Denmark Has a Riveting New Drama Starring Mads Mikkelsen

‘The Hunt’ marks a return to form for celebrated filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (‘Festen’), and features a dazzling turn by Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongfully accused of child molestation. Marlow Stern talks to the director and star.

Per Arnesen/Magnolia Pictures

After the release of Festen (‘The Celebration’), a 1998 Danish drama helmed by Thomas Vinterberg, the neophyte director received a call from a certain legendary filmmaker congratulating him on his achievement. It was Ingmar Bergman. The Swede called the young Dane “a genius,” and labeled his film “a masterpiece.”

The film, about a son who accuses his father of molesting him and his twin sister—who just committed suicide—in front of the entire family during the patriarch’s 60th birthday celebration, provides both a thorough examination of the wounds from child abuse, as well as a damning depiction of the upper crust in the vein of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It was also the first film in Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, which sought to “purify” cinema by creating rules to govern filmmaking (e.g. no non-diagetic sound, no outside props, handheld camera only, etc.).

“It was a risk—arrogant and playful—and it was a revolt against the conventions of movie-making,” Vinterberg told The Daily Beast. “When it became a big success, it became a convention in and of itself, and it was time to move on. I had to completely redefine everything.”

Festen would go on to win numerous awards, including the Jury Prize at Cannes, and immediately catapulted Vinterberg to the top of food chain. He was inundated with offers from Hollywood, and for the next five years, tortured himself over his follow-up. The result was It’s All About Love—a bizarre, apocalyptic sci-fi epic starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, and Sean Penn. It was so brutally panned by critics that the stars are rumored to have disowned the film prior to its release; Danes is even said to have burst into tears after seeing the final product.

The Hunt is Vinterberg’s latest and, like Festen, it explores the fallout of child abuse allegations on a man, and a community. Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a man living in a close-knit Danish village who has fallen on hard times after his divorce. He was fired from his job as a high school teacher and has resorted to teaching kindergarten. One day, Klara, one of his kindergarten students and the daughter of his best friend, Theo, is shown a picture of an erect penis by her idiot older brother. Later on, she kisses Lucas and gives him a heart she made in arts and crafts, but the teacher rejects the gift, telling her it’s inappropriate. Klara subsequently goes to the school’s principal and gives a vague description of an event involving Lucas and a penis. After being asked a series of leading questions by the principal, Klara wrongfully accuses Lucas of exposing himself.

Lucas is immediately branded a pederast. He’s disowned by nearly all his friends—including Theo—suspended from his job, and is even banned from shopping in the town’s local grocery. He is God’s lonely man. And due to his inherent civility, Lucas feels that the universe will eventually right itself. But when the attacks against Lucas get physical, he comes to realize that he must stand up and fight to clear his name. The film, with its finely-calibrated performances and exquisite lensing, marks a return to form for Vinterberg, and Mikkelsen delivers a mesmerizing turn as the cursed protagonist, taking home the Best Actor Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

“My character is fighting against emotions, which is a losing battle,” says Mikkelsen. “But he insists on doing in his own, civilized manner, and then fuck the rest.”

And Mikkelsen, who plays the urbane serial killer Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal, sees some parallels between Lucas and Lecter.

“They both have empathy,” he says. “Hannibal is using his empathy deliberately, and Lucas is dependent on others’ empathy. But Hannibal is Satan, and in many ways, Lucas is an angel.”

The inspiration for The Hunt came from an unlikely source. Back in 2000, Vinterberg had just moved into a posh neighborhood on the outskirts of Copenhagen. It was snowing outside, and he heard a knocking at his door. There stood Friis Smith, a well-renowned Danish children’s psychiatrist, who welcomed him to the community.

“So, you did Festen?” he said. “In that case, there’s another film you have to do,” and he handed him a stack of files. But Vinterberg tossed them aside.

Eight years later, he wanted to pay Smith a visit for some psychiatric advice, and figured it would be best to read the case studies before heading over. They were studies of people who were presumably wrongfully accused of child molestation.

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“I was shocked by them,” says Vinterberg. “I decided to make the film thinking there must be many people who are wrongfully accused, and imagine being a child and sent to be examined by a gynecologist, your mother and father are fighting, someone you’re close to is being sent to prison. You’re becoming victimized. It’s added memory, and it’s a violation of the child in the complete opposite way of what I described in Festen.” He pauses. “It was so many years ago doing Festen, that I could revisit these themes.”

Vinterberg thought of filming The Hunt Dogme-style, but ultimately decided against it. The film was shot in just 35 days, and all the interrogation scenes between the principal and Klara were all lifted directly from real-life cases involving adults who are said to be wrongfully accused by children of abuse. For Vinterberg, it seems, tight-knit families are his preferred milieu.

“I grew up in a very special family, on a commune, and I loved it,” he says. “A big house full of mad people—they were the golden years of my life. When I see the opening scene of the guys jumping naked into the lake, it reminds me of my childhood. I was surrounded by genitals myself, and it was very pure and very innocent. There was no child abuse. Those days are gone. In some ways, this film portrays a loss of innocence compared to back then.”

In addition to a loss of innocence, the film serves as a scathing commentary on our “guilty-until-proven-innocent” culture, and how rumors are often misconstrued as facts.

“These days, the media is so fast, and with the Internet, the rumors never go away,” says Mikkelsen. “You see it happening so much with young people where a rumor will start, and it’s so powerful that a young girl or boy feels compelled to jump off a bridge because they feel excluded by society.”

Adds Vinterberg: “We made a film about the fact that the spoken word, these days, can never be taken back, and can have grave consequences.”