Who would have guessed that, before starting work on a new film, Thomas Vinterberg watches Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. "I am hoping to be able to make a film like that," he confesses. His new work, The Hunt, is, in a way, the antithesis of his critically acclaimed debut, The Celebration, which won the Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Another masterfully weaved, suffocating drama, The Hunt is a portrait of a small community rocked by the life-changing power of one false accusation. Mads Mikkelsen, a strong contender for the Best Actor prize at this year's Cannes, plays Lucas, a father and kindergarten teacher going through a divorce. When one of his students declares that he sexually abused her, Lucas becomes public enemy number one. We spoke with Vinterberg about the experience of making the film, our world's changing values, and the modern-day witch hunt.
What is it that makes you create characters like Christian from The Celebration or Lucas from The Hunt, ones who never give up, no matter what?
Maybe it's a part of myself? I'm told, especially by my family, that I'm very stubborn. But Lucas is also very good-hearted. Insistently civilized, maybe even too much. That's why it's a revelation to people when he goes into a rage and starts attacking people in the supermarket. It was his payback. It's ironic…that was the moment when the audience started clapping. But why would they do that? It's interesting. I enjoyed it. In a way, I find Lucas's virtues very Scandinavian.
Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Lucas, is well known for playing villains.
I've known him from other parts as well. See, with Mads the case is that everything about him is attractive. He's an amazing guy, a hard worker, a giving soul, embracing the whole crew, and extremely devoted to the character. Every day, at all times. I also wanted to dress him down a bit, because he's so incredibly handsome. It might be because I'm a little bit jealous.
The people in The Hunt seem very radical and close-minded. Do you think we're in a very conservative moment as a society right now?
I'd push it further than just conservative. I think we're fearful of being in this very dark and grim place. Love between grownups and children can no longer be in any way physical, especially not in public spaces. Times of freedom are long gone, and in a way they have to be, because that's a way of keeping things under control. Becoming a sexual abuser is gradually becoming more and more difficult. But we've lost something here: touching, physical contact. It's important and we can't do it anymore. My daughter, when she was about five, would sometimes kiss me on the mouth. And if we were on a public bus, that wouldn't feel comfortable to me. Of course, I'm not neglecting the fact that children are being abused; this is real and serious. But I find this situation terribly sad.
Lucas is being accused of committing a crime of immorality, but in a way he remains the only moral person throughout the whole film.
I think we almost fall in love with this righteous, stubborn man. He's very just, but the tension within him is like a balloon; it gradually grows, gets bigger, and finally explodes. And somehow I can see myself in him. When I was five years old, my family was rather poor, and we'd always use public transportation. One time I was on a bus with my sister and my father, who's an academic worker. And suddenly this big fat guy storms in and commands my sister to free the seat she's taken: "Move! I want to sit here!" he spewed. My father, who's not a fighter, a very composed person—and a film critic, by the way—started making those sadistic, clever comments, a little bit too loud, so the man could obviously hear him. Being a child, I didn't fully understand his behavior; so I went there, sat behind this guy, the anger growing inside me, and suddenly I find myself knocking on his shoulder, saying right to his face, "You're stupid!" So he knocks me down, I faint, police arrive, and the next thing I remember is slowly regaining consciousness and seeing my father and this guy, not even fighting, but clinging onto each other as in a weird dance. My little sister is crawling around them, searching for my dad's glasses. This little boy that I was behaved thoughtlessly, but very righteously as well. And maybe that feeling echoes in Lucas's character.
People in The Hunt aren't monsters, yet the things they do are evil.
I consider them all good. I find that they're all innocent, sweet, and pure people who have this splinter in the eye that takes away their innocence. What I consider really sad about this film, and what touches me about it, is that somehow it became a reflection on loss of innocence in the world. I grew up in the '70s, and back then, in my childhood imagination, people were naked and good. It was possible to be physically naked around each other without being put to prison. Everything was orange, and with time, things have become more blue. For good reasons obviously: We now know that children are being abused, so there's a good reason for all this. But we have lost something along the way, something that I find very dear.