Filmmaker Susanne Bier, Seeking 'A Better World' The Danish film In a Better World won the 2011 Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. Director Susanne Bier explains how stories about her family's escape from the Holocaust inform her work.
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Filmmaker Susanne Bier, Seeking 'A Better World'

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Filmmaker Susanne Bier, Seeking 'A Better World'

Filmmaker Susanne Bier, Seeking 'A Better World'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film went to the Danish movie "In a Better World." The film begins opening in U.S. theaters April 1st.

My guest is the film's director, Susanne Bier. Her other movies include "After the Wedding" and "Brothers," which was remade into an American film starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. She made one English-language film, "Things We Lost in the Fire."

For one of Bier's films, she followed the Dogme Manifesto that was written in 1995 by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, creating a set of rules for making movies without embellishments like props and special effects.

Bier's new film, "In a Better World," is set in Denmark and Africa. One of the characters it follows is a doctor who lives in Denmark but works part of each year in a medical clinic at an African refugee camp, where some of his patients are the victims of a warlord's sadistic acts of violence.

The doctor is so caught up in his work, he doesn't comprehend how his son's life is being dramatically altered by the boys who have been bullying him at school. The new student who becomes his protector is out for revenge and may be more dangerous than the bullies.

Susanne Bier, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your Oscar and your Golden Globe.

Ms. SUSANNE BIER (Director, "In a Better World"): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: Now, your new movie, "In a Better World," compares acts of revenge and violence and the difficulty of finding forgiveness in an African war zone and at home, at home where children are bullying each other and where adults are bullying each other. What made you think about that comparison between bullying at home and acts of, you know, really sadistic violence in an African war zone?

Ms. BIER: I guess that the whole point was to sort of communicate that the standards of living or the conditions of living in Africa, like in a refugee camp in Africa and in a privileged town or part of Denmark, couldn't be more different. But the actual human nature is so similar. So it's kind of like, in a way, showing the same story but in two different shapes.

GROSS: Now, in the African refugee camp there are some monstrous crimes being committed. In fact, if you're listening with a child now, you might want to just tune out for a few seconds because I'm going to describe one of the crimes.

There's a warlord, the Big Man, who bets on pregnant women, on whether they're carrying a boy or a girl. And in order to see if he's right and if he's won his bet, he slits them open.

And the doctor in your movie, the doctor from Denmark who works in a - I imagine in a Doctors Without Borders kind of organization and who works in this refugee camp, sometimes has to try to save a pregnant woman who is in this position and who is slit open.

Have you heard of such a crime? Is this based on something?

Ms. BIER: Actually, it's actually based on a real story that one of the - we did talk a lot with Doctors Without Borders, and this one doctor told me that she had encountered a patient coming in who was a known warlord, and all the people at a refugee camp were terrified of him, and he was known to do this. He was known to take around gangs of young guys and bet as to whether the sex of the infant in the womb was a boy or a girl. And in most cases both the infant and the mother would die, because it's very, very hard to save them.

And she was faced with that sort of - should she - he had - he'd been hurt in an accident. Should she save him, or should she not save him? And eventually he disappeared.

But it was just such an interesting story, and it's one of the few stories which is actually built on a real thing in the movie.

GROSS: Yes, and in your movie, the doctor in the movie has to decide, when the Big Man comes to him with a horrible leg wound, whether the doctor's going to try to save him or not. And I won't give away what happens with that.

Meanwhile, back at home in Denmark, the son of the doctor, who is probably around 12?

Ms. BIER: Yes.

GROSS: being bullied at school because he appears wimpy, and he's from Sweden, not Denmark, so he's called a Swede, an ugly mutant.

And here you have - you know, it's kids in a middle-class school, and to an American there's not a huge difference between a Swede and somebody from Denmark, you know, that...

Ms. BIER: Not to us either. That's actually - that's actually one of the points, is that - it's also kind of a point about racism. It's also showing how stupid racism is because, I mean, Swedes and Danes are very - I mean couldn't be more similar.

So it's also kind of pointing at the - I mean how idiotic racism is in its core.

