Monday 1 March 2010

Susanne Bier (b. 1960)

source: The New Tork Times (access original text by clicking on this post's title)

A Director Comfortable With Catastrophe

interview by Sylviane Gold (2007)

THERE’S something about the way the Danish director Susanne Bier says the word “comfortable” that tells you a lot. She’s trying to explain why, even though she likes working with actors she knows, she always casts unfamiliar ones too. “I’ve got this fear of becoming comfortable,” she says, carefully pronouncing all four syllables and letting her face, her tone and her body language convey complete distaste.

You could guess as much from her recent movies, in which happy, comfortable characters are jolted by events of unfathomable sadness. In “Open Hearts” (2002) a devastating automobile accident smashes the future of a newly engaged couple. In “Brothers,” which won her an audience award at Sundance in 2005, a seasoned soldier endures a horrific captivity that comes close to destroying him and those he loves. And in her latest, the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding,” family secrets wreak havoc in the lives of former lovers who have been apart — continents apart — for 20 years.

That film (which opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles) stars Mads Mikkelsen, the cold-eyed villain of “Casino Royale,” as a Dane who has been helping to run an orphanage in the slums of Mumbai. His life takes a 180-degree turn when a Danish tycoon (Rolf Lassgard) offers the orphanage a large contribution but insists that the expatriate return home to pick it up himself. A seemingly casual invitation for the visitor to attend the wedding of the businessman’s daughter reveals that despite their very different circumstances, the two men have much in common.

Catastrophe is always right around the corner in her movies. But Ms. Bier, whose last name rhymes with peer and who pronounces her first name su-ZAHN-a, is herself decidedly cheery. In New York to edit her first English-language movie, “Things We Lost in the Fire,” she’s taking a break near the Midtown postproduction facility where she has been poring over freeze frames of Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in yet another story of family disruption and pain. Strikingly pretty and easily carrying off a pair of tight jeans at the age of 46, she says there’s nothing autobiographical about her dark themes.

“I’ve had a very fortunate, very privileged life,” she says. “I say it with all humility, because it could change tomorrow. But I have a very strong ability to empathize, to understand what things feel like.”

It’s a quality her collaborators have noticed. The writer and director Anders Thomas Jensen calls it her “humanness” and says, “She’s very good at putting herself in a character’s place, which is really a gift.”

Mr. Mikkelsen, who played a tormented doctor in “Open Hearts” before he took the role of Jacob in “After the Wedding,” says he spent many draining days trying to evoke the emotion that Ms. Bier was looking for at a given moment. On the phone from Denmark, he says, “She is very aware of human nature in general, and she can tell when it’s not there.” Sometimes it’s not there for 10 hours at a stretch, he says. But, he adds, “it’s comfortable to know we’re not leaving the scene until it feels right.”

There’s that word again: “comfortable.” Maybe it’s a Danish thing, this finding comfort in the uncomfortable. Mr. Jensen, who wrote the scripts for Ms. Bier’s last three films, is in New York to work on their next project, about the Holocaust. They like to hole up together to hammer out the stories. “Then,” he says, “I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.” He agrees that neither one of them is particularly morose. “Every time we start doing a script,” he notes with a laugh, “we say, ‘Now we have to do a comedy.’ But we never end up doing a comedy. Somehow when we work together, we go in that other direction. I don’t know why.”

Ms. Bier has a suggestion about why her films are the way they are, with their keen portrayal of both happiness and despair. “I think that being Jewish has generated an extremely strong sense of the importance of family,” she says. “If I look at my Scandinavian colleagues, they don’t have that urgency about family. All my movies are about that.” And, she adds, she doesn’t think she would be the director she is if she hadn’t had her children, a son who is 17 and a daughter who is 11.

Her Jewish heritage left her with another legacy. Her father fled Germany with his family in 1933. “They were part of German society,” she says of her grandparents. “They had a lot of non-Jewish friends. And then suddenly society turned against them. I think the lack of automatically feeling, ‘Yes, the future is going to be like the present’ — that is very much a Jewish thing.”

And it certainly is the operating principle of her films. In “After the Wedding,” which was a box-office hit in Denmark and which earned its Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category, Jacob’s surrogate family in India is as susceptible to loss as the wealthy family in Denmark. And its sunny newlyweds have only the briefest of honeymoons before an almost casual betrayal sours the marriage.

Despite the painful situations she explores, Ms. Bier says she is scrupulous about ending her movies on a hopeful note. And she makes it a point not to alienate audiences. “I do believe that movies need to have an ability to communicate,” she says. “For me moviemaking is not pure art. It is a mass medium, even if it should be artistically coherent. I’ve had a lot of spanking from my European colleagues. They really don’t agree. But I believe that.”

Nonetheless she also embraces the “nuclear bomb” that the Dogme theorists, led by her countryman Lars von Trier, exploded in the film world in 1995. “They told us we have to get back to basics, to get back to telling stories about human beings for other human beings,” she says. “They’ve been immensely influential.”

“Open Hearts” was a Dogme film, but Ms. Bier says she’s too enamored of the “richness in the language of movies” to adhere to the austere Dogme aesthetic, which forbids the use of background music, set design and other artificial enhancements. “We don’t necessarily have to obey all the rules,” she says. “We’ve learned the lesson.”

Raised in Copenhagen in what she calls an observant Jewish family, she imagined that she would eventually “marry a Jewish lawyer and have six kids.” But as she grew older, “I was looking for something else in life,” she says. “Also, all the nice Jewish boys I met were too boring. I was consistently falling in love with not-so-nice non-Jewish boys.”

She studied religion, then architecture, which led to an interest in set design. When she started reading scripts, it gradually dawned on her that she wanted to direct them. She graduated from Denmark’s state-run film school in 1987 and became part of the small but active Danish film industry.

Leaving that cocoon to make “Things We Lost in the Fire,” to be distributed by Paramount this year, was not a decision she took lightly. “As a European director you hear all these horror stories about European directors working in Hollywood,” she says. “They’ve done great movies in their own country, and then they go to America, and you can’t even tell that they ever were involved in that movie.”

She also worried because she often changes dialogue as she shoots and encourages improvisation. “I was concerned,” she says. “Was my English sufficient for doing that?”

She decided to go ahead because she wanted to work with Sam Mendes, who is one of the producers, and she liked the script, by Allan Loeb. Its broken family and extreme emotions offered enough familiarity to offset the challenges of working in a foreign language, in a foreign country, with a crew of 200 instead of 40. In other words, comfortably uncomfortable.

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In this blog I intend to do some historical justice to the many, many women who have contributed with their genius, creativity, adventurous spirit, nurturing - amongst other qualities - to the apparent linear and male dominated prescribed notion of History. This is just the beggining.