Interview with Thomas Vinterberg

by Bo Green Jensen, Weekend Avisen;

The strict stipulations of the vow of chastity are a liberation, according to Thomas Vinterberg, talking about The Celebration-“the most enjoyable project I’ve ever been involved in, even though I penetrated a layer of evil and abomination I’d never been to before.”

Three years ago you formed the DOGME 95 group with Lars von Trier, Christian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. You wrote the group’s “Vow of Chastity” with Lars von Trier. Why was it necessary to draw up the Dogme rules?

“Despite the uniformity we are trying to attain in the group, you would probably receive different answers from the various ‘brothers’. There is a completely personal reason: when we were playing around with the idea, I sensed that it was extremely inspiring, and of course I’d tried it before, at the National Film School of Denmark-the limitations-and it always has been a major source of inspiration.

I happen to be a confused and chaotic person, so I appreciate this kind of regularity. The other thing that appealed to me was the collective aspect. That four people could get together and make a statement and try to start a wave in all humility. It’s fully lived up to what I was hoping for. The collective feeling arising from making the leap together is extremely stimulating for what you’re trying to do”.
“There is also another reason, which may actually apply to Danish film and me, and which is very much a product of Danish film culture. I think that it has been very hard to liberate oneself from a film convention that possesses many qualities, but which in many ways envelopes you and weighs you down.

When a film director makes a film, it quite automatically gets done in a particular way. You have a unit of thirty people around you, lots of lighting and all that, which has to be planned ages in advance. It’s a large, ponderous machine. The result is a particular kind of film, and this imposes limits on Danish film, I think. So 1995 was an obvious time to try and shake oneself out of all that in some way, and explore what can actually be done with the really basic qualities in film. To me is was so beautifully consistent. I liked that.”

How did the Dogma philosophy work in practice? Didn’t the Vow of Chastity feel like a limitation?

“Perhaps in a few situations, but first and foremost, the rules-the limitation-turned the work into the most enjoyable and actually the most liberating project I’ve ever been involved in. So funnily enough it had quite the opposite effect. Precisely because there was such a clear framework, there was great lightness of feeling within it. We could romp to our heart’s content”.

Because there was a set of rules?

“Yes, because it is a clearly defined film even before you write a single word. Because you see a film in your mind’s eye even as you read the rules, and because there are walls to play against. When it says you mustn’t have any music in the film, what happens to me is that I automatically include a load of songs. This kind of limit generates many ideas.
The characteristic feature of the Dogme films is that they very quickly become group portraits. There is more pathos, because if you cannot play on all the subtle emotions and amplify them by using background music, you have to trumpet them out through what is left, which means the cast.”

In your previous film, The Greatest Heroes, there is that completely archetypal shot of the gracious losers on the roof of the car, pissing on the world. You can’t do shots like that in a Dogme film.Don’t you miss it?

“I missed it on a tiny number of occasions, because what happens when you have a set of rules like ours is that you recode your brain to think within them, and to create a dream-like world within what one has on hand. The toughest nut to crack was in connection with the dead sister. In the script she haunts the location, and is present as a ghost throughout the film. Such dream-like things are difficult to deal with when you are trying to be down-to-earth and realistic.”

Did you have the plot before you knew it would be a Dogme film?

“No. When we wrote the rule book I said I’d make a film, and I committed myself to a date for making it, because I knew that a script would emerge that I at least was prepared to be accountable for. I could sense that right away. When we drew up the rules, we had great fun. The process was a real laugh. We said “Hey, we can’t do that”-and did it.”

Why shouldn’t the director be credited?

“Of course the value of that is purely symbolic. People know very well who made the films, but we are trying to step back from the product, trying to be as un-auteur-like as possible. Funnily enough, the result is some pretty auteur-like films.”

You appear as a cab driver in a Hitchcock-style cameo ?

“It’s a kind of capitulation in the face of what I’ve just told you. Actually I think it is very honest. Because it was really very difficult to withdraw from one’s own product. In a way The Celebration has turned out to be a highly personal film, although not one based on personal experience. But the idea is, of course, as the rules state, to explore the truth and observe it from without. Therefore it was natural not to be credited. I know that many people will think it’s affected. Maybe they’re right.”

Several scenes seem to be caps doffed at other films. The chain of dancers through the house appears to be a cruel parody of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander ?

“Well, it isn’t. It’s a plagiarism that’s just way over the top. Fanny and Alexander is one of my three favourite films. It’s just that we really felt like doing that chain thing, just like in Fanny and Alexander, because it had to be noisy and the people at the party just had to get out into the rest of the house. We couldn’t avoid it, and so we thought “All right, let’s go for it!” I considered all kinds of other family traditions that might serve a similar purpose, but I couldn’t come up with any, so we capitulated”.

Which are your other two favourites?

“The Godfather, with ten or fifteen other films coming third. I am very fund of The Godfather, and I’ve drawn a heck of a lot from it. Not absolute plagiarisms, but features that manifest themselves in the whole family structure. The characters played by Ulrich Thomsen and Thomas Bo Larsen arise from my fascination with James Caan and Al Pacino in The Godfather, and Moritzen’s patriarch was of course inspired by good old Marlon, not that I’m making any comparisons, of course.”

You used practically the same cast as you did for The Greatest Heroes?

Yes, actually it’s completely the same. I thought that as we were going to venture onto thin ice with this Dogma project anyway, the innovative side was already decided on. What directors fear most is repeating themselves, and that problem had been kind of dealt with in that we’d be making a Dogme film. And I also felt that I hadn’t finished with this bunch of actors yet. I didn’t think we’d achieved everything yet. I was still curious about them, and fancied the idea of spending a summer with them. That is very much the way I cast my films: who do I feel like spending my summer holidays with?”

It’s fascinating, seeing Henning Moritzen in a proper film part again ?

“I think Moritzen is the one who makes the greatest investment of all. I was massively impressed by that, and I am impressed that he consented to be in the film, because even though it is 1998, people who play that kind of role still incur opprobrium to some degree. But he joined a youth club where there were a bunch of people who’d thrown themselves into a project with a video camera, and he did so to the full, with no reservations whatsoever.
To me, in fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is whether you might begin to feel a kind of uneasy sympathy for the father. He plays a character that is far, far from any consciousness with which he has ever been in contact. That makes him the real quantum leap in this film. It’s been fantastic, working with him like that.”

What kind of reception do you think The Celebration will have in Cannes?

“I have absolutely no idea. People who’ve seen it have reacted very much the same way, namely with deep, deep silence and darkness; they’ve totally entrenched themselves by the time the credits appear. Then they phone two days later, still in the throes of the film, and tell me how fantastic they think it is. In other words, reactions have been good.

My other films all appealed to an emotion that’s closer to the surface, a kind of sentimental feeling that has yielded immediate responses. This one apparently lies several layers deeper down, and it’s been very weird for me to encounter such silence at the end of my film. But I am pleased with the film, and really I’m not that concerned what other people think of it.

I feel I’ve done something pretty consistent. I have penetrated a layer of evil and abomination I’d never been to before. So my own feeling is one of satisfaction. I’m pleased when people like this film, but I’m not so dependent on their doing so as I usually am”.

Interviewer: Bo Green Jensen, Weekendavisen