Thomas Vinterberg: ‘There is a great need for the uncontrollable – but little room for it today’

The Danish director’s new Oscar-winning film Another Round is about a group of teachers who dedicate themselves to getting drunk. He talks about losing control, patching up his friendship with Lars von Trier and the death of his daughter

Thomas Vinterberg looks back on the past six months with disbelief. “I made a film about four white, middle-aged, semi-fat men teaching their students to drink. I didn’t think it would survive.” Instead, Another Round swept the award ceremonies (best foreign language film at the Oscars and Baftas; best film at the European film awards and London film festival), and proved a spectacular box office success in his native Denmark when it opened between Covid restrictions. Vinterberg is a boyish 52-year-old, with an open smile and chestnut hair that has a touch of gel. A priest’s cassock hangs from the bookcase behind his chair. It is easy to overlook the cassock but, like Chekhov’s gun, it fires in the final act.

Vinterberg admits his film evolved in the making. “The initial idea was to be provocative. We wanted to celebrate alcohol and drinking. But that idea hit reality. It is a film about the generation divide. I hope it is a film about how we care for one another.” Another Round opens with a title card quoting the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “What is youth? A dream. What is love? The dream’s content.” This thought comes alive as golden youths are seen racing around a lake on an idyllic summer’s day, carrying crates of beer that they must finish as a team. It is a summer bacchanal, drawn from real life. “Both of my oldest daughters took part in the Lake Run,” Vinterberg says. “When I described it to American friends, they were shocked. They listened to the rules: the winners are the first to finish the crate. They wanted to know, was I OK with this? How could I tell them, actually, I was kind of proud?”

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Martin, the teenagers’ history teacher who was once a golden youth himself but is now so withdrawn he cannot speak to his wife or children, and is failing his students. Mikkelsen’s handsome face looks blankly ruined, his eyes glistening as the Lake Run is discussed at Monday’s staff meeting. We are in an ivy-covered school; filming was on location at the school attended by Vinterberg’s oldest daughters.

Vinterberg with his wife Helene Reingaard Neumann at the Oscars in April.
Vinterberg with his wife Helene Reingaard Neumann at the Oscars in April. Photograph: Getty Images

After the race, the children had continued drinking on the subway, charming their fellow passengers. However, when a guard asked them to be quiet, one of the boys handcuffed the older man to a rail. The principal announces that drinking will be banned at school. That evening, Martin and his equally broken teacher friends decide to go the other way, and start day-time drinking to test the claim of real-life Norwegian psychiatrist, Finn Skårderud, that humans are born a few drinks below their best. By boosting their blood alcohol content by 0.05% the friends hope to become better, brighter and more open. When pressed, Vinterberg backpedals on the soundness of their experiment. “I’m not a scientist, and perhaps it’s not true to call it a theory, exactly. It’s more like just something Skårderud said.”

The film’s Danish title, Druk, translates as binge drinking and, of course, the friends’ boozing soon accelerates. History classes fizz as Martin regales his students with tales of Winston Churchill and Ulysses S Grant fighting wars while drunk. The students respond with passion, though we wonder if they will make their grades following Martin’s drinks-based curriculum.

Vinterberg says: “Do you think their experiment is an alibi, and they are using it as an excuse to drink? If you are doing an experiment, it makes sense to explore reactions at different levels, and to push it.” But surely they only embrace the theory because they are so miserable? Vinterberg nods. “Tommy, the games teacher, is a little further along. There’s an open bottle of white wine beside the fridge, which is a clue.” That and the fact that every nook and cranny of his locker room contains bottles of spirits. Vinterberg laughs: “Yes. That was a scene that ended up being moved earlier in the final edit.”

The editing process was long. Vinterberg took a month over the birthday scene. What appears to be ultra-naturalistic is actually the result of rehearsals, rewrites and painstaking edits. Vinterberg’s process seems to mirror his life. His parents brought him up in a free-spirited commune, and he works best with a close-knit circle of collaborators that he has known for decades. He and his fellow screenwriter, Tobias Lindholm, didn’t give the characters the names of the actors until late in the process. Tommy, the soulful games teacher, retains the name of Thomas Bo Larsen, who has worked with Vinterberg through his first international hit, Festen (1998), right back to his student picture, Last Round (1993).

Festen, 1998.
Festen, 1998. Photograph: 50/October Films/Allstar

Larsen’s characters in Last Round and Another Round are caught saying goodbye, although their friends do not realise it. Vinterberg confesses that his student film has become a touchstone. “It is so naive, so unguarded and so unmanipulative that I always look at it when I am feeling old and corrupt. When somebody suggested the title Another Round (for Druk), I suddenly realised how much those films have in common.”

Leonardo DiCaprio is planning a US remake of Another Round. Does Vinterberg see similarities between DiCaprio and Mikkelsen, vigorous men with huge charismatic faces, marked by wear and tear? “I do see similarities, but I also see ways for DiCaprio to make the film his own.” Another Round is “a love letter to Denmark,” he says. It feeds off a unique Danish duality: “We are caught between being crazy Vikings, drinking in the street, being very liberal – you know we had a very liberal sexual culture back in the 70s – and yet we are still very modest and provincial and at times mediocre.” He sees America as conservative rather than mediocre. “The difference is they put their drinks in bags. They are hiding things in different ways. The film will feel more rebellious, I guess. But Leo will have to learn to dance. Mads is a hell of a dancer.”

