“I just want to make things real and honest,” Danish director, Susanne Bier, told FilmInk in 2007. “I keep asking myself, ‘Is this really truthful, or should we do it differently?’ If you have that as a mantra, and the whole crew knows about it, then it’s no good for them to come up to me with colourful, beautiful costumes or anything like that. I’m going to tell them to go and make somebody look worse – or really ugly – if that looks more real.”
With her latest film, Danish-born filmmaker, Susanne Bier – the talent behind impressive titles such as Open Hearts, After The Wedding, Brothers, Things We Lost In The Fire, Serena, In A Better World and TV’s The Night Manager – gets down and dirty once more. In fact, Bier’s upcoming Netflix release, Bird Box, is about as close to the hardcore horror genre that the director will likely ever get. “Look, I cannot do horror,” Bier told The Hollywood Reporter. “I am much more interested in suspense and thrillers than horror. I like things that are threatening but not gory. I don’t know how you define the difference, but I was really clear about making a thriller.”
Set in a grim, violent dystopian future – with humanity decimated by a cruel force that sends those who glimpse it into a suicidal frenzy – Bird Box follows one mother’s desperate efforts to survive, and protect her two children in the process. Sandra Bullock plays the horribly embattled Malorie, for whom motherhood is now a battlefield. Avoiding those driven to madness by the horrors of this dangerous new world, she must fight her way blindfolded – for one single look at the world destroying entity means certain and instant death – across harsh terrain to dreamed-for sanctuary.
It’s another tough, uncompromising work from Susanne Bier, and despite boasting a strong supporting cast (Sarah Paulson, John Malkovich, Tom Hollander, Jacki Weaver, BD Wong), Bird Box is well and truly owned by Sandra Bullock, whose Malorie is a tough, hard-nosed woman for whom motherhood doesn’t necessarily came naturally. “I can’t think of this movie with anyone else, and that isn’t just because I’ve done it,” Bier told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s also because she has the courage [to handle the material]. She has a lot of compassion and a lot of love in everything she does. Most actors would go, ‘I can’t be this brutal’, but she does that. It’s real…it’s very difficult to do what she does, and she does it with an ease. Imagine playing a reluctant mother. In itself, that’s a pretty difficult thing to do, and a pretty painful thing to do, and it was for her.”
The film’s female-centric feel was also a big appeal for Bier. “It was very satisfying to make a film with a very strong female protagonist,” Bier told The Hollywood Reporter. “We are at a crazy point in time, gender-wise and politics-wise, and at this point in time to have a very complex, very strong female protagonist is very satisfying. And it’s very satisfying to have it in the context of a thriller…it’s not in the context of an art house movie, it’s in the context of a movie that I hope will have broad appeal.”
Susanne Bier’s entry into the world, however, was almost through an art house movie-style pall of sadness. “I’m Jewish, and my family is Jewish, and I’ve always had a very distinct recognition of war being an imminent catastrophe, and of being a real thing,” she told NPR in 2011. Susanne Bier was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1960, the daughter of a German-Jewish father who fled the rise of Nazism in 1933, and ended up in Denmark, where he met Bier’s mother, who is of Russian-Jewish ancestry.
When the Nazis began rounding up Jews living in Denmark, the couple escaped via boat to Sweden, but eventually returned to Copenhagen after the war, where they raised Bier and her two younger siblings. “They were part of German society,” the director told The New York Times of her father and his family. “They had a lot of non-Jewish friends. And then suddenly society turned against them. The lack of automatically feeling, ‘Yes, the future is going to be like the present’ is very much a Jewish thing.”
Family has remained key to the filmmaker. “To me, family is a sense of identity,” Bier told The LA Times in 2011. “I speak to my parents every day. I have a very close relationship with my aunts and uncles. I have this almost obsessive desire to be with whoever is close to me; I want to have a very intense, close, intimate relationship with them. That way of living definitely informs the stories that I tell.”
