Director Susanne Bier makes movies that deal with the world

 

By Peter Debruge | Special to The Miami Herald

In a better world, Susanne Bier would already be a household name, though her Oscar win a week ago is a good start toward raising the Danish director’s profile in this country.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, Miami International Film Festival will honor Bier with a career-achievement award and a screening of In a Better World at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, underscoring the fact that for those who follow such milestones, she is one of the world’s foremost filmmaking talents. And yet, considering how difficult it can be to see foreign and independent cinema in the United States, American audiences could easily be excused for knowing nothing about her oeuvre.

Though Bier has been directing for more than 20 years, beginning with 1991’s rarely seen family-reunion comedy Freud Leaving Home, she did not catch the eye of U.S. critics until 2002’s Open Hearts, a modest but uncannily effective romance made in the Dogme 95 style (more on that later). In the decade since, Bier has honed her unique gift for telling universally relatable stories in such critically acclaimed films as Brothers, After the Wedding and now In a Better World.

The common thread throughout Bier’s career — which also includes one Hollywood credit, the relatively disappointing Things We Lost in the Fire — has been her attention to “human stories” about relationships torn apart and rearranged by fate.

Though these films typically unfold within the microcosm of a family, Bier and screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen take great care to set their minutely observed personal dramas against the backdrop of major international events, encouraging moviegoers to consider their central domestic conflicts within the broader context of Third World poverty, war and strife.

Of these films, Brothers is probably the best known, thanks to a starry U.S. remake that cast Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman in roles originally played by less-familiar local actors — one of whom, Gladiator’s Connie Nielsen, had worked quite a bit in Hollywood but hand picked Bier’s project to be her first Danish-language feature.

In both versions, a simple love triangle involving siblings is triggered by the war in Afghanistan, after an enlisted family man is shot down and presumed dead, leaving his black-sheep brother to care for his wife and children. When he finally does return home, the hero is traumatized at how life has proceeded without him, a pain enhanced by the psychological damage he sustained as a POW and elevating this relatively intimate melodrama to the level of Greek tragedy.

At a time when so many directors seem to shy away from sentimentality, preferring to defuse anything approaching sincere feeling with a knowing wink, Bier embraces the emotional vulnerability of her characters.

“It has to do with temperature,” she says during an interview at the Sundance Film Festival where In a Better World had its U.S. premiere. “Although my movies often include a certain rawness and brutality, they still have a pretty warm temperature. I love laughing, and I love comedies, but, quite often, I think those movies are more on the cold side.”

That warmth translates to the difference between the humanism that permeates Bier’s work and the icy, ironic remove so prevalent among today’s most commercially successful directors. (Consider Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which is so self-aware we needn’t invest genuine concern over the fate of the Jewish family hiding beneath the floorboards in the opening scene.)

Bier, by contrast, is genuinely invested in her characters.

“I don’t come from the world of movies, and my interest in making movies is telling stories about human beings rather than trying to be a film freak,” says the director, who dabbled in comparative religion and architecture when she started at university and was imagining a different career. “Studying architecture, I realized I was more curious about the people who were supposed to walk around the buildings than I was in the buildings I was trying to create.”

Back in 2007, Bier received her first Oscar nomination for After the Wedding, in which a Danish hunk (Mads Mikkelsen) is torn between his work at an Indian orphanage and romantic entanglements back home — once again setting accessible melodramatic elements against a broader stage.

“Even if we like to think we don’t have to deal with it, Africa and the Third World are undeniably part of our world,” Bier explains. “For me it’s very important to recognize that we are much more similar than we are different. In a way, that’s where our responsibility begins to count: If we recognize that we are very similar, we cannot say it does not concern us.”

Bier’s latest film, the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning In a Better World, extends this strategy. The story alternates between a small Danish town, where two boys picked on by a school bully find themselves plotting bloody revenge, and the turbulent African field hospital where one of their fathers spends his days repairing the damage done by a brutal warlord. This juxtaposition forces us to confront the notion that animalistic violence is in our nature and not strictly limited to outposts on the edge of civilization.