GROSS: But even in marriage - there are problems within marriages in your movie too. Even people who love each other are having trouble getting along.

Ms. BIER: Yes. The boy that you are mentioning, Elias, is the son of a doctor, and his mother's in fact also a doctor. And the parents are separating because of his infidelity, and he's being bullied at school because he is insecure and not like a really forceful boy.

GROSS: The doctor who works at the African refugee camp part-time, he's risking his life to save lives. He's really a hero at work. But at home he's separating from his wife. He's really not there for his son, and his son really misses him and at points in this movie desperately needs his father to be there.

Do you think that some people who are really quite heroic in their work have a home life that's falling apart because of it, they're really not quite a hero at home?

Ms. BIER: I think it's extremely difficult consistently being a decent human being. And I think what he does in Africa is undeniable, resourceful and heroic. I don't think he - he's got no ill will at home. It's not as if he doesn't care.

I think there is probably a level to a human's capacity and in that case probably he is not there enough for his son. But I don't - I mean, I think the movie clearly does not judge him, and nor do I. I just think it's - you know, probably it is - that is the case, and I think probably many of us can look at our own life and recognize that we might be incredibly resourceful in certain areas and less so in other areas. And that's - I think modern lives have so many demands on us, and we can't fulfill them all.

GROSS: In Denmark, where your film was initially released, the title translates to "Revenge." In America the film has been titled "In A Better World." Does that say something about the difference between movies in Denmark and movies in America?

Ms. BIER: Actually, it just says something about my timing because I was never really happy with the title "Revenge," but by the time I caught on to the title "In a Better World," which I much prefer, it was too late to change the Danish title.

I feel that "In a Better World" points towards the hopefulness of the film, whereas "Revenge" points towards the severeness. And I prefer emphasizing the hopefulness.

GROSS: Now, I've seen two of your films that deal with war, and - you know, "Brothers" and "In a Better World." Can you talk about how war has figured into your family life?

Ms. BIER: I mean, none of my movies are autobiographical. It's not as if I have personally experienced war. I'm Jewish, and my family is Jewish, and I think that I've always had a very distinct recognition of war being a possibility, of imminent catastrophe being a possible real thing. And therefore I think in a way it's been very natural for me to place some of my movies in war-like situations.

GROSS: Now, I know that your family had to flee Denmark after the Nazi invasion. Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.

Ms. BIER: It's in '43. They invaded earlier than that, but yes, you're right.

GROSS: And they had fled to Denmark from other places. So what brought your family to Denmark in the first place?

Ms. BIER: Well, I mean, Denmark has always been known to be - they had very, very early, like I think in like 16th century, they had laws which were permitting Jews to live there. And they had - they were always pretty friendly to strangers.

So my mother's family came after the pogrom in Russia, and my father's family came when Hitler reached power in '33 - they came to Denmark.

GROSS: Your father was living in Germany.

Ms. BIER: Their family was living in Berlin, yes. And then they had to escape. In '43, the - actually, the Jews in Denmark were not being taken to concentration camps for a long, long time. Denmark was invaded, but for a long time they were allowed to live there.

And then in '43 the Germans decided to capture all the Jews and take them into concentration camps, but most of them escaped because they were warned by the Danish government and they managed to escape to Sweden.

GROSS: How? How did your family escape?

Ms. BIER: Well, they - most of them, there's a very narrow sea between Sweden and Denmark, and most of them were taken by sailors or even by small rowing boats, were crossing the sea. And it was pretty - it's a pretty heroic part of Danish history because actually there were many, many families that were helping the Jewish families.

And my family, my Jewish family, when my grandparents were still alive until very recently, had maintained very, very close contact with the family that helped them during the war.

GROSS: So how old were you when your parents or grandparents started telling you this story? And how did they color it? Did they tell it to you in a frightening way or in as neutral a way as possible so as not to scare you too much?

Ms. BIER: Look, stories are only boring if they are neutral. (Laughing) And I think that any parents would try and tell stories in a sort of - possibly not in a threatening way but in a dramatic way. And actually, both of my parents' stories very individually stayed with me.