Those stories started to bubble away inside Bier after a period of academic uncertainty. She studied at The Bezalet Academy Of Arts & Design in Jerusalem, Israel, before making a shift toward architecture, which she studied at The Architectural Association in London. Bier finally responded to those stories inside her, however, and eventually enrolled at The National Film School Of Denmark. She graduated in 1987, and got off to an auspicious start when her diploma film won an award at The Munich Festival Of Film Schools. “In a way, the whole notion of a blueprint of a building is not that different from a script for a movie,” Bier told The DGA Quarterly of her move from architecture to filmmaking. “A sequence of spaces, which is what you do as an architect, is really the same as a sequence of scenes. As a director, what you’re doing can be very detailed and specific in very definite areas. And at all times, you need to understand the entire image. In that way, being trained as an architect has helped me a lot.”
Whatever her educational basis, Bier’s career in film seemed blessed from the start. Her award winning diploma film smoothed the way for her entry into features, and Bier helmed a number of quietly successful films – including the family-based Freud Leaving Home (1990) and Family Matters (1993), Like It Was Never Before (1995), and the thriller, Credo (1997) – before truly making her mark. Bier’s 1999 film, The One And Only, was a hit of mammoth proportions, in both Denmark and wider Europe. Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Niels Olsen, Rafael Edholm, and Paprika Steen, the romantic comedy tells of two unfaithful married couples faced with becoming first-time parents. A groundbreaking game-changer, The One And Only was viewed as a vital slice of Danish cinema, and became the nation’s third biggest box office success of the nineties. It also saw Bier branded a principally “commercial” director by some critics. “My first job as a filmmaker is to not make a boring film,” she has said in response to these barbs. “I don’t see a conflict between art and commerce, but I do see one between boredom and commerce.”
Two years later, and further undeterred by these criticisms, Bier teamed up with screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen – who would eventually become her most important and frequent collaborator – with the plan to make a “comedy to end all comedies.” Then 9/11 happened, and their focus changed. “We became more fascinated with the fragility of life,” the director told FilmInk in 2007. “Something catastrophic can happen when you turn a corner, and your life will never be the same.”
At the same time as Bier was turning toward a more serious form of filmmaking, Denmark had been witnessing one of the most contentious moments in its cinematic history. Ostentatiously kick-started in 1995 by Danish directors, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, The Dogme 95 Movement sought to bring about a new school of stripped back, minimalist filmmaking (as defined in The Dogme 95 Manifesto and its “Vow Of Chastity”) based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects and cinematic technology. With successful, controversial films like Von Trier’s The Idiots and Vinterberg’s Festen, Dogme 95 became a major talking point, and shone a big, bright spotlight on Danish cinema. In a bold move, Susanne Bier – Denmark’s “hit maker” – embraced The Dogme 95 Manifesto for her next film.
Scripted by Anders Thomas Jensen, 2002’s Open Hearts is a tough, eviscerating film that finds traction and emotional weight in its mix of unadorned stylistic simplicity and almost melodramatic character dynamics. The film follows Cecilie (Sonja Richter), who is devastated when her fiance, Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), is paralysed from the waist down after a horrific car accident. The traumatised Cecilie eventually falls into an affair with Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), a doctor at the hospital where Joachim is being treated, which is further complicated by the fact that Niels’ wife, Marie (Paprika Steen), was the driver who caused Joachim’s accident.
Though dealing with the kind of heightened interpersonal relationships that wouldn’t feel out of place in a TV soap opera, Bier dosed Open Hearts with a staggering emotional immediacy. “Dogme told us that we have to get back to basics, to get back to telling stories about human beings for other human beings,” she has said of her stylistic approach to the film. “It has been immensely influential. I use the hand-held camera [a major Dogme technique] to enable the actors to move around freely, because I want them to be truthful at all times. That means that they should be able to move, and should not be bound by a fixed camera position. If it’s used for style, it’s a mistake. It’s there to do something very specific.”
