Violence in Two Worlds

The Oscar-winning film by Susanne Bier portrays the moral hazard of aid work

Ulrich Thomsen as Claus and William Johnk Nielsen as Christian | Photo: Per Arnesen/Sony Classics

We live in a violent time, where the tidal flows of migration are pressing with nearly unbearable strain against the traditional life of Europeans. It’s not only here, but this is our world and thus it is here that we feel it and know it. Elsewhere, though, pressures are often even greater, as the social fabric is more fragile and less able to cope.

Between these worlds, says Susanne Bier’s 2010 Danish-Swedish co-production In a Better World, runs a single common thread of a shared story of almost overwhelming urgency.

It is the story of our international community. It is also the story of our time.

Here we see marked out the parallels between a refugee camp in Africa and a small coastal town in Denmark. The original Danish title of the film translates simply as The Revenge, but there is much more at stake in this film than just that. In a Better World, winner of both the 2011 Oscar and Golden Globe Awards for “Best Foreign Film”, is a compelling and challenging drama, that shows real people enduring life’s trials and seduced by its moral hazards.

Although the screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen is not entirely successful at merging the two stories – in places we lose a keen sense of the parallels, when opportunities for analogy pass unacknowledged – director Bier more than makes up for the gaps. With a sure hand, she guides us through an examination of characters who are capable of compassion and empathy and of those who seem to be instinctively violent; it contemplates suffering and loss; examines the limits of pacifism and is an intelligent meditation on masculinity, family and accountability.

Cinematographer Morten Søborg and production designer Peter Grant present scenes of turmoil in Africa in nearly heartbreaking contrast with the apparent idyll of Danish village life, providing a visual vocabulary that is consistently eloquent yet manages to avoid cliché.

The story primarily centres on two families: pre-teen boys Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) and their respective fathers Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) and Claus (Ulrich Thomsen). We first encounter Anton in a makeshift medical clinic – no more than a dusty tent set up in the middle of nowhere. He is a compassionate doctor, a member of Doctors Without Borders, who commutes between his home in an idyllic town in Denmark and Africa. The need for medical care is overwhelming, and there is evidence of inhumane brutality when victims arrive at the clinic – pregnant young women who are savagely cut open by a sadistic local warlord making bets on the sex of the unborn children.

The chaos of the dusty camp with beautiful hues of sunburnt earth contrasts dramatically to the serene and verdant coastal town in Denmark to which Anton returns. Although his world back in Denmark bears all the hallmarks of being more civilized, tensions are rising to the surface and moral issues continue to vex him. Anton and his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), who is also a doctor, are separated and struggling with a crumbling relationship and the possibility of divorce. Anton spends time with his boys by sitting by a beautiful lake, taking pleasure in their proximity, longing to be able to talk to them as a compassionate and affectionate father.

As the story further unfolds, we realise that the violence in Africa is being juxtaposed with that in Denmark: Anton comes face to face with the brutal local “Big Man,” who is a bully protected by bullies just as his son Elias is facing constant bullying at school. Anton attempts to adhere to a strict code of ethics but ultimately finds this impossible when he is pushed to breaking point. A further intersection comes when another boy, Christian, joins Elias’s school. Christian has recently lost his mother to cancer and has moved from London to Denmark to live with his grandmother. His father Claus is a businessman who is often away, and their relationship is put under immense strain.

To give himself a protective armour against his buried grief, Christian uses revenge as a way of getting control over his own life. The situation at school quickly escalates when Christian defends Elias, beating the bully and then pulling out a knife. Amongst the different views of the school teachers and the parents, Anton attempts to explain to the children how fighting is never the best way to resolve problems. “If you hit him, he hits you, and then it never ends,” Claus tells Christian. “Not if you hit hard enough the first time,” Christian retorts. “Nobody will pick on me again.”

When a situation similarly escalates between an aggressive garage mechanic and Anton, after their children fight over a swing, Anton chooses to display his pacifism to the boys and literally turns the other cheek. This is strongly contrasted with Christian’s savvy of the way of the world, and Anton’s refusal to fight back further solidifies the idea that something must be done. Elias is malleable and confused, but in the desire for Christian’s friendship and solidarity, decides to go ahead with him and take revenge by making a bomb to destroy the mechanic’s van.

In a Better World builds a mounting sense of dread of how it will all end, of how lives are wasted. The characters are very well drawn and the actors are well chosen for these sensitive and poignant roles. From the schoolyard to tribal savagery the film poses constant moral questions and explores flawed humanity. The title ultimately suggests that in a better world, there would not be so much cruelty. But it provides no easy answers as, we sense, there are none.

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