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In a Better World

directed by Susanne Bier

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 06, 2015
Category: Drama

I saw “In a Better World” — the 2011 winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film — in a theater with a dozen people.

This was in cosmopolitan New York.

The evening show on a weekday night.

Depressing.

Even more depressing when you consider that the director — Susanne Bier — is also the director of After the Wedding, an exceptional movie that was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2007. (It lost to the German entry, “The Lives of Others.”)

Bier’s films are easy to identify. Her actors aren’t beautiful in the way movie stars are beautiful — no Botox, no surgery. The dialogue in her movies doesn’t show off a screenwriter’s cleverness. She doesn’t telegraph the emotions she wants you to feel with music. And, most of all, her movies about About Something.

Here’s why she made this film:

“In a Better World” sets out to explore the limitations we encounter in trying to control our society as well as our personal lives.
It asks whether our own “advanced” culture is the model for a better world, or whether the same disarray found in lawlessness is lurking beneath the surface of our civilization.
Are we immune to chaos, or obliviously teetering on the verge of disorder?

No wonder “In a Better World” grossed just $1 million in the United States.

In 2011, if you stood outside a theater showing “In a Better World” and other movies and watch people leaving, you could easily identify who saw the Bier film — they were silent. Slack-jawed. Maybe even weeping. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here. To rent or buy the download, click here.]

How is  a Bier film different from a movie we all liked — “The King’s Speech,” for example? “The King’s Speech” is entertainment: a formula movie, a buddy film. It’s “Rocky” — only here the underdog is the King of England. And the moral? You’ve heard it a zillion times: You can make it if you try.

The genius of “The King’s Speech” is that it’s methodical about the buttons it pushes — the challenges are neatly presented, the solutions appear right on cue.

The genius of Susanne Bier movies is that she pushes buttons for which there are no neat answers. And offering solutions is not her intent. She presents characters who are just like us — that is, they’re suffering and trying to make the best of it — and you fall in love with them, in all their glorious pain, and then things start happening. And you’re stuck. You’re no longer watching a movie. You’re living it. Like this:

On one level, “In a Better World” is about two families in Denmark.

Anton and his wife Marianne are both doctors, but their marriage is failing, and Anton is away for months at a time, working in a Doctors Without Borders medical mission in Africa. That’s where the movie starts. And that first scene is a surprise. The refugee camp isn’t a place we pity. Life is vibrant here. And — to the viewer’s surprise — orderly.

Anton and Marianne’s son, Elias, is a sweet kid who’s regularly bullied at school — a fact he doesn’t share with his parents.

His friend Christian is the son of a rich Danish businessman who moved his family to London. But Christian’s mother has recently died of cancer, and he and his father have moved back to Denmark.

Two boys. One victimized and confused. One grieving and enraged. Naturally they bond. Naturally, Christian comes to Elias’s defense.

In Danish, the title of this movie is "Haevnen," which translates to "revenge” — and that is what the movie is about. Life hits you with a baseball bat, and how do you respond? And if you can identify your tormentor and hit him back, then what?

Christian hits back. And plans, with Elias, to do it again. And their parents? Anton has a doctor’s code in Africa; he treats everyone. In Denmark, he tries to live the same way. But when he sees a kid beating another in a playground, he intervenes —  and for his troubles, the bully’s father pushes him around. Here’s that scene. It has no subtitles, but you’ll get it. And you’ll surely think: This isn’t a scene you’d ever find in an American movie.

But how many times can you walk away? At what point does unchallenged bullying become evil? Should we be so above the fray that a monster can march us into a concentration camp? Where do we draw a line?

The people — I hesitate to call them “characters” — in Bier’s movie fumble with these issues. Because Bier is a ruthlessly efficient director, they don’t talk much. They act. Things happen. Things go wrong.

Do you remember that scene in “Kramer vs. Kramer” when Dustin Hoffman’s son has an accident in Central Park and Hoffman grabs him and runs with him to the emergency room? Your heart was, as they say, in your mouth; your eyes misted. There’s a scene in this movie that has that feeling. No disrespect to Dustin Hoffman or his director, Robert Benton — this scene is better.

Over and over my wife and I groaned as we watched scenes like this. Groaned because we were watching scenes like no others in movies. Groaned because we had no defense against the novelty. Groaned because we identified so strongly with the people, because we shared their hurt and confusion.

Those emotional blows, you will find, are cleansing; as the characters work toward some kind of healing, so do you. Yes, you leave the film battered. But also relieved. And smarter. And grateful for the experience.