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Susanne Bier’s Oscar-winning Film In a Better World

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Susanne Bier (Photo by Robin Skjoldborg. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).
In a Better World, the latest film from Danish director Susanne Bier, tackles one of today’s hot-button issues – bullying both in the schoolyard and in society at large. The movie won Bier this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film, lifting her to the top ranks of international filmmakers.  Earlier in the awards season the Golden Globes bestowed a similar prize on Bier’s film.

“It’s gratifying and very important to me that a film in a language that is only spoken by 5.5 million people can have a strong voice and can communicate and have an impact,” she says. This is not the first time she has been up for an Academy Award. In 2007 Bier’s After the Wedding was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar.

In a Better World, set for release on April 1, looks beyond the social problem of youthful taunting to the complex consequences of fighting back or, alternatively, turning the other cheek. It’s more descriptive original Danish title is Haevnen, meaning revenge. Two youngsters at the center of the film progress from getting even with a bullying student in a knife fight to attempting to avenge a slight to one of their fathers by building a pipe bomb and turning into home-grown terrorists.

Working with Anders Jensen, the film’s scriptwriter, “We decided the idea of an unlikely young Danish terrorist was worth investigating,” recalls the director.  “At the same time, we were talking about the often ignored fragility of Danish society. In my country, we always think that the threat is from outside, but there is also the possibility that the threat could come from within.”

Markus Rygaard (left) and William Nielsen in In a Better World, (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).

The film’s handsome photography by Danish cinematographer Morten Soborg, DDF, a frequent collaborator on past films with Bier, is suffused with robins-egg blue skies and gorgeous seaside locations. The prettiness is a deliberate reflection of an idyllic setting that is rippling underneath its placid surface with threatened violence. “The discussion with Morten emphasized the look because it was a big part of the storytelling,” says Bier. “In order to describe the fragility of the seemingly perfect society, we needed to visually show the look of that society. This is Denmark at its most beautiful and that was a very conscious choice. It has to have that sensuous quality in order for us to understand what’s broken.”

As in several other films she’s done, the plot shifts between disparate continents. In addition to Denmark where most of the film takes place, the action intermittently switches to an unidentified African setting where there’s a more threatening tribal bully. He bets on whether pregnant women are carrying a male or female child, and eviscerates them to see if he is right.

Tying the two plots together is Anton, played by popular Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt. The idealistic parent of the bullied son, he works in a field hospital where he is faced with trying to save the lives of the mutilated women, but stops short of challenging the bully.  In the end, it is the tribal bully who comes to him for treatment.

The Africa scenes were shot in Kenya. Some of the settings were natural but others had to be constructed. The medical tent hospital where much of the action occurs was built by production designer Peter Grant and his team. “We did thorough research and the medical facility was pretty much identical to some of hospitals we saw there,” the director notes.

DP Soborg shot mostly handheld, but the effect is more like he used Steadicam. “I don’t necessarily like handheld for its own sake because at times you become aware of a third party in the room – it can take you away from story telling,” declares the director. “The reason for shooting handheld is to allow the actors to move around freely and have an organic feel. I don’t like to block the scenes I’m filming.”

Mikael Persbandt in In a Better World (Photo by Morten Soborg. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics).

A challenge for Bier and DP Soborg was working with the inexperienced young actors in front of the camera. Christian, the instigator of the escalating revenge is brilliantly played by William Johnk Nielsen, whom Bier discovered. “He’s a very talented actor, and he has a star-like quality,” she says. But as the shoot started he was terrified by the need to scream and misbehave. “Here you had this well-educated boy who has always been taught to be well behaved and I was telling him to act in an ill-behaved way,” she notes. “At first he was confused, but later he really had a lot of fun with it.”

Doing numerous takes helped to capture the pitch-perfect acting Nielsen displays on the screen. “Sometimes I drive the actors mad, but I always do a lot of takes,” she says. That means a lot of footage for the film’s editor Pernille Bech Christensen to handle. But Christensen, who went to film school with Bier, has worked on most of her films and the two communicate almost intuitively. “You can say we’re joined at the hip,” says Bier.  Christensen starts editing during the shoot. The interaction with Bier varies during the lengthy postproduction edit. “I trust her so I feel I can come and go, and when I return I like to be surprised by what she’s come up with,” says the director. But Bier reserves the edit of the final cut for herself. “I tend to be a bit protective of my own curiosity and energy towards the material, so I try not to overwork it,” she explains.

Bier’s growing body of work also includes a Hollywood picture, Things We Lost in the Fire. It came out in 2007. The Dreamworks production starred Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro, and was lensed by Tom Stern, who has often served as Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer.  “He’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met,” she says of the DP. Notwithstanding its star power, the film failed to attract much of an audience, and Bier was said to be down on the restrictions involved in making another studio picture. However, the director denies the characterization and says it was a good experience for her, and one she’d like to repeat. She attributes the disappointing box office to the film’s getting lost in the shuffle amidst a busy release schedule. In a Better World, arriving at theaters with an Oscar to shout about, may give the Danish director a wider exposure to an American audience.

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