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BLACK NIGHTS 2020 Competition

Henrik Ruben Genz • Director of Erna at War

“When I read the book, I immediately felt that it was a strong concept, a very unique idea”


- Cineuropa chatted to Henrik Ruben Genz, helmer of the Danish-Estonian-Belgian war drama Erna at War, which world-premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival

Henrik Ruben Genz • Director of Erna at War

We had the chance to meet up with Henrik Ruben Genz, director of Erna at War [+see also:
film review
interview: Henrik Ruben Genz
film profile
. The international war drama has just taken part in the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival's main competition and tells the story of a brave woman (played by seasoned actress Trine Dyrholm) who tries to protect her son at all costs during World War I.

Cineuropa: How did the idea come about?
Henrik Ruben Genz:
The film is based on a novel. The idea was already there, and my producer from Nimbus Film asked me to read the book. Besides, I'd already adapted the same author's literary work twice before. When I read the book, I immediately felt that it was a strong concept, a very unique idea. So I decided to give it a go.

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Why did you decide to tell this story today?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the re-annexation of the southern part of our country. We have never told that story before, and I felt that someone had to tell it in a feature film. Therefore, narrating it was part of this celebration. Besides, the movie is about a woman struggling to be recognised – and that's an eternal issue. I don't see it as a theme specifically related to World War I, as it's still a part of our present.

In terms of the writing process, what was the main challenge while adapting the original novel for the big screen?
Well, the main challenge was limiting ourselves. The story is very broad, and I think we've used only one-third of the material, so choosing the right focus was essential. In the end, it was easy, since we decided to tell the story of a mother willing to protect her son. The novel contains many different sub-stories, so we could have also taken different paths.

You had a great actress, Trine Dyrholm, playing the lead role – how did you build Erna's character together on set?
Trine was already involved in the scriptwriting process. As soon as we had the basic structure, I needed to work with Trine to develop her character before the beginning of shooting. She was pretty deeply involved in particular during the last two or three drafts of the script.

So your work had already started during the writing phase, and then continued on set.
Absolutely; that also happened because Trine has such a strong personality. She wanted to be aware of everything, so we had to be totally on the same page already before filming – otherwise, we'd have wasted too much time on set. We didn't want to discuss things there, but just make things happen.

How was your collaboration with Estonian composer Mihkel Zilmer?
I normally work with my favourite Danish composer, but because of this co-production with Belgium and Estonia, I was asked to onboard some of their skilled manpower. This was quite an adventure, something totally different from what I'm used to. It brought a different tone, an Estonian way of looking at Danish culture... I believe it gave us something more than I normally would have expected from my own composer. It was a pretty fruitful co-operation. I'm very happy about what we've achieved.

You seem pretty pleased about the whole co-production effort and the added value given to the project.
Yes, but there are always pros and cons. When you've got your usual crew, they know how you think and what you like, and I know their skills. Then, suddenly, you have to work with people you don't know – getting acquainted with them takes time, and you can always be surprised about how different things can be. You need to make some unexpected decisions with a costume designer or a make-up artist who come up with new ideas, for example. I like that kind of challenge, as they bring new, vital impulses to my work. But, as I said, co-productions have pros and cons.

What's your next project going to be?
We've got a first draft of a script about Flemming Jørgensen, a Danish singer who was popular in the 1970s and was the frontman of Bamses Venner. He has a beautiful story – not about rock'n'roll and drugs [laughs]! It focuses more on his personal sphere, so we're trying to see if this can be staged effectively enough for a feature. The project is at the very early development stage.

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