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.
Slant: 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?
Thomas Vinterberg: 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.
Slant: Mads Mikkelsen, who plays Lucas, is well known for playing villains.
TV: 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.
Slant: 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?
TV: 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.
Slant: Lucas is being accused of committing a crime of immorality, but in a way he remains the only moral person throughout the whole film.
TV: 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.
Slant: People in The Hunt aren't monsters, yet the things they do are evil.
TV: 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.
Slant: There are scenes in the film that are very emotional—as if the emotions were real, not reenacted. Do you improvise a lot?
TV: I do, when people are good at it. A lot of actors are terrible at it and we come up with crap. Some actors are good co-writers; it all depends on who you're with. I'm not "the improviser" or "the non-improviser." I work with people and have to let them grow, each in their own way. I improvised in The Hunt, and have done that before—with or without luck.
Slant: You were talking about child innocence, yet Klara [the girl who accuses Lucas of abuse] isn't innocent. She could be considered a variation on a femme-fatale stereotype.
TV: I believe she dearly likes Lucas. They were both abandoned by their families, each in their own way. First she's just a little jealous, then the interrogation starts and she easily falls into the situation. She's not a mastermind, what she did was at first just an innocent lie. Before making this film we studied many cases of child abuse. One can never be sure if these accusations are true or not. But the sadness of this story arises from the situation we currently have. There's a new kind of victim appearing: a child who succumbs to this huge fantasy. It's a traumatizing experience: your parents start crying, you're being sent to the gynecologist, and you become a part of the whole process without being aware of it. And slowly it becomes a part of your memory; it's being implanted in your life. So it becomes true. Children who fabricated their accusations very often develop the same syndromes as those who've actually been molested.
Slant: Why does Lucas's outburst happens so late in the story? He's consistently passive until then.
TV: I find him a very moral man, almost Christian. He insists on believing in the good-heartedness of humankind. His standards are way higher than average.
Slant: Last year, Lars Von Trier made a stupid joke that evolved into something much bigger and more serious. It's in a way the same scheme that we see in your film.
TV: I think that is a good parallel. I also think that Lars should be remembered for something much bigger and more important than this misunderstanding. Look at his films. He's a humanist, not a Nazi for Christ's sake.
Slant: The opening sequences of Melancholia and The Celebration are very similar. Did you have any input in Lars's script?
TV: No, not at all. It was a complete rip-off [laughs]. But I'm not angry, it's totally cool. By the way, it wasn't as good as The Celebration, so I wasn't pissed off.
Slant: The ending of The Hunt seems overtly optimistic. After the terrible trauma this community went through, it's Christmas and everything is back to normal. Is there irony weaved into this finale?
TV: First of all, as a writer, I felt a need to bring those people back together. I really like them and what they had as a community before the whole evil spiral started. I missed it. But also, I don't fully believe in the ending. Words once said can never be taken back. I had an internal conflict when writing these scenes. To me, the ending remains slightly unclear, but possibly close to the truth. They're having this ceremony, trying to get back to normal, cover the trauma with a layer of goodness, but at the same time it feels a bit weird, maybe even wrong.
Slant: Even if not one of them is being judged.
Slant: But society is. This "back to normal" includes a rock being thrown through Lucas's window and him being shot at.
TV: I've mentioned it before: Once you say something, it's done, you can't take it back. Especially now, when we live in a global village, with media platforms like Facebook, words travel faster than ever.
Slant: It feels like the film also judges the Danish system.
TV: Which, in a way, is unfair. Because this is how it worked in the '90s, but doesn't anymore. We had to address this to be able to create drama. We have decided not to give the system a name, define it. We couldn't name it, because the police, nowadays, would never do anything like it does in the film.
Slant: Denmark is very often referred to as "the happiest country in the world." What does your film says about that presumption?
TV: Danish safeness, mediocrity, and happiness bother me every day. There's not enough libido in the streets of Denmark. I feel strangled, and for an artist it's a serious problem. It makes you want to do something violent, shake this stiff system up a little bit. Maybe that's why Danish films are so crazy sometimes, maybe that's what created Lars Von Trier and his Nazi jokes. To make a circle and go back to Lucas: Being too civilized is not always good.