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Thomas Vinterberg • Director

“I had to learn how to navigate human behaviour”


- BERLIN 2016: In his latest film, The Commune, Danish writer-director Thomas Vinterberg explores the experience of growing up in this particular living arrangement

Thomas Vinterberg • Director
(© Birgit Heidsiek)

After bringing his award-winning drama The Celebration from the big screen to the stage, this time around the acclaimed Dogme 95 director has adapted his theatre play for the screen. His new effort, The Commune [+see also:
film review
interview: Thomas Vinterberg
film profile
, was presented in competition at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. The female lead, Trine Dyrholm, received the Silver Bear for Best Actress for her performance in the film. Produced by Sisse Graum Jørgensen and Morten Kaufmann for Zentropa Entertainments in conjunction with Toolbox Film, and co-produced by Film Väst, Zentropa International Sweden, Topkapi Films and Zentropa International Netherlands, the international sales of The Commune are handled by TrustNordisk.

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Cineuropa: Is your film inspired by your personal experiences?
Thomas Vinterberg:
Yes; I lived in a commune from the age of seven until 19. Most of the time, I thought it was an amazing way of life. I remember it as a golden time in my life: magnetic, lively, chaotic and painful, but very stimulating. I think it has defined me as a human being and as an artist and a collaborator. As a child, I had to learn how to navigate human behaviour because I found out very quickly that people consist of two things: what they want to show to the world, but also what they want to hide from the world. After a couple of weeks of living together, you are exposed to both.

What felt painful to you?
At that time in the 1970s, there was this tendency to set children free and leave us alone, and to give us a lot of grown-up responsibilities. It was actually done out of respect for us, but we could end up creating a sense of longing for our parents and too great a sense of responsibility. But it is also painful to see marriages collapse first-hand.

Is this why the children in your film are deciding about the fate of the adults?
This is fiction, but I think I was more mature at the age of 14 than I am now. We had to be quite responsible because the grown-ups were experimenting, and we had to hold things together. In this film, I was trying to paint a portrait of life, including the tragedies, and I wanted to see how this came out in a group of people, instead of as an individual. Life consists of many things – of joyfulness, togetherness, sex, love, but also the loss of everything. I was trying to capture as much of life as I could and see how this commune reacts to it. 

Is it advantageous for a relationship to exist in a commune?
I asked my father that very question. My parents moved into a commune when I was seven. He said that they would have divorced earlier if we hadn’t moved in there. They set their lives free. They lived in this commune, and it gave them more possibilities. It took away the sense of the claustrophobic, unerotic lack of curiosity, that mediocre trap that you can end up in in a marriage. And it extended their marriage. But I guess there is a flip side as well: you are less protective and less focused. That is also a danger for a marriage. I don’t think there is a universal answer to that. 

How easy was the transition from your theatre play The Commune to the screen version?
A lot of the group dynamics were invented through improvisations on stage, which gave it a sort of liveliness. Some of these dialogues are irrational because they are improvised and they were tested every night over a couple of months. They have this combination of being lively and improvised, but still work as a dramatic driving force, which was a great advantage. It is different on a movie screen. On stage, we only had the kitchen, that was it, and you send some actors through that kitchen. In a film, it is like you follow one actor through a variety of rooms and locations – it is a completely different matter. On screen, it is very much about what you don’t say; it is about hiding, whereas on the theatre stage it is about expressing yourself with your whole body. They are two different mediums, but I really got some of the group dynamics from the stage. And I tested it, as I had seen the film on a stage to some extent. I had seen the audience laugh and cry at the same time – that gave me a sense of security that I could bring with me.

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