Morality at Play

Different worlds, but universal woes

Morality at Play

In Susanne Bier's In a Better World, a doctor commutes between his home in Denmark and various refugee camps in Africa, where he practices medicine. The doctor's humanitarian work takes him away from his two young sons for long stretches of time and has also contributed to a domestic separation from his wife. His elder son is the passive target of bullies at his grade school, but that violence comes to a quick halt when the boy is befriended by a more assertive and strong-willed classmate who has been relocated to the school after the death of his mother. These two boys, in turn, discover other instances of injustice in their community and decide to take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, back in Africa, the doctor faces the harrowing decision of whether to provide life-saving services to the region's barbaric despot. The potential for catastrophic outcomes lies within every spoke of the story.

Bier's movies have a way of cutting to the heart of human emotions. Not surprisingly, the English title of the film that garnered Bier her first international notice is Open Hearts. As a film produced by the Dogme 95 movement – the manifesto of which argued for the purification of filmmaking by stripping movies of external modifications and inputs and emphasizing traditional values of storytelling – Open Hearts didn't even bear her name as director during its initial release. The film, which is also known as Dogme #28, touches on dramatically raw nerves, even as Bier bends a few Dogme dicta in its execution.

Bier took a few moments to talk with the Chronicle during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where she was serving as a juror of the World Dramatic competition. Only the week before, In a Better World was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (and just two week ago, it won the Academy Award in the same category).

The complexities of family and personal relationships and the complications that arise from responsibilities and altruism are all central ingredients in her films. When asked if she might like to try making a film that didn't belong to a strictly dramatic genre, she replied: "Yes, definitely. It's not really about the formality. It's more about the relationships. I don't think I'd want to make movies that had nothing to do with relationships. When I watch an action movie, with few exceptions – like when they are amazing – I am always waiting for the car chase to stop and the conversation to begin."

In a Better World reunites Bier with her screenwriting partner Anders Thomas Jensen, with whom she has scripted most of her recent movies, beginning with 2002's Open Hearts. She believes that the focus on morality in her films is something that "happens in the chemistry between the screenwriter and myself." She recalled that even the first time she and Jensen met, they had a discussion about what they might have done if they were on the Titanic or in some other dire situation. "It's almost a childlike desire to investigate your own morality next to various potential incidents," she said.

Brothers and After the Wedding are two other films Jensen and Bier developed together, although her previous film – and her only Hollywood film – 2007's Things We Lost in the Fire, was made without Jensen. Of their working relationship, Bier said: "We've actually found a formula that works very, very well for us. We generate the stories together, and he writes. We might go away for a couple weeks or for a little while. In the beginning, we kind of play around. We might have different ways into the story. And then we start. And then we talk. We will meet in the morning, for example. He will then write for the rest of the day, and I will read, and then we might change the direction or move it somewhere else or there will be one character that I might think, 'Ah, this character is actually more interesting than the one we thought was the main character.' So it's pretty much alive and very playful. And even when it concerns more painful, deeper topics, it's still very joyous to do it."

In a Better World

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Susanne Bier, In a Better World, Anders Thomas Jensen, Open Hearts, Dogme 95, Things We Lost in the Fire, After the Wedding

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