Open Hearts, however, would be Bier’s only “official” entry for The Dogme Movement. Too fond of the “richness in the language of movies”, she sought to tell her stories on a broader stylistic palette. “We don’t necessarily have to obey all the rules,” she has said of Dogme 95 and The Vow Of Chastity. “We’ve learned the lesson.”
Bier took those lessons into her next film, 2004’s Brothers, a tough tale about the effect that the war in Afghanistan has on a Danish family. Stating that it was “fun” not having to adhere to the strict rules of Dogme 95 for the film, Brothers boasted an international star in Connie Nielsen (the beautiful Dane had made her name in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), and a raft of rich subtext about today’s politically unbalanced world, and the manner in which it can intrude upon what should be the sanctity of the family unit.
“I’m fascinated by the way that we live in the west,” Bier told Future Movies. “Scandinavia is fairly small and fairly privileged, and we have this notion that we are protected, and that nothing can happen to us. Since September 11, that sense of security isn’t so strong anymore. I’m fascinated by the way that we are being influenced by fear.”
In a major piece of international affirmation, Brothers would eventually be remade in America in 2009 by director, Jim Sheridan, with heavy hitters, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal, in the lead roles.
Bier delivered another rich, complex, compelling exercise in family drama with 2006’s acclaimed After The Wedding, starring Mads Mikkelsen. Bier then followed the film’s affirming Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film with another bold move. “I’ve got this fear of becoming comfortable,” she tellingly revealed to The New York Times, which is obviously part of what prompted the director to make her first English language film in America. Speaking to the level of respect that Bier had attained on the world scene, 2007’s Things We Lost in The Fire was produced by no less a figure than Sam Mendes, the Oscar winning director of American Beauty, Road To Perdition, Jarhead and Skyfall. “Susanne gets very, very close to people,” Mendes told FilmInk of Bier’s cinematic appeal upon the film’s release, “sometimes into their eyeballs, literally. Her real study is human beings as a species.”
The debut script by Allan Loeb (21, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Things We Lost In The Fire is the story of Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), her husband, Brian (David Duchovny), and what happens after he’s killed in a random act of violence. Ripped apart by grief, Audrey turns to Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), a junkie and childhood friend of her late husband’s who she’s never liked. Audrey invites Jerry to move in with her and her two kids, and finds herself reaching out to him as the only person who may have loved her husband as much as she did.
Bier had been “curious to work in English, and curious to address a larger audience” for some time. “A Danish movie by definition is an art house movie,” she told FilmInk in 2007. “It will reach a smaller audience, and as a director, you want to communicate to the largest number of people possible.”
When the script for Things We Lost In The Fire landed on her desk, it was not only perfect timing, but a “perfect match of sensibilities,” says Bier. “I’m always interested in what happens to people in extreme situations, and that’s what this story is about. So, I immediately felt that this story was familiar, but at the same time, it made me curious, because it was about something that really could happen. And secondly, I’ve never had a drug addict in my films. I don’t have an addictive personality, so this made me extremely curious. I have to be really fascinated by a story to want to tell it.”
Though Bier told FilmInk that she wanted to do a comedy after the intense emotions that she’d evoked with Things We Lost In The Fire (“It’s time to do something else in order to remain creatively curious and interested,” she said in 2007), the director remained in dangerous emotional territory for her next film.
A powerful, beautifully crafted, and deeply affecting allegory dealing with the themes of conflict and war, the searing drama of In A Better World is split into two complementing segments. The first is set in an African refugee camp, and sees Danish doctor, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), in a moral quandary over whether to treat a barbaric local thug. The other, more substantial, segment has Anton’s bullied twelve-year old son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), falling under the spell of the borderline sociopathic Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), a schoolmate who hatches vengeful plots to distract himself from his inability to deal with the death of his mother.
In A Better World was rightly acclaimed, and it ultimately saw Bier collect the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in front of an audience of the world’s biggest movie talent. “I must admit that it’s an intimidating room, and it’s an overwhelming experience,” the director told NPR of Oscars night. “I had a speech in my hand, and I just knew that if I opened the piece of paper, I was going to be unable to read it. So I just thought, ‘I’m going to say, as coherently as I can, whatever I can.’ I was incredibly grateful and happy and paralysed, and I could not have done it any differently even if I really wanted to. I managed to thank 8% of the people who I meant to thank, and I hope that the other 92% have forgiven me.”
