Susanne Bier belongs to a small and exclusive club. She’s among a handful of female directors making Oscar-pedigree dramas. Not counting rom-com queens Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron, this A-list comes down to half a dozen names: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Jane Campion (Bright Star), Sofia Coppola (Somewhere), Sarah Polley (Away From Her), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right)—and Bier, the 50-year-old Danish director of In A Better World, which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. But Bier has a unique signature. It’s hard to think of another director who has fused domestic family drama and global trauma with such persistent intensity.
With the exception of Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)—a disappointing Hollywood detour—Bier’s recent films are all galvanized by a split focus between Denmark and a ravaged Third World locale. And at the crux of each of them is a disenfranchised father whose world, and family, are blown to hell by a perfect storm of dire circumstance.
In Brothers (2004)—which inspired a 2009 American remake starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman—a soldier presumed killed in Afghanistan comes home haunted by an atrocity, and suspects his black-sheep brother is on intimate terms with his wife. In Bier’s Oscar-nominated After the Wedding (2006), a Danish aid worker in an Indian orphanage comes home to court a rich benefactor, only to discover that the patron’s wife is an ex-lover, and that couple’s grown daughter is his own child.
In A Better World is about a sensitive doctor (Mikael Persbrandt) who commutes between working in an African refugee camp and tending a broken marriage in Denmark. His liberal tolerance is tested on both fronts: by a brutal warlord preying on the camp and by a thug at home who prompts his son and a schoolmate to plot violent revenge.
With her split-level narratives, Bier challenges the complacency of those who observe trouble from a privileged distance. “I’ve been in Canada quite a bit,” she told me by phone from Denmark, “and there’s the same sense that the problems of the rest of the world are not our concern.” But even in contrasting realms of affluence and indigence, Bier is keen to point out the parallels. In A Better World‘s African warlord isn’t that different from the thug in Denmark, she says. “He just has more scope for his evil deeds.”
Bier, who’s married with two children, insists her movies are not autobiographical, and that her gender is irrelevant to her art. But she acknowleges that her Jewish heritage has profoundly affected it. Her father fled to Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1933, and her mother’s family escaped a Russian pogrom. “Being Jewish is a determining thing in how one sees the world,” she says. “I have a very strong catastrophe gene, and that has influenced my storytelling. The family thing also has to do with being Jewish—that imminent sense of the impossible happening.”
World cinema frames personal drama with global issues far more routinely than Hollywood. Just look at this year’s Oscars, which were dominated by stories of a stuttering king, a delusional ballerina, a white-trash boxer and a derelict cowboy. By contrast, all but one of the five foreign language nominees plumbed conflicts between Islam and the West. Among them was Incendies, by Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve. Like Bier’s work, it entwines a family drama in the West with the far-flung roots of a Third World conflict. But In A Better World ends on a happier (and more Oscar-friendly) note. “I have no interest,” says Bier, “in closing off hope for the audience.”
Bier’s films cleave to a formula of sorts, as powerhouse narratives that rip families apart only to stitch them back together. Informed by Denmark’s Dogme school of vérité, they race along with a kinetic, handheld energy, and a fetish for extreme close-ups, often of an eye or half a face. Bier has no patience for the glacial tempo of lofty art-house fare. “European arrogance to audiences is really old fashioned,” she says. “Some European movie circles still believe we’re in the ’70s. For a movie to have importance, it must engage the audience.”