“I’m not really that keen on movies that are patronizing, and I don’t like having to swallow a movie for its political truthfulness,” Bier says. But I do like movies to have thought-provoking subject matter, and I do like movies that actually deal with the world, that ask questions and suggest that the audience needs to consider certain things.”

Bier initially hoped to work as a set designer, but after reading a number of scripts she was inspired to try directing. She applied to Denmark’s National Film School, trying her hand at various genres — romance, comedy, even thrillers — over the course of a decade.

In recent years, such breakout genre movies as Let the Right One In, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Troll Hunter have rekindled the interest of international audiences in Scandinavian cinema, but back when Bier started her career, imports from that part of the world began and ended with Ingmar Bergman, one reason Danish director Lars Von Trier and his peers announced their Dogme 95 manifesto in 1995 which drew massive publicity to a movement that rejected Hollywood theatrics in favor of authenticity by insisting on hand-held camerawork, natural lighting and location shooting.

Bier signed on with the group, making Open Hearts more or less according to Dogme rules — and attracting international attention in the process for her stripped-down story of the extramarital affair between a doctor and a paraplegic patient’s grieving fiancée.

Although many of her peers appeared to be taking a stand against Hollywood conventions, “The people I feel really indebted to are the ’70s American directors, when moviemaking became real: Dog Day Afternoon, Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavetes,” Bier says.

Ironically, Dogme was her chance to be noticed: “It came at a point where Scandinavian moviemakers wanted to make American films, but we spent half our budgets trying to light an entire street. Then Dogme came and said, ‘No extra lighting, no music, no nothing — absolutely no icing on the cake,’ and that forced the filmmakers to deal with storyline and character.

“I think Dogme has had tremendous influence on the entire European film industry, because it brought back the sense that while we might not have huge budgets, we can tell stories. With few exceptions, movies made with a budget or restraint are more interesting.”

Bier sometimes wishes that deep-pocketed Hollywood directors could be forced to work within similar constraints. “They don’t have to make decisions, and that’s poisonous because part of your creative development is having to make the right decisions under high pressure,” she says. “And if you don’t have the ability to do that, it just falls flat.”

With Open Hearts, Bier was forced by Dogme-induced minimalism to focus on the emotional truth of the story, using a simple setup to explore a psychologically complex dynamic that, while romantic, calls for flawed characters to make potentially controversial decisions. “I think love often has to do with some strong stream that is unavoidable,” explains Bier, whose films repeatedly return to the idea that emotion compels people to act against their better judgment.

In Bier’s sole U.S. outing, Things We Lost in the Fire, a grieving widow (Halle Berry) brings her husband’s best friend (Benicio Del Toro) under her roof, sparking a dense and sometimes contradictory mix of healing and heartbreak as their souls connect. In some ways, working in Hollywood set back the liberating low-budget aesthetic that made Open Hearts and Brothers seem so authentic (though Bier did insist that Berry act without makeup for most of the film).

Still, Bier’s core agenda remained. “I always felt that being accurate was the biggest virtue,” she says, “and being accurate means that with a character, at any given moment, whatever they do has to be truthful and precise.” And she hopes to work in Hollywood again.

“I feel I have stories that are of interest to quite a lot of human beings, and doing them in the English language would actually make the potential audience much larger, for obvious reasons,” she says.

Though female directors are still relatively rare in the United States. — where we’re still processing Katherine Bigelow’s history-making coup as the first woman to win a best-director Oscar for The Hurt Locker — Bier is already moving forward with her 12th feature, which will be either the lighter, Amalfi coast-set All You Need Is Love or an American remake of the French thriller Rapt, with a four-part miniseries about Bergman also in the works back home.

If you go

What: Miami International Film Festival’s Susanne Bier Career Achievement Tribute. A Q&A with the director will precede a screening of her Oscar-winning film “In a Better World”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami

Cost: $20

Info: 305-237-3456 or www.miamifilmfestival.com

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