My father's story was that they were taken first - he was, for the first time in his life his father was - my father's father was a very stoic and very sort of aristocratic gentleman, and he did not particularly deal with his kids. But for the first time in his life, my father was being collected at school by his father, and that was because they had to escape.

And they were then hiding in a - somewhere in the countryside, and then they were taken by car to where the boat was going. But the car came to a stop right at the German headquarters where they were all hiding underneath the floor of the car.

And so there is this frightening moment which I've always perceived as incredibly dramatic, of my grandparents and the kids hiding in the car right in front of the German headquarters in Copenhagen. But the soldiers didn't stop them, and they were just allowed to continue, and they came to Sweden.

And my mother's story was more a story of - yes, they were going to escape. It was the night of the Jewish new year, and they had like a big goose in the oven because of Jewish new year, and they had to escape. And they escaped to Sweden, and when they came back three years later, the goose was still in the oven. So my mother's mother were never able to eat goose anymore.

GROSS: Wow, it must have been some rotten goose when they returned.

Ms. BIER: But also, you know, there are certain things which stays, which is like mythology in your family. And this is like - this sort of image of a huge big goose being in the oven for three years while the family were escaping was sort of a very striking image.

GROSS: Do you think that'll end up in a movie of yours sometime?

Ms. BIER: Maybe in a different shape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Ms. BIER: I don't - you know, I've kind of pretty consistently used the dramatic elements but not the autobiographical details. I kind of feel that I can't treat that material at complete liberty, which I like to do when I work, if I use the sort of concrete memories.

GROSS: You're obviously interested in how people behave in war or in crisis, the things that they're capable of doing, either violent or heroic, that they didn't think they were capable of. Does that question kind of haunt you about yourself? Like: What would you do in a situation that your parents and grandparents were in or in a situation that you've placed your characters in?

Ms. BIER: Well, it's funny because the writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, and I always have these discussions. It's like part of the fun we have working with one another is sort of provoking each other as to what we would have done in certain situations. Like: Have you been - had you been on Titanic, what would you have done? Or - and I think it's part of our artistic collaboration, is sort of putting up those questions about one's moral habits and then trying to address them.

GROSS: So when you play that little game with each other, are you usually heroic, or do you think you'd quite often back down?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIER: Quite - I mean, it's kind of - it's almost like a little bit sort of - you know, we're both a bit ashamed of realizing that probably we would not have been that heroic.


GROSS: Part of "In a Better World" is shot in a refugee camp in Africa. I'm not sure which country it is. And you were obviously there on location. Were you actually in a refugee camp, shooting?

Ms. BIER: It's shot in Kenya, and it's not exactly a refugee camp. It's a camp for people who've lost their land. So they're not refugees from some sort of atrocity, but they are people who are homeless. And it's shot in kind of a small refugee camp that we then extended.

The medical facility which is in the movie is something we built, and part of the extras in the film are people who are actually living in the camp, and part of the extras are people we brought in. And the people who are playing nurses are real nurses. It's a kind of mix of actors and people who are used to working in refugee camps and people who live in refugee camps.

GROSS: Did you have to make tough decisions about whether to help the people who lived in this camp or just, you know, go about your business, shoot the scenes, pay the extras, and move on?

Ms. BIER: No, the elders of the camp made a very firm arrangement with the producers for us working there. And they wanted, like, us to build a schoolroom. And that was a deal we made with them, which was really a very healthy and sensible deal.

And they were very happy about it, and we were very happy about it because it seemed very meaningful and was incredibly efficient.

GROSS: So the people who built the sets for your film also built this schoolroom for the camp?

Ms. BIER: Yes. I think that they were - some of the builders were employed by the producers and then building the other facilities that the camp had asked for.

GROSS: What were some of the things you were exposed to at this camp where you were filming in Africa that surprised you and that you wouldn't have known about and that you incorporated into the film?

Ms. BIER: It's a kind of weird thing to say, but the strongest surprise was the climate, like the wind. The wind was crazy, and there was, like, the wind which was full of sand.

