM It’s a road movie, right?

TV Yeah, it’s a road movie but it’s like almost a horror movie, and then it’s like a comedy, and then it’s social realism . . which made a film that is not bad, but not that consequential. I think it has personality.

MM We talked in the beginning of the interview about how, according to the DOGMA rules, you can’t be credited as the director. People have taken this very seriously, and you’ve been criticized for all the personal attention you and Lars von Trier both have gotten.

TV Yes. I understand the irony of that, against rule number ten, that the directors must not be credited.

MM People have been taking it very literally. I read in the paper that a Danish author has done a DOGMA for literature. He wrote a book in two weeks by hand, where nothing could be corrected.

TV He did? I didn’t hear about that one.

MM Which one did you hear?

TV I heard that the cinematographers of Denmark did one that was quite the opposite of ours. You have to focus on the background, and there has to be just so much light … the only rule they agreed with us on was rule number ten. (laughter)

MM There were also two journalists from the Danish newspaper Berlingshe Tidende who said you couldn’t use phones or experts or politicians or news journalism or camera flashes or anything.

TV They did?

MM Yeah. Aren’t you afraid that the DOGMA rules are going to be vulgarized and imitated so the next five years will be nothing but bad imitations of DOGMA films?

TV No, I’m not afraid. I mean the humble ambition is to make a wave out of it; the more puzzles there can be the better. We made ten rules for our films and apart from those, you can do anything. The film could cost $200 million and it would still be a DOGMA film.

MM So it was okay, according to the rules, that you had a cameo as a taxi driver in The Celebration.

TV What is that?

MM It’s like when Hitchcock turns up for a brief moment in one of his own movies. You turned up as the taxi driver.

TV Oh, that was my way of teasing rule number ten, I felt that if I couldn’t be credited, I’d show up. That’s the whole idea of making a DOGMA, if you’re not allowed to do one thing, you can do the thing right next to it.

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Originally published in

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Featuring interviews with Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama, Jenny Diski, Michael Cunningham, Simon Ortiz, Petuuche Gilbert, Simon Winchester, Gary Sinise, Thomas Vinterberg, and Marc Ribot.

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