Thomas Vinterberg burst onto the international scene with 1998’s Celebration, a withering family drama that won a Jury prize at Cannes. That work helped foster interest in the Dogme ’95 movement, a manifesto by fellow Scananavian filmmakers to try and usurp common cinematic convention, ushering in a slew of imitators that dominated a decade of indie cinema. When fine films like Dear Wendy didn’t get audience traction he turned inward, producing the remarkable Oscar-nominated The Hunt and 2015’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
His latest film is highly personal, echoing many of the filmmakers own experiences. Like his debut film, The Commune contains many moments of awkward conversation, but both its scope and style differ as Vinterberg’s own skills have matured. A remarkably assured film dripping with dark comedy, this is another fine work from one of the icons of international cinema.
Dork Shelf had this exclusive chat with Vinterberg following the film’s showing at TIFF last September.
All your films have echoes to your own life, but this one feels even more autobiographical than usual.
That’s right. It’s very personal without being private. This film started as a stage play where I was asked by a head of a huge theatre in Europe to test some of my dramatic material on stage. I improvised the show with nine fantastic actors so it became very much their stories as well.
Having said that, I grew up in a commune, and I’ve been through a divorce, and I did marry a young woman – Actually, that same woman from the film! So there is stuff that is mine, but altogether, it’s become fiction.
I think people want to do one of two things when they fixate on the more personal aspects and maybe miss out on some of the more dramatic aspects of your narratives. In other words, some simply want to fixate on the more salacious aspects of having your partner now in the film playing the younger woman who gets selected. For you, is there a reticence to put maybe too much of your personal life in and it have it become tabloid-y?
First of all, I think if you do something autobiographically you start censoring yourself. When you write stories you have to be able to distance yourself a little bit to be able to punch it and tear it apart and recreate it. You’ve got to avoid the sense of politeness [and] my way of doing that was by distancing myself from personal experiences. My production designer, for instance, wanted to shoot the film in my own house. I said we couldn’t do that because then there are some rules we’ve got to follow. So I very specifically tried to avoid things that were too specifically my own, except the fact that I put my wife in there. That was actually a little bit messy for us, but somehow I couldn’t see any other way of doing it. I wrote it with her in mind.
Are you able to expand on the messiness?
It could have been more messy than it became because I have an ex-wife, I did grow up in a commune, stuff like that. But we kind of made rules to make it not messy. Like, for instance, when this film is greenlighted and we start working on this film, [we agreed] I’m your director and [she’s] my actress. We discuss it as such and we don’t bring it home.
Actually, we had one of the best times of our lives. We shot this in a studio in Sweden and lived in this hotel with my little son. It was just remarkable and it was like falling back in love again.
The film shows both the idealism of communal living and the incredible complexity or awfulness that can arise where you can lose one’s identity within the group as well. At some point in time, somebody feels that they must be in charge, and that you can have all the collaboration you wish, but at some point in time, a little bit of fascism has to creep in. That seems like a perfectly good metaphor for being a director.
On a film crew many years ago people figured out that sharing competence doesn’t work. You can share ideas, and you can share everything if you know who the boss is, and you know where you’re going. It’s interesting – The more clearly it’s divided into a hierarchy, the more loose it becomes on a film set. If everyone knows this is where we’re going then people feel free to suggest stuff and improvise. In a commune, where the democracy is completely flat, a lot of the conversations become power games. So there’s a sense of liberation in being in a hierarchy.
In the beginning of me being a director I was far too democratic. I was younger than everyone else in film school – I was 19, and they were in their 30s – And suddenly I was asking everyone’s opinion all the time. And I quickly learned that I’m going to drown in this system if I keep doing this.
“When the risk is gone it’s no longer revolt.”
Dogme 95 was also where you were working with slightly older filmmakers with strong ideas. Do you look back on those years with fondness or a sense that the experiment might not have been quite what you thought it was going to be?
I thought Dogme was incredible and a very important part of my life. I’m very proud of what we did. It was an effort to undress filmmaking and actually to democratize the medium and it was an effort to avoid having too much taste. It was a revolt against the conventions of filmmaking, filled up with a lot of vanity and arrogance and stuff like that. But first of all it was a revolt against the conventions also within ourselves. We did set ourselves free.
Obviously that it was connected to certain risk. It was revolutionary, and then overnight in ’98 in Cannes, it became fashion. Dogme became a free ride to all festivals in the world and a recipe for success. When the risk is gone it’s no longer revolt.