And you can tell it in the movie because it's really beautiful, but it was almost impossible to film there. You know, we have sand coming into all the technical equipment, and it was pretty difficult to actually shoot the scenes.

I think that was probably our biggest surprise because all of the other elements were something we were pretty thoroughly prepared for, and they were - I mean, they were so nice, and they were so nice to work with, and they had a great - like those extras that were, like, sitting, waiting, they had a great sense of humor.

They were kind of a little bit like laughing at us because we were running around trying to get things done, and they were sitting there smiling, thinking we were a little bit nuts.

GROSS: Now, the character of Big Man, who is the very sadistic warlord, he's blind in one eye, and you could see that his eye is damaged. It's very visibly damaged. Who was the person playing Big Man, and was that his real eye?

Ms. BIER: That was his real eye. (Laughing) And it was - this one actor came in to a casting in Nairobi. It's a Kenyan actor. And I was just so fascinated by the way he looked. And I was kind of thinking: I'm going to have him play the part even if his audition is bad because I just think he's such a fascinating character. And then his audition were fine. So it was all right.

You know, it's those rare sort of gifts you get when you are in reality of shooting, is that you get these surprises because, you know, I don't think I would have thought of making him - his eye look like that. But because he came as a real thing, that was just the way it came out.

GROSS: One of the many things that your film deals with is coping with death. And without giving too much away, one character says to another character at one point: It's like there's a veil between you and death, and when someone dies, that veil temporarily slips away.

And I thought: That's such a good description. And I was wondering - I know you collaborated on the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen, whose name I hope I pronounced correctly.

Ms. BIER: Yes.

GROSS: But I wonder, like, if you collaborated on that line and what that line means to you and to your experience of being close to someone who has died.

Ms. BIER: Actually, somebody told us a line, or somebody said that he had lost his brother. And he told us of that - exactly what it felt like. And we were so touched by it. And it had, like, an eerie accuracy.

And so we thought that - that that would describe a very significant moment in the movie. And so we used it. I'm not - I can't remember whether it was exactly like that. Anders Thomas Jensen is a great writer. So he probably rephrased it in a slightly more poetic manner. But the notion was there from somebody who had experienced it.


GROSS: During part of your career as a film director, you were part of the Dogme movement. And this is a movement of filmmakers co-founded by Lars von Trier and was actually a manifesto of moviemaking, which was also known as the Vow of Chastity. So before we talk about the Vow of Chastity, when in your career were you a part of this?

Ms. BIER: I had done a few movies and most of all I had done an incredibly successful romantic comedy, which was - which actually I think almost all Danes have seen. It has like - it's gone into the language of, you know, kids in schoolyards are citing - still talking lines from that comedy. It's like an iconic Danish comedy. And I had done that prior to getting involved with the Dogme movement. I did, I think I did my Dogme film in 2001, I think, I can't remember exactly.

GROSS: Well, let me read...

Ms. BIER: It's "Open Hearts."

GROSS: That was the one that became so famous?

Ms. BIER: "Open Hearts" was - no....

GROSS: Oh, "Open Hearts" is the Dogme one. Yes. OK.

Ms. BIER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: OK. So let me read some of the rules from the Dogme Manifesto: Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. Two: The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Three: The camera must be hand-held. Four: The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. Five: Optical work and filters are forbidden. Six: The film must not contain superficial action. Murders, weapons, et cetera must not occur. And the rules go on: Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden - that is to say the film takes place here and now. Genre movies are not acceptable and the film format must be 35�mm.

So how did you feel after having made a successful film having to bow to this set of rigid rules?

Ms. BIER: Well, I think, I mean...

GROSS: Let me put that this way: Why would you want to do that?

Ms. BIER: Because I actually believe in rules. I actually believe in artistic limitations, and I always have. I've always thought that setting out a set of rules before you start, and then being completely consistent with them is the only way to make a really good film. And these particular set of rules - it's kind of, they are austerity rules. They forces you to deal with the storyline and the characters, and that's it. And I thought it was a real challenge, like in a positive way. And I actually think that if you - there was a number of good films coming out from this set of rules.

