What’s Eating Thomas Vinterberg?

When watching Thomas Vinterberg films, I can’t help but notice one persistent motive: the films are all about stories of broken families and childhood traumas, and they are always caused by hypocrisy and lies from the past.

Starting with his first big hit, The Celebration, we can easily see that in the plot. We have the abusive father, Helge, who tries to cover his crimes of the past by being the good old rich patriarch he is. But keeping in mind this is a Dogme film, and Dogme is about crushing the fake bourgeois morals into pieces. After the first fifteen minutes of the film, his status is destroyed when the main character, Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) turns the celebrations upside down.

The Celebration is about a rage against the bourgeois. When the dark family secret is served with the first toast, the reactions of the guests are so absurd that they look completely authentic. With a glass of expensive champagne, they swallow the charges of paedophilia from the oldest son to the father ‘Here’s to the man who killed my sister’ and continues with their dinner in hopes that the bomb will not explode.

At this point, the plot starts to abide by the rules of Dogme filmmaking. Christian’s rebellion against his father symbolises what Dogme is trying to do with bourgeois cinema. The first thing he does is take the masks off, and then we see throughout the whole film how Christian is being helped by the oppressed; the people from the kitchen help him with his plot, Helene’s black boyfriend is on his side and the women also voluntarily come to his side. For example, Helene reads out Linda’s last letter, the waitresses Pia and Michele hide everyone’s car keys, and Else doesn’t accompany Helge on his deserved exile. That is what the oppressed in the world of art must do to make it flourish.

After the success of The Celebration, Vinterberg continues his search for what is rotten, but this time not in Denmark but in the USA.

In his next film, It’s All About Love, he explores the collapse of a marriage due to the hypocrisy and falseness in show business, which separates the celebrities from their true identities by turning them into machines for moneymaking without their own feelings, demands, or desires. This apocalyptic film with elements of family drama is the next meditation of Vinterberg on the alienation between people and the decay of the modern family.

The pseudo western Dear Wendy considers another form of hypocrisy – the one about guns and their cult in the US. The pacifists with guns in their pockets, who spend their time training shooting in a bunker, hope the world would become a better place, but as Chekhov suggests if there is a rifle in the first scene of the play, it necessarily fires in the last.

The topic of damaged fathers continues in Vinterberg’s only comedy, A Man Comes Home. Once again we have a boy, who is being lied to that his father has committed suicide, but he has simply left. The pain of that causes the boy’s stutter throughout his adolescence. When the man comes home years later and reunites with his son, the stutter disappears, but that is it with happy endings for Vinterberg.

Then we have Submarino, where childhood trauma turns into bleeding wounds in adulthood. The boys, who blame themselves for the accidental death of their baby brother, never get over the accident and destroy their own lives through the guilt.

The line of films about lies and hypocrisy continues with The Hunt. The film is inspired by the psychological phenomenon of false memories. We have a lie that destroys a man’s life, but there is no one to blame. Little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) who came up with the lie is not sure of what she had said and the consequences. Throughout the film not only do we follow the destruction of the accused of paedophilia Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), but we also see the confusion in Klara. So, who is in charge of the witch-hunt against Lucas in this small and close-knit community? The guilt should fall on the people, who were Lucas’s friends once, but was blinded by their sinful projections on him,  and forgot to even hear his account of the events. Here we have the topic of guilt once again but the question is whose guilt of the hypocritical society, who hurries to point the finger at the defenceless man or of the man, who carries the burden of sins, which are not his. The scene on Christmas Eve confirms the Jesus resemblance of Lucas.

Vinterberg’s latest film, The Commune, gives another perspective on the topic of broken families. Having spent his youth in a commune himself, he creates a film about a commune. However, The Commune is as much about communal living as The Celebration is about celebrating. Although the inhabitants of the big house are very colourful and eccentric, they are just introduced and then forgotten, for the sake of showcasing the breaking up of a marriage.

The attempt of hiding the boredom of a fifteen-year-old relationship Ana (Trine Dyrholm) does by surrounding herself and her husband with more people is unsuccessful. “You lose each other in a big house” Eric (Ulrich Thompsen) says in the beginning. This is the first sign they are on the way to lose touch with each other and the big house would only give them more space to drift apart.

So, what would have happened if they had been sincere with each other since the start? Was there a chance to save the marriage? The same way we could ask ourselves what would have happened if Else in The Celebration had not turned a blind eye to her husband’s crimes or if the baby had not died in Submarino. On the search for reasons for the decay of the modern family, Vinterberg poses more questions, than he answers. He might not have found the ultimate reason for this yet, but in one of his last interviews, he claims, he has found the solution and it is alcohol. The alcohol makes people warm and open, so his next project will focus on celebrating that obscure object of desire.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 18