An Interview with Thomas Vinterberg



Thomas Vinterberg looks like he should spend his days in front of the camera, not behind it. With blonde hair and blue eyes, he has the air of an American sweetheart. He’s here on a short trip to Paris as part of a promotional tour for his latest film, Submarino. As often is the case on promo tours – he’s late for our interview. When he arrives there’s no time for a pre-interview chat and we’re rushed onto the set. I play a clip of the film during which he apologises for being late and I tell him I like the film – despite the feeling of bleakness it left me with.



Submarino is the desperate story of two brothers who lose track of each other after an unstable childhood. Twenty years later, Nick is an ex-con alcoholic with a violent temper; his brother, a widowed heroin addict. The story is based on a book by Jonas T. Bengtsson, a Danish novelist celebrated for his unflinching realism. At times the subject matter is so very dark and serious, the characters so very emotionally ravaged that it requires particularly sensitive handling, which Vinterberg provides. The remarkable thing about these men and their morally skewed universes is that as a viewer you continue to root for them. I ask Vinterberg if that was his aim. He says he tried to make a tender story about two brothers trying to reach out to each other as well as exploring the vulnerability of the most brutal characters. He deserves credit for such a well layered story.


Many of the film’s themes have a personal and emotional hook for the director. The fear of failing our children was something that affected him after his divorce and the fascination and fear of addiction also comes from his own experiences. I was pleased when he told me he wasn’t a drug addict (!!) but spoke of his friend also called Thomas who had shot heroin for more than 20 years who helped him with the film.


Submarino is really Vinterberg’s comeback after a career of immense highs and lows. Success started early. At 19 he was accepted as the youngest student ever at the Danish Film School. In 1993, he graduated with a short film Sidste omgang (Last round), which went on to be nominated for an Oscar. He first came onto the international radar with his sadistic black comedy, Festen in the late 90s. It gave people their first taste of Dogme. Together with Lars von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring, Vinterberg helped initiate Dogme 95, which had the purpose of adding unpredictability and authenticity to movies – and basically being anti Hollywood. Overnight, Vinterberg shot into the spotlight. He was flown from festival to festival, promoting Danish film and Festen in particular. The height of his acclaim meant that a subsequent fall was almost inevitable. His next film ‘It's All About Love’ was slammed by the critics and disliked by audiences. When I asked him about such success so quickly he said it had been ‘terrible.’


But now Vinterberg has put all that behind him and has distanced himself from the Dogme movement – a movement he says was supposed to be against the norm- and later became the fashion and then suffered an ‘almost death.’ He says he’s glad to have finally returned to where he started.


As always in these interviews for the Culture Show there is never enough time and our 9 minutes on France 24 is up. He asks me how I think it went. I say good. He tells me I was well prepared, ‘But you’re British, you’re always well prepared.’ I decide to take it as a compliment. Then off he goes to the next interview on a mission to prove that he is more than simply the man who gave Festen to the world.

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