And I think, I mean, if I were to add something, I think those rules came at a point where European filmmaking was trying to copy American filmmaking. And, you know, we didn't have the skills. We didn't have the technical skills. But even more important so, we did not have the financial means.

So we, you know, you would find that like half of the movie's budget would be spent on lightening up an entire street for one shooting. It was ridiculous. And then those rules came and it forced the filmmakers to deal with character and storyline and that's it. And that was very healthy and incredibly influential.

GROSS: So of all the rules that I read, which were the ones that you actually found it helpful to follow?

Ms. BIER: I actually did find them all helpful to follow. I think the one which I think is the most opposed to the core nature of moviemaking is that the sound needs to go with the image, because part of moviemaking is really that you can have a different sound or a different image. But I still thought it was really fun obeying to them.

GROSS: That includes having music. You wouldn't be allowed to have a score behind a scene.

Ms. BIER: No. you can have music if it's in the scene. And for my Dogme movie...

GROSS: Right. If somebody turns on the radio or is, you know, listening to their, you know, iPod or something you can have music.

Ms. BIER: Yeah, that's what I had in my film. My movie was "Open Hearts" and the female main character had like an iPod with music in and that was the music that was then used in the film.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So one more thing about this: Like, when you say you did a Dogme film, does that mean that you just follow the rules or that you became an official member of the Dogme group and you met with Lars von Trier. And I mean, could I have made a Dogme film without even being in Denmark or had spoken to any of you? If I just followed the rules, could I say, this is a Dogme film?

Ms. BIER: You actually sign the document. I mean you sign on to the Vows of Chastity. And by the way, I am very friendly with Lars von Trier and I do talk with him and our kids are friends and so it, you know, yeah, you, I mean I never belonged to a group but Denmark or the Scandinavian film community is tiny so we all know each other and we are sort of, for most part, friendly.

GROSS: Now I just want to read one final thing from the pledge. I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste. I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a quote, "work," unquote, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.

Ms. BIER: (Laughing)

GROSS: So what did that mean to you to swear to refrain from personal taste and to say I am no longer an artist?

Ms. BIER: I mean honestly?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. BIER: I mean, do you buy it? I mean here's the thing, so "The Celebration," first, which is a masterpiece, is that not a piece of art? And did Thomas Vinterberg not, is he not the artist who made that movie? I mean, I think the truths about letting the movie be the characters' movies works because of all the austerity within the Vows of Chastity, but there's no - even if, you know, the - on the Dogme film, the director is not credited. That's part of it. You're not credited. But everybody knows who does the movies anyway. And so I think it is a genius stroke of advertising in many ways but that - I think that's also partly what it is.

GROSS: Right. Now since you won both the Golden Globe and the Oscar for best foreign film this year for "In a Better World," you got to make two acceptance speeches and you got to practice at the Golden Globe and then do it again...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: the Oscars. So what did you learn the first time around that you put into practice the second time around?

Ms. BIER: Well, I didn't, as anybody who'd seen both of them, I didn't learn that much. Here's the thing, because you are a film director you are not necessarily like a natural public speaker and particularly in a situation like that, which is so emotionally loaded. So I must admit, you know, it's - both those, it's an intimidating room and it's an overwhelming experience.

And I had written - for the Oscars, I had a speech in my hand, and I just knew if I was going to open the piece of paper, I would be unable to read it. So I just thought, I'm just going to say, as coherently as I can, whatever I can. And it's not, you know, I was very, I was incredibly grateful and happy and paralyzed, and I could not...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIER: I could not have done it any different even if I really wanted to.

GROSS: So what did you say at the Oscars?

Ms. BIER: No, I guess I said that I was very happy, and I guess that I managed to thank like 8 percent of the people that I really meant to thank, and I hope that the rest - 92 percent have forgiven me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BIER: ...because I was obviously overwhelmed.

GROSS: Well, Susanne Bier, thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on the Oscar and the Golden Globe.

Ms. BIER: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Susanne Bier's new film "In a Better World" begins opening in the U.S. April 1st.

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