After this run of tough and uncompromising films, Bier finally made her return to comedy with 2012’s Love Is All You Need, which has the complexity of the director’s harder-edged films, but not the embattled intensity. It’s a bubbly romantic comedy with emotional heft: using a mid-forties jilted wife with cancer as a jumping-off point, the film charts the course of this beleaguered but overwhelmingly positive woman as she attempts to juggle her heart, health and happiness with handing off her daughter in an elaborate wedding on Italy’s sparkling Amalfi coast.
Speaking after the film’s premiere at The Venice Film Festival, its leading man, Pierce Brosnan, was full of praise for Susanne Bier, but he also described her as a tough director on set. “She’s challenging, she’s demanding, she’s bossy, she’s infuriating,” the actor told FilmInk, before adding that she’s also “sexy, vivacious, beautiful – and she gets away with blue murder!”
“I probably am demanding,” Bier admitted when told of Brosnan’s comments. “But as a director, there’s no avoiding that. You have to be tough on set. The only way that actors can dare to go to dark places is to know that the director has a certain relentlessness. In a way, what makes actors nervous would be the thought that I would be weak…they would be super frightened about that. So yeah, I’m probably tough, and I should probably do a course on talking nicely or whatever,” the director laughs.
Bier quickly followed Love Is All You Need with 2014’s Serena, a prohibition-era drama starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. The film was Bier’s second wholly English-language film following Things We Lost In The Fire. “I would like to make more English-language films; I’ll always make Danish films, but I’m quite keen to make more English-language films too,” Bier – who returned to Denmark for 2014’s A Second Chance – told FilmInk. “When you feel that you can tell stories which are of interest and possibly of some importance to an audience, then of course you do want to reach an audience and do it in English. It just automatically makes it possible to reach a bigger audience. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to actually make the films,” she laughs, “but the audience comes naturally.”
Bier is one of a handful of Danish directors who have successfully made inroads in English language cinema, while maintaining their popularity at home. “Things tend to come in these kind of ‘vogues’, and it’s always hard to say what the actual reason is,” she demurs. “It had to do with The Danish Film School at some point – many of the directors came out of the film school more or less at the same time. And then there is an element of healthy friendship, and competition, which can be pretty inspiring and stimulating.”
With the Academy Award for In A Better World – along with high profile projects like Serena; 2016’s acclaimed BBC-TV production, The Night Manager, and now Netflix’s Bird Box – under her belt, Bier has achieved a level of international penetration that might well be the envy of her European counterparts. When talking to FilmInk in 2012, she downplayed the pressure of expectation that the Oscar win brought. “Of course, there is a certain element of pressure,” she admitted. “But I had an amazing educational experience with my second movie; my first movie was quite a big success, and my second movie [Serena] was a complete failure. Before that, I thought that I could walk on water! I thought, ‘Oh, it’s easy! You just do films!’ And then you go, ‘Wow, you don’t just do them.’ Then you realise that you can handle a failure, but that you can also handle a success. That was very, very healthy. Then after that, I learnt to have a certain attitude to both success and failure, and I realised that I’m not defined by how the world sees me – I need to have the integrity from within.”
In fact, Bier says that the biggest challenge in her career has not been her nationality, but rather her gender. “It’s a question for society, and not a question for the film industry,” the director says firmly. “It is a question of supplying good day care for kids. I spent fifteen years paying for childcare,” says the mother-of-two. “I spent all my salaries paying for it. It’s a conscious decision not to obey the expectation of being the wonderful mum who will sew the kids’ clothes or have great parties. But you need to be able to work, and you need to figure out a way. If that attitude isn’t going to change, then there aren’t going to be more women directors.”
Additional reporting by Gaynor Flynn.