February 7, 2011
Danish filmmaker finds hope despite family’s dark history
Susanne Bier, whose Danish film, “In a Better World,” is a favorite for Oscar honors, is an anomaly.
She is a woman director in an overwhelmingly male profession, and she is emphatically Jewish in a country and industry in which such affirmation is hardly the norm.
After a Golden Globe win for helming the year’s best foreign-language film, Bier, who studied for two years in Jerusalem, is in a strong position to repeat in the same Academy Award category. However, she faces stiff competition from the other four finalists, who represent Algeria, Canada, Greece and Mexico.
Israel, which seemed close to its first Oscar when its entries made the final five cut in each of the last three years, struck out early this year with “The Human Resources Manager.”
Bier, youthful and animated at 50, was born in peaceful Denmark, but the fates and persecutions of forebears in Nazi Germany and Czarist Russia have deeply affected her personal and artistic outlooks.
Her paternal grandfather, a real estate executive in Berlin, was farsighted enough to leave Germany for Denmark in 1933, when his son, Susanne’s future father, was 2 years old.
Three decades earlier, her mother’s family arrived in Denmark in 1903, the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom.
But the secure refuge in Denmark was shattered in 1940, when Nazi armies invaded the country. Both families were saved in the celebrated 1943 boatlift to Sweden, which saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews.
Susanne’s father, then 12, vividly recalled the experience to his daughter. The car in which the family was driving to the boat rendezvous ran out of gas, next to a German command post. After a very anxious time, a passing Danish motorist supplied the refugees with fuel.
After the Allied victory, both families returned to Denmark, but from their backgrounds and experiences they transmitted two life lessons to Susanne.
“I felt early on that even in the most secure life, there is always the potential for catastrophe,” she said during an interview at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
On the reverse side, her parents taught her “to address the world in a positive way,” to look for the good even in evil times, and to deal morally and righteously with others.
Bier grew up as somewhat of a tomboy, preferring soccer scrimmages with the lads to playing with dolls; she was socially awkward, an avid reader and had a creative bent.
But upon finishing high school, she decided to explore her Jewish roots by studying in Israel. She spent half a year at the Hebrew University and one-and-a-half years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
She left Jerusalem, after “two years of partying,” with a working knowledge of Hebrew and a vague sense that she would eventually marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have six kids.
Her religiously observant parents, whom she phones at least once a day, approved of this tentative life path. However, Bier discovered that “all the nice Jewish boys I encountered were just too boring” and she was more attracted to not-so-nice non-Jewish boys.
In her actual marital life, Bier has struck somewhat of a compromise, explaining, “My first husband was non-Jewish, my second husband was a nice Jewish boy, and I am now in a relationship with a non-Jewish man.” She is the mother of Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15.
Still searching for a fulfilling career, she studied architecture in London and then attended Denmark’s National Film School, graduating in 1987.
After these eclectic preparations, her movie career took off auspiciously with the Swedish film “Freud Leaves Home,” which won critical acclaim.
Her next effort, “Family Matters,” flopped badly, but Bier recovered, and her subsequent nine films, released at the rate of about one every two years, have been generally popular and well received by critics.
With the beginning of the 21st century, Bier really hit her stride as director and screenwriter. Her 2004 movie, “Brothers,” was a box office and artistic hit and was remade in an English version.
Two years later, she scored even better with “After the Wedding,” which made the final cut for an Academy Award. Now Hollywood came calling, and in 2007 she directed “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny.
Her current Oscar contender, “In a Better World,” was released in her native country as “Hoevnen,” Danish for “Revenge,” which seems a more pointed title.
The film stars some of the leading Scandinavian actors and a remarkable 12-year-old boy, William Johnk Nielsen, whom Bier discovered.
Like many of the director’s movies, “Better World” deals with complex family relationships, this one between two fathers and their respective sons, and the intense bond between the two boys.
Also typical of Bier’s outlook, the movie ends on a note of hope. “Too many European films celebrate pessimism,” Bier said, “but desolation is no good. It is better to communicate that there’s some hope in the world.”
A few years ago, Bier and her frequent writing collaborator, Anders Thomas Jensen, worked on a project centering on the Holocaust, but couldn’t get the script right and shelved the project.
She hopes to deal with the topic in a future film and rejects the notion of “Holocaust fatigue” among the public and movie producers.
That notion gained some currency this year when not a single feature movie or documentary dealing with the Holocaust, the Nazi era or World War II was submitted in the Oscar and Golden Globe competitions. Nevertheless, Bier is confident that in the future, Hollywood and European producers will return to that subject.