Susanne Bier: What Does She Bring to Scandinavian Cinema?

In about twenty-five years and fifteen movies, Susanne Bier has changed the landscape of Danish cinema by making touching and striking films about the Scandinavian societies, especially the Danish one and about the human behavior. As our main theme is the Scandinavian company, it was impossible not to mention the work of this exceptional film director.

Susanne Bier was born the 15 April 1960 in Copenhagen. Before being accepted at the prestigious National Film School of Denmark, she studied Arts in Jerusalem and architecture in London. But she realized that what she loved to do was to study people’s feelings and behaviors. Her first movie, Freud’s Leaving Home, was an immediate success. The story was about a Jewish family who lives in Stockholm and a young woman, Angelique (whose nickname is Freud because she studies psychology) who still lives in the family house because she can’t leave her mother. For the sixtieth birthday of the mother, all the family is coming home to celebrate and they learn their mother has cancer. The movie shows us all the tensions and the conflicts with the different members of the family, the different ways to react to the news according to each person and some taboo topics are revealed. The cinema of Susanne Bier is here. The family, the relations ships with humans, the society and its dysfunctions … These are her favorite topics and she is one of the best to talk about them. This film is, moreover, one of the first to show the Swedish-Jewish culture in Sweden.

Let’s go now to 2000 with the film Open Hearts, with Mads Mikkelsen. Open Hearts is the 28th film to have been made under the rules of the Dogme to better take an interest in the psychology of the characters. The use of close-ups allows us to feel better feelings. In this film, Susanne Bier tell about a tragedy that affect a woman whose husband is paralyzed in an accident, and who falls in love with the husband of the woman who caused the accident. About this notion of tragedy Susanne Bier explains:

“Since the tragedy is no longer a part of our popular culture, we do not realise how the outbreak of a disaster can change everything. In itself, this is not so bad, but we have no idea how to respond when disaster strikes us. We are not at all prepared for the upsurge of the unexpected.”1

We can say that in a sense, this is a film that deals with suffering. All these characters in the movie have normal reactions and current dialogues. The film deals with the pain but also with the way that everyone chooses to get out of this. One of the important points of the realization is that Susanne Bier doesn’t want to judge her characters. This movie won the International Critics Award in 2002 at Toronto International Film Festival and it also won both the Bodil and Robert awards for Best Danish Film in 2003.

But Susanne Bier became famous in the whole world thanks to this movie: Brothers.  This is the story of a young man who is a successful soldier and who lives happy with his wife and his two kids, but who is, one day, sent to Afghanistan for a UN mission. When he is said to be dead, his brother, a delinquent will take care of the family and become closer with his wife. Once again, this is a film about human relationships, family and its reactions to a tragic and unexpected event. It mentions the military presence of the Danes in Afghanistan and the psychological consequences on the soldiers who were engaged in Afghanistan and who come back to their family. How international events can hit our individual life and family? This is what we can see in this movie. Every member of the family is affected first by the departure of the soldier and then by his return. And we can feel the feelings of each of them thanks to the directing of Susanne Bier. This movie was an international success, won many prices in different festivals and was remade as an American production with the same title in 2006, by the film director Jim Sheridan.

After the Wedding

2006. The year of the release of After The Wedding. This is a drama about the family. Jacob is a man who lives in India and who manages an orphanage. He also takes care of a little boy, Pramod and is attached to him. But the orphanage has some difficulties and one day, he has to go to Denmark since a Danish corporation offers to donate some money to help the orphanage and to maintain it open. But he will see that the real purpose of his visit is linked with his past.  This film treads about the family, the link between the past and the present of the characters, the unexpected events, the contrast between rich societies and poor one, the choices we’ve made and their impacts, human relationship contradiction,responsibilities… The world of the poor in India who tried to survive is opposed to the world of the rich who have their own problems too and tried to deal with it. Susanne Bier also shows us briefly the role of Denmark in the humanitarian help in the world that we will describe here in the following lines.

To return to the movie itself, it was nominated to the Oscar in 2006 for the best foreign movie. This film was presented in many festivals and has really good reviews. The way Susanne Bier choose to show her characters make them endearing. Feelings are highlighted. The interpretation of the actors is impressive. Once again Mads Mikkelsen shows us he can play everything.  It’s a beautiful, moving and must-see movie.

Susanne Bier made her first all American movie in 2007: Things We Lost in the Fire with David Duchovny, Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. She told the story of about a couple, Audrey and Brian who live happy with their two children until the day Brian dies. Audrey invites the best friend of her husband Jerry, a drug addict, to live with them. But Jerry will try to change and to help the family. This movie treats once again the same kind of topics. We are not sorry for the characters; there is no overdose of good feelings with a really nice happy ending. Susanne Bier avoids clichés. These two people are completely opposites but in fact, they have something in common: the death of a loved one, Brian. And it is this feeling that will make them closer,  although both characters react differently to grief; Audrey will instead sink while Jerry tries to recover. Susanne Bier was able to make a change without being overwhelmed by the fact that it is a US production. She succeeds at showing what she always did in Scandinavian in an American movie.

In 2011, Susanne Bier won the Oscar of the Best Foreign Movie with the poignant In a Better World. The theme of the forgiveness and revenge is here treated. We follow the story of two families with the two main characters, Elias and Christian. Elias is persecuted at school because of his teeth and Christian just lost his mother and stand up for Elias. Anton, the father of Elias is a doctor in Africa and is not very often at home. But one day, after a fight, Christian wants to revenge and ask Elias to do this with him. Two societies are here confronted as we follow the violence of every day in Africa but also in ours developed societies with the violence of the feelings of hate of Christian. How to deal with violence and fear in our societies? Is it the violence that guides our world? Susanne Bier allows us to reflect about our societies, everything seems perfect in the Scandinavian’ societies but maybe this society make us violent inside, we don’t show the violence but we still feel it in our mind. This is a film that makes us think about all this.

In 2015, we are waiting for two main projects: Serena, an American project with the famous Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and A Second Chance with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau that has been presented in the Toronto International Film Festival. If the first one seems to be more minor, the second one will treat about the behavior of a detective and the choices he has to do when the line between the just and the unjust is blurred.

A Second Chance

One of the most exciting movies we are waiting for this year is the new movie A Second Chance. It was presented to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 and has received a good reception. This film, starring Nikolaj Coster Waldau, the Jaime Lannister of Game Of Thrones, and Ulrich Thomsen, is about Andreas and Simon, two friends who work as police inspectors but who have different lives: Andreas is settled down with his wife and kid whereas Simon spend his time in strip-tease clubs and getting drunk. But one day, the two friends are called for a domestic dispute between a junkie couple. Andreas will be confronted to do a choice between the just and the unjust when he finds the couple’s infant son, crying in a closet. And quite unexpectedly, Simon will try to restore the balance between the right and the wrong when Andreas is changing little by little his sense of justice. This film will be about the choices of justice of the characters, the notions of the right and the wrong. Has Andreas need to act? Do his personal feelings have to infringe upon his work as a policeman? Can we always bring back the good? All these questions can appear when an individual is confronted to something he maybe doesn’t want to do.  A Second Chance was released in Denmark the 15th of January and is coming in the cinemas the 20th March in Sweden and UK, and the 16th of April in Germany.


[1] http://www.allocine.fr/film/fichefilm-49506/secrets-tournage/

[2] http://www.cairn.info/revue-de-l-ocde-sur-le-developpement-2007-4-page-105.htm

CategoriesIssue 8
Raphaela Faure

Raphaëla Faure is a writer fromClermont-Ferrand, in the middle of France