Personally speaking, I guess that’s how we all felt – we’ve gotta move on from this. I felt that The Celebration was such a consequential piece of work that I couldn’t come further down that line. That left me in the most vulnerable position I’ve ever been in – What to do now?
It’s that classic bifurcation: You want to be punk, you want to be pushing against the machinery that’s maintaining it and then you go to the shopping mall and buy your little safety pins or your buy your ripped shirt. That just becomes a schtick instead of an actual rebellion.
Exactly. In my country, you can buy fucking Dogme furniture, you know?! That wasn’t the point! So I’m like, OK, it’s over.
So is it now harder for you to simply be, for lack of a better word, a world filmmaker? In other words you had a cachet, you had this group, as you said, you could get into any festival in the world now. Are you still in some ways feeling yourself as being rebellious, are you still feeling yourself as going against the chains of cinema?
I feel myself less rebellious, and older, but I still pursue something more important to me, which is the nakedness, the truthfulness of the screen. I just pursue it in different ways. If I did a Dogme film now it would look like an old dress. It wouldn’t be naked! It would be such a uniform that people would start laughing.
So when I’m doing my films now I’m trying to find a portrait of human beings in another kind of way. It’s always coming from the same place of myself which is coming from me trying to portray people as naked as possible.
There was a lot of vanity in doing Dogme.
But isn’t that the drive of a young artist, to be vain?
I guess so. Over years I had trouble actually getting the camera to turn the other way. Especially the first 10 years after Dogme, I was like, who the fuck am I? It all had to fall apart for me. My marriage, my financial situation, and my career fell apart over the 10 years after having done Celebration. Out of the ashes I could come back to who I was, even prior to this whole Dogme thing.
You grew up in a country branched at the halfway point between the sort of Soviet Empire and America, with ambivalence for both. You have that opportunity to pick and choose between the different aspects – One wishes for the supposed freedom and liberty of the west, but the idealism that drove some the Marxist ideologies anyway.
Which is exactly what happened in our little house.
The paradoxical privilege that it’s easier to be a pure Marxist within a democracy?
The privilege but also the ambivalence and confusion from it. I grew up in a house with posters of Mao. We grew up believing these guys were heroes. And now later we learned that they were mass murderers. It’s been very difficult for my parents in particular to realize that. These were our heroes and America was the enemy.
As a teenager I found America much more attractive, very interesting. I remember when the 80s came. I remember this guy, on an image, on a skateboard, rolling down Manhattan, towards the Wall Street district, being a yuppie, I found that so fascinating. It was against all of my religions and politics, but I found it so interesting and sexy.
Was film your introduction to American culture outside of your ideological bubble? Did you go to Star Wars as a kid?
Oh yeah, totally. Well, the first big thing for me was Burger King combined with James Bond, which to some extent is more British, but then Star Wars and all of the American movies. I watched everything I could. American movies in the 70’s is what has raised my generation of filmmakers in Denmark.
So you have Bergman from Sweden, this very austere but wonderful filmmaker, and then you have the American exuberance and nihilism from the 70s. Here you are at home, worshipping the idealism of the socialists and you have the Americans coming with much more consumerist, much more individualistic. I just find that that divide echoes a little bit what goes on in the commune.
And in my life, I would say.
“We were a commune of socialists, and every time a communist wanted to move in, he got kicked out.”
I still believe the richest irony is that you started out essentially a communist and become a totalitarian in becoming a filmmaker.
I’ve never been a communist. Never. We were socialists!
You were in a commune. Therefore, you were a communist.
Well, there’s a big difference. We were a commune of socialists, and every time a communist wanted to move in, he got kicked out.
Yet you clearly dreamed of being in charge.
Being born and raised socialist I still felt it both frightening and very liberating when the 80s came and allowed ourselves to be individuals. For a shy boy it was sometimes difficult to survive in all of this consensus. I was drowning in it. [With film] I appreciated doing something solely, to be able to stand out as a leader without feeling a sense of shame.
The 80s came with Reagan, it came with coldness and but it also came with a rescue for people who wanted to be individuals. A lot of people drowned in the world of consensus. A lot of people were killed. You see that in my film.
And in the 90s you gave people a method whereby they could be artistic without need of conformity, but it resulted in both artistic expression and just run of the mill mumblecore shit.
Yeah, kind of boring I think. [The 90s were] the most boring decade so far.
The Commune opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox May 19th, read our review here.