In 1998, Danish film director Thomas Vinterberg exploded onto the scene in spectacular fashion. Along with compatriot Lars Von Trier, they founded the much-heralded ‘Dogme’ agenda – a back-to-basics approach to filmmaking (handheld camera, no lights or props), epitomized by the movement’s first release, Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration). Premiering at Cannes, this nightmarish family gathering won the festival Jury Prize, heralding the way for global success (even a hit stage adaptation) for both film and filmmaker.
Since then, many would argue Vinterberg hasn’t followed through on his initial promise, including his anticipated English-language debut It’s All About Love with Joaquin Phoenix and Sean Penn. This year, though, a return to Cannes sparked a return to form. The Hunt, Vinterberg’s latest feature, follows the persecution of a small-town school teacher wrongly accused of child abuse. Its star Mads Mikkelsen won a well-deserved Best Actor award and Vinterberg plaudits similar to his Festen days: truly a cause for renewed celebration. We spoke to him at Cannes as the rave reviews poured in…
DD: Apart from the witch hunt against your central character, The Hunt also deals with actual hunting, male rituals and feels like a very male movie…
Thomas Vinterberg: Well you’re saying that, which is very interesting to me as I never realized that before. I’m not conscious about these things. The title’s not very refined, is it? It doesn’t take a very clever child to find the symbolic meaning in this. But to me it’s kind of solid. It kept me and [co-writer] Tobias Lindhof on track, made me focus on what is this all about. And then it gave us the opportunity of digging into the rituals of men being together. Hunting is a very ritualistic thing and I like that. I mean, emotionally I’m not really able to kill an animal, I grew up in a commune, a hippie kid. But morally I don’t have any problems with it.
Some critics say that the accused in your film behaves far too passively given all the unfounded aggression he endures. Do you feel his reactions ring true?
Thomas Vinterberg: Human beings are irrational and I think they react on their own emotional agendas. I think this guy reacts in a very typical Scandinavian agenda, which is, he insists on being civilized and in believing in the good of other people. And from that perspective I think what he’s doing is completely logical and believable. We did not want any lawyers or policemen in this film. We insisted this is not a ‘case story’; this is about human beings, about love, about fatherhood, about togetherness and the loss of innocence and therefore we cut these matters out. But this man believes this will stop.
There are also the comparisons with Festen, allegations of child abuse, hidden community secrets…
Thomas Vinterberg: That’s true but in The Hunt what I did consciously, was defend all these people. We don't betray any of them, these are all innocent children who don’t know what to do. All of them, also the women. Also the child. And for me that’s extremely important. There’s a sadness for me in this, that we lost the innocence over the years since back then. I find it sad because on the commune I grew up in there was physical contact between children and grown-ups and it wasn’t a problem. It was love and not sex. And this is not possible anymore. It’s gone. And we know there’s a good reason – we all know that children are being abused. But we lost something.
The way information travels in the modern world may also affect this.
Thomas Vinterberg: This thought spreads like a virus, because then suddenly the little girl is confirmed in her lie, her mother crying, being sent to a gynecologist, someone being put in prison and this whole illusion becomes real for this little child. Issues of identity have changed since media platforms have arrived, we can create our own identity. Words will never disappear and they spread so fast in the global village. In a way that’s what we tried to mirror in this actual little village.
People talk about The Hunt as if it’s your “comeback” after the initial success of Festen. Do you see it that way?
Thomas Vinterberg: I was trapped a little bit artistically, in the sense that I felt I had completed something. I went down a path that was so suitable for me, I really enjoyed this whole Dogme thing, it was like, created for my needs and then boom – I hit the target. And there was nothing more to do there, to explore. And that created a situation where I had to do a complete U-turn and start exploring all sorts of different territories.
So has the past decade been a difficult time for you professionally?
Thomas Vinterberg: It was turbulent and painful and confusing but also a fairy tale. And I ended up doing my most precious film – I know I’m alone in thinking that. It’s All About Love for me is my richest film. It’s maybe dramatically dysfunctional sometimes but for me, it’s my richest film. I’m trying to come back to what I did at film school, because I felt it was less corrupted, more pure. Less strategic.
This is your first time working with Mads Mikkelsen, as he was previously associated with your fellow Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Was there an element of rivalry that kept you two apart for so long?
Thomas Vinterberg: I had another reason for not using him - I found him far too handsome! And I tried to dress him down in this film but I didn’t really succeed, it's just not possible. To be honest I’m not supporting that [rivalry] theory so strongly because what I find in our country, on the contrary, is a sense of community. Lars [Von Trier] just sent me his new script two days ago, and I just sent him mine. There’s a lot of collaboration among directors. Of course we’re competitors and egomaniacs and vain and, yes, there are Danish directors I don’t wish well – I won’t say names – but these games like in every schoolyard are happening. For me, I always wanted to work with Mads and I’m now even more confirmed in my theories about how good he is.
The ending is a real talking point. But apparently you shot more than one…
Thomas Vinterberg: This ending was in first cut and I felt really good about it. Then I tried to imagine the other endings and I couldn’t. But we discussed it over and over again and obviously this ending would be dissatisfying to some people… I won’t go into it because I find that a slippery slope, not because I want to be impolite or try to be mysterious. This is what we present to you. What’s in the kitchen stays in the kitchen.
The Hunt is out now