Head of the Class: Per Fly's Social Status Trilogy Continues with "The Inheritance"
by Howard Feinstein
"It was new to many Danes who saw my film that we have a class of very rich people in Denmark," says Per Fly, the Danish director of "The Inheritance" (which opens Friday). "It's more hidden than in England or America. They don't show off like [in America]." "The Inheritance," second in a trilogy dealing with class in his country, is the story of a family of steel magnates who must deal with the problem of succession after the sudden death of the head of the company. Ulrich Thomsen gives an astounding performance as the thirtysomething son, Cristoffer, faced with the dilemma of maintaining his beloved restaurant in Stockholm, where his Swedish wife, Maria (Lisa Werlinder), is a spontaneous, up-and-coming theater actress, or returning to Copenhagen and taking the reins. "The main conflict in the film is whether you follow your will or your passion, doing what you want to do or what you have to do," says Fly (pronounced "flooh"). "In this class, will is very strong."
As in his debut film "The Bench," the first in the trilogy and a tale set among the working class, he did months of field research before beginning the script. "This isn't about the new rich. It's about old money, people who have been rich for generations. It took me six months to get to talk to the right people. They didn't want to talk to me. The old families in Denmark are not often on TV or in the press. It was especially difficult for me to speak to businessmen between 30 and 40, Cristoffer's age, who are in that league. Finally I was able to speak to a 35-year-old man who was next in line to control a company."
In the film, Cristoffer's mother (Ghita Norby) is the power behind the throne. She coaxes her reluctant son to assume the task. "You were born to take this responsibility. You're just like me." A study in coldness, she tells him, "Don't talk to me about emotions." "There are very strong mothers in many of these families," says Fly. "I think that's why the film was so successful in Italy." Assuming the mantle, Cristoffer jeopardizes his happy marriage. He must also swallow his ideals. The first order of business is to fire 100 laborers. "Cristoffer is a good guy who becomes a tough guy," says the director. At first awkward in the position, he evolves into a shrewd businessman who has no qualms about selling out his most reliable workers and, to satisfy potential partners in a merger that will save the company from bankruptcy, his most loyal executive. He also becomes impotent.
"The Bench" is a tougher movie, only because it focuses on society's rejects. The protagonist is a former chef who has become the neighborhood drunk. A battered young wife, who turns out to be his daughter whom he has not seen since her childhood, finds refuge in a nearby home. She tells him that she witnessed his beating her mother; the cycle of abuse continues. The film, which had enormous difficulties getting financed, won out over "Dogville" for the Bodil, the Danish Oscar, for best Danish film of the year.
Fly, a skinny, bespectacled 44-year-old father of two young sons who says he is from the lower-middle class, started out as a jazz guitarist, but, he admits, "My skills were not so good." At 29, never having made a film, he was accepted to the Danish Film School, where Thomas Vinterberg was a fellow student and a friend. After graduation, he made several live-action and animated shorts but had no luck getting a feature off the ground. He also directed a number of television series. Now he is part of a company, Nimbus (Vinterberg is also a partner), which has offices at Filmbyen, the old military barracks-turned-film community where Lars von Trier's Zentropa is also located. In fact, Zentropa financed "The Inheritance," one animated film, and, partially, "The Bench." A my-way-or-no-way kind of filmmaker, Fly is not, however, looking to make a Dogme film. "The head producer of Zentropa said that maybe they could finance 'The Bench' if I would make it a Dogme film. "I said I couldn't because it would have had to be a Dogme film in concept from the beginning, and I already had other ideas, like for the music."
In August he begins shooting the final film in the trilogy, "Manslaughter," a middle-class story. He says that because 80 percent of Danes belong to this class, he wanted to tackle something unusual (in Denmark, anyway): a killing. It's about a married high school teacher, a product of the 1968 generation, whose lover and he become accidentally involved in the death of a policeman during a peaceful protest. "He tells his girlfriend not to say anything, but when he meets the policeman's wife, he feels guilt," Fly explains. "It's about how big a lie you can live with."