Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier's movies are infused with an intimate concern for family yet often play out on a global stage.
"Brothers," which won an audience award at Sundance in 2005, revolved around two siblings, one of whom was sent on a mission to Afghanistan. Her Oscar-nominated 2006 drama, "After the Wedding," concerned a man managing an orphanage in India. Now she's back with "In a Better World," up for an Oscar this year for foreign-language film. It centers on a Swede who works in Kenya and is struggling to raise two sons.
Bier says her Jewish upbringing instilled her with a strong sense of family. Yet there was also upheaval and transience. Her father fled from Germany in 1933 to Denmark. Her mother was born in Denmark. When the Nazis began rounding up Jews living there, her parents escaped via boat to Sweden.
They returned to Copenhagen and raised Bier and her two younger siblings. Growing up, Bier said, she thought she would marry a nice Jewish man and have six children, but as she got older she wanted something different. She juggled two marriages and had two children, Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15, as she pursued a career.
"To me, family is a sense of identity," said Bier, 50, relaxing at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on a recent afternoon. "I speak to my parents every day. I have a very close relationship to my aunts and uncles, but also my ex-husband … who comes to stay with us. I have this almost obsessive desire to whomever is close to me, I want to have a very intense, close, intimate relationship with them. That way of living definitely informs the stories I tell."
Bier studied art in Israel and architecture in London, which led her to pursue set design. While reading scripts for her work as a designer, she thought she could try directing. She graduated from the National Film School of Denmark in 1987 and began directing in Denmark and Sweden.
Despite those international experiences, Bier never set foot in Africa or India until making movies there. So why is she so interested in the Third World?
She says she insists on opening up her movies to the far corners of the globe "because it is sort of pointing out that the Third World is really a part of our lives. It is unavoidable, and we need to relate to it.… My particular world is not just Copenhagen, Denmark. It has to be broader than this. My world is larger than it used to be."
"In a Better World" revolves around the struggles of two fathers and their sons. Anton (Mikhail Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor separated from his wife; his boy, Elias, is being bullied by his classmates. Anton lives in Denmark but works at a refugee camp in Kenya. At the camp, he refuses to do anything about the area's mob boss, who has sex with young women and mutilates those he gets pregnant. Anton has the same passive attitude back home, when a local thug tells him off and slaps him in front of his son.
Claus, meanwhile, is a wealthy businessman who moves back to Denmark from England after his wife dies. He doesn't know how to handle his rage-filled son, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen), who believes that his father caused his mother to die.
It isn't long before Elias and Christian become friends, as Christian seeks revenge upon the school's bullies.
"In a Better World" marks the fifth pairing of Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen. Despite the serious subject matter of their films, Jensen said their collaboration is "very playful. It is just the chemistry you find with some people and some directors. It's funny — when we originally met we set out to do a comedy, and we have been trying to do a comedy for 10 years. We always start out 'Let's do a comedy,' but it tends to go into more serious twists and turns."
Bier's first big hit was the 1999 romantic comedy "The One and Only." After "Brothers" and "After the Wedding," her first foray into Hollywood cinema, 2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire" with Halle Berry and Benecio Del Toro, flopped at the box office. Still, she says she's interested in doing another film in the U.S. Jensen just arrived in L.A. to continue work on their sixth film, which both insist will be a comedy.
Persbrandt, seen two years ago in Jan Troell's drama "Everlasting Moments" and who worked twice with Ingmar Bergman in stage productions, considers Bier on par with those veteran directors. Like them, she doesn't say much on the set, he says.
"Those directors don't analyze onto you or try to talk too much about certain sequences in the movie," he said. "For me a good director knows exactly what the story she or he is telling, and you are along for the ride. You don't necessarily understand their full, comprehensive universe. These good directors tend to make it simple on the set."
"In a Better World," which will be released in the U.S. on April 1, was a commercial hit in Denmark. The movie has sparked conversation among young people about bullying as well as the "whole notion of revenge," Bier said. In fact, the film's title in Danish, "Haevnen," means "vengeance."
"Revenge is almost acceptable [in the Western world], but it doesn't work," she said. "The point in a way that the movie wants to make is we understand the desire to bring back a sense of justice, but we also sort of suggest that you are not going to get satisfaction. Christian will be OK. He recognizes that he has been on a completely wrong path, and that is where the hope lies."