Danish director Thomas Vinterberg drew applause and laughs here today talking up The Commune, his period drama which is loosely based on his own childhood experiences growing up as part of a collective in 1970s Copenhagen (see trailer above, beware some nudity). In a press conference, he covered everything from his position on Denmark’s refugee policy to open relationships and the death of the Dogme movement.
The film, which TrustNordisk is selling, stars Trine Dyrholm and Ulrich Thomsen, reteaming with the director after his 1998 breakout Festen, along with a large ensemble. It centers on a professor and his TV newswoman wife who suggests they invite their friends to come and live with them in a recently inherited house. She’s hoping to evade the boredom that has begun to seep into their marriage. Before long, a dozen women, men and children move in, make collective decisions, engage in discussions, frolic together — and rub each other the wrong way.
Vinterberg said he wrote The Commune (with frequent collaborator and Oscar nominee Tobias Lindholm) as “a love declaration to my childhood. There was a time when people were sharing and those days are over and I miss that. It’s a film about the impermanence of things. Time disappears, love disappears, life disappears and things are suddenly over and I’ll never learn to figure out why.”
But, it’s not all brooding. Vinterberg said, “People die and fall out of love and get divorced, but at the end they’re together and because they’re together, they’re capable of smiling.” There is a lot of loneliness today in Denmark, he said, and has hopes there is “a slight sense of encouragement” from the film. “If you’re willing to share and give and listen to other people, this is a great opportunity to buy a house, get some beers, move together and have some fun. Maybe even sleep together.”
As has invariably happened at press conferences here in Berlin, the refugee crisis came up as Vinterberg expressed shame over Denmark’s controversial policy which seeks to seize assets and valuables of people applying for status in the country. “I’m shameful to be a Dane,” given the current political situation, he said. “I’m ashamed about our political life but behind that there is a nation of pretty good hearts… If there’s anything that can be brought from this film to inspire people to share and not humiliate other people I would be very happy.”
While the married Vinterberg said he was not a believer in open relationships, which were a staple of the 70s, he does strongly appreciate that generation’s willingness to try things. “They wanted to escape the mediocrity of living and try free forms. They gave us a huge responsibility as children, treated us as grown-ups and it was way too much, but they tried something. They were thinking away from the everyday trap so to speak and I found that very courageous.”
Vinterberg’s own commune growing up was “just an extended family of 12-15 well off academics… and some kids living together. It wasn’t that extraordinary, it was just family life.” The film team created its own extended family. “We camped together and had alcohol together and we were naked together. Well, some of you were and I was watching,” he laughed indicating the panel, and recalled a particular three-hour dinner rehearsal “that moved me tremendously and brought me back all the way to my own commune.”
After Festen, won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize in 1998, Vinterberg took some time between projects but has now ramped up. He was last in Berlin with Submarino in 2010, then took The Hunt to Cannes before scoring an Oscar nomination with the lauded film in 2014. In 2015, Fox Searchlight released his English-language Far From The Madding Crowd, and his next project is Kursk at EuropaCorp.
As he has segued between Hollywood and Copenhagen, Vinterberg has spoken to me before of the collaborative spirit in the Danish film industry and called it “a community of film workers meaning we help each other.” Collectively of course, Vinterberg, Lars von Trier and others created the Dogme movement in the 90s with a manifesto on a way forward for making indie films.
He called Dogme “very comparable to our commune to the extent that when my parents moved into this house together with some other crazy families at the time, they did something outrageous. It wasn’t heard of before… it was almost illegal and they were feeling very sexy about it and very good about it. They jumped off the cliff not knowing if there was any water below them and to some extent that is what we did with Dogme.”
But don’t expect Dogme to come back. “I think in Cannes in 98 where 1,400 people stood up and gave us raving applause, that was the beginning of the end of Dogme. It was meant to be a revolt, a renewal connected to a lot of risk. Overnight, it became a huge success and it became a fashion. In my country you can buy freakin’ Dogme furniture,” Vinterberg explained. There’s also a delivery service that brings Dogme groceries which means “there’s a box with almost nothing in it,” he exclaimed to laughs from the press corps. “That was not the idea, so we soon realized that the risk and the revolt and all of that was replaced with sexiness, fashion and fame. To some extent that was a success and natural, but also was the natural end of Dogme.”
Nowadays, he added of his Dogme cohorts, “We eat great dinners and drink very expensive wine. One of us is rich — it’s not me — and we discuss the old days and the new days and there’s no sign of an Ultra-Dogme.”