WHEN Thomas Vinterberg achieved instant success with Festen, at Cannes in 1998, it was both a blessing and a curse.
Praised for its energy, stripped-down aesthetic, powerful acting, and serious, hard-hitting child abuse theme, the film was obviously the work of an exciting new talent, and everyone wanted to see what the 28-year-old Dane would do next.
But Vinterberg, who co-founded the Dogme movement with Lars von Trier, had a problem. Everything about Dogme – the emphasis on actors, the use of hand-held cameras, the communal nature of the filmmaking – was such a reflection of him, personally and creatively, that the young director felt he’d reached the end of a road with Festen. Even as he basked in the adulation, he worried about the future.
“It was the ultimate film for me at that time and I couldn’t come further,” he recalls when we meet at the London Film Festival. “I felt like I was finished. So it brought me into a new era of my life where I had to start over, and that was very painful… I was floating. I didn’t know where to go.”
He followed Festen with It’s All About Love, a poetic sci-fi romance that turned Dogme on its head. Many critics found it puzzling and half-baked, but Vinterberg, while acknowledging some flaws, says: “For me, it’s still the most important film I did… and still something I am very proud of.”
Other movies, including an entertaining von Trier collaboration, Dear Wendy, about a young man and his love for his gun, ensued, but none escaped the shadow of his powerful breakthrough.
Artistically he was adrift. “Kubrick died around the same time I did Festen, and I saw von Trier a lot, and they were both re-inventing their form every time they made a movie. I thought I should be doing the same thing and I found out that’s not where my thing is. I’m occupied with human fragility, and for me the highest goal is to create characters that stand up. So I’m the opposite of what for some years I thought I was.”
This realisation led to his triumphant return to the Cannes competition in May this year, with The Hunt. Vinterberg’s second take on child abuse, the film is a searing reminder of why people got so excited about him in the first place.
The film’s London premiere coincided with the eruption of the Jimmy Savile scandal. It’s a weird time to be talking about a movie in which a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, memorably played by a cast-against-type Mads Mikkelsen, in a small Danish town, finds himself at the centre of a witch hunt after his best friend’s five-year-old daughter falsely accuses him of sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, the BBC has been gnawing at its own innards, Gary Glitter, Freddie Starr and Dave Lee Travis have been arrested over allegations of sexual misconduct. And in the ensuing controversy, Lord McAlpine has been wrongly identified as a paedophile, while his accuser, Steve Messham – who was abused by someone – has been backed into making a humiliating and painful public apology.
Some in the UK might wonder whether The Hunt is the right film for now, while others will hold the opposite view. Either way, real-life events have added a queasy layer of timeliness to the viewing experience.
Vinterberg says the film has its roots in case files handed to him by a psychiatrist in the wake of Festen. “They showed me another kind of victim, which is, in a sense, children being victims of their own lies. Unfortunately, in the case of men or women being innocently accused, the child again is the most vulnerable victim, because they grow up with an illusion that something bad happened to them.
“Because of the lie, this huge theatre appears in front of them: mothers crying. Fathers going to prison. People are fighting. They’re going to the gynaecologist. They’re being interrogated. They end up believing it’s true – it’s what they call ‘added memory’ – so, of course, they have sexual problems, and, you know, they’re victimised.”
Mikkelsen’s character is also a victim, of course, and the film makes clear that a false accusation of paedophilia leaves a stain that is difficult if not impossible to erase completely. There will always be suspicion.
The fearful world of The Hunt contrasts dramatically with Vinterberg’s own upbringing in a commune in the 1970s, where, he laughs, he was “surrounded by genitals”. “I was this high,” he says, indicating groin height, “so it was right in front of me. In my garden, sometimes even in the kitchen, there would be a big bush coming by. It was fine, it was not problematic. And when grown-ups wanted to show love to the children, they touched them, non-sexually. It was love. But we lost all that, and there’s a reason why: we know now that a lot of children suffer from abuse… So they have reasons to be fearful. And, for me, that’s really sad.”
Apparently, Mikkelsen’s character’s experience has reminded some people of von Trier’s treatment in Cannes last year, when the arch provocateur was declared persona non grata after making some ill-advised wisecracks about being a Nazi. It was “an absurd, almost unreal situation”, Vinterberg says, but not entirely unexpected. “Lars has always been pushing boundaries, he’s always been teasing the grown-ups.” He smiles. “I think he may have come to some kind of peace, finally. Although I’m not sure he agrees.”
It is possible that with The Hunt, and the rediscovery of his filmmaking mojo, Vinterberg has slain some of his own dragons after being “humbled over the last 14 years”.
Now that people are excited again, will he seek work outside his home again? The question of where he wants to make films is on his mind daily, he says.
“Because Denmark is very small and claustrophobic and clean, somehow when I make these very small movies in a kindergarten, in bad weather, Denmark is where people pay attention to it. But I’m also being offered films from abroad. It’s work for hire, and I’m attracted to it, but at the same time I find it less important.”
Whatever he chooses to do, The Hunt should mean that at least people will be watching his next move with interest.