In a key sequence, the friends make the New Orleans cocktail Sazerac and dance to the city’s great funk band, the Meters. Their evening becomes a carnival, but the duality is always there: the abandonment would not work without its opposite. But is it really mediocrity? I suggest Scandinavians have a reputation for gloominess. Vinterberg reacts: “Didn’t you find the film funny?” On the contrary, it’s hilarious. It’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen: it so often explodes into exuberance. He nods. “My wife says it is a film about the uncontrollable. When you bring a bottle to your lips you are making a contract with the uncontrollable. You never know where it is going to end. We live a life of repetition, without risks. As she says, there is a great need for the uncontrollable. And there’s not much room for it today.”

Was Vinterberg undergoing a stultifying midlife crisis as he planned the film? After all, he was approaching his 50th birthday. “Not at all. I had a young family, I had a young wife. Life was great. Work. Everything.” His voice fractures abruptly. I know what is coming, and I try to speak before him. In that moment, he says: “My daughter died.”

On 4 May 2019, Ida Vinterberg was killed when a car driven by her mother, theatre director Maria Walbom, was hit by a driver who was distracted by his phone. Walbom survived. “Physically, she recovered reasonably quickly,” Vinterberg says. “But she saw her daughter pass away, and this is not something you get over.” Vinterberg and Walbom married young. Vinterberg was 19, the same age as Ida when she died; Walbom was two years older. During their divorce in 2007, Vinterberg began seeing the actor Helene Reingaard Neumann, who was also then 19. Neumann and Vinterberg are now married, with two young children. It is tempting to see shades of their marriage in the new film, as Neumann plays the younger and more capable wife of the hapless psychology teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), a bumbling, yearning figure, forever protesting that his toddlers pee on him at night.

Another Round.
Another Round. Photograph: Zentropa\samuel Goldwyn/Allstar

Ida was supposed to play one of Martin’s two children. Production was under way when she was killed. Vinterberg considered abandoning the film. He could not face the thought of replacing Ida. Even recasting the children as boys did not help. “I couldn’t write those scenes. I couldn’t return to them. They were written by Mads and Tobias.” On the days that family responsibilities kept Vinterberg away from the set, the production was taken over by Lindholm, a notable director in his own right.

Lindholm has been a consistent collaborator over the years, but is currently in New York filming The Good Nurse, the story of serial killer Charles Cullen that will star Eddie Redmayne. Vinterberg is writing a new television project alone. He describes it as a thought experiment: “What would happen to family relationships if Danes had to become refugees?” Rising sea levels mean Danes must plan new lives abroad. At heart, it is not a film about ecological disaster but of a fractured family trying to plan under the weight of a shadow. Vinterberg sees his own family in the story. “In my family, some would be able to afford to establish homes in the UK or France, and others wouldn’t. Children would have to decide whether to go with mum or dad, and whether the new father-in-law would come. It’s about who would fit into the lifeboat.”

The importance of old friends and allies has become clearer in the past year. One friend who rallied to Vinterberg’s side is Lars von Trier. “I hadn’t really seen or even spoken to Lars in 10 years,” Vinterberg says. His earliest successes were made through Zentropa Studios, a company set up by Von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen on a programme of deliberate provocation. “Lars is a very important person in my life. He has been a source of inspiration and friendship. Lars is also the type of person I have to put outside the door occasionally, and create some distance. But as a result of [Ida’s death] he was very supportive. We also agreed to go into Zentropa much more, which he has done: I haven’t yet kept my side of the agreement.”

Zentropa is less than half the size it was in its heyday, under Jensen, the studio head whose idea of creative provocation included the sexualised spanking of employees. This met reality when the national newspaper Politiken published accounts by nine ex-employees, all women. What was claimed to be a colourful and alternative workplace with an adored leader instead looked very much like an “old-fashioned patriarchal power structure”, according to the journalist Anna Mette Lundtofte, who had worked there undercover. Vinterberg says: “Zentropa was a crazy place in every sense. You had to be robust to survive making movies there. But you know, the madness, the nudity, the drunkenness, the scandals, have decreased, but something else has grown up. It has lost some of its madness but it has also put aside some of its vanity.”

Vinterberg with his Oscar for best foreign language film.
Vinterberg with his Oscar for best foreign language film. Photograph: Reuters

The story of Zentropa reflects the duality Vinterberg sees in Danish life, and which is reflected in his own childhood and the commune he rebelled against by an early marriage. If Another Round began as a provocative celebration of craziness, it soon changed, first in the writing and rehearsal process, and then by reflecting Ida’s death. Vinterberg points to the cassock that hangs from his bookcase. “My wife is a vicar.” Neumann began studying theology after getting together with Vinterberg: she provided the Kierkegaard quote that opens the film. Two and a half years ago, she was ordained as a Lutheran priest. Vinterberg says: “We are a family in grief. It comes in handy having a priest around. I can’t say I believe in God, or that I have faith. But Christianity has so many ways of speaking about love, and that is inspiring. I don’t consider my wife very religious. But she is drawn to this huge thing that makes everything else seem meaningless.”

Vinterberg’s story begins in a nostalgic view of youthful exuberance, but when the four friends find love it is unabashedly mature, seen in their commitment to their students, their ability to love their partners, and, most of all, their devotion to each other … as they go another round.

• Another Round is released in the UK on 2 July


Nicholas Blincoe

The GuardianTramp

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