Denmark's DV Director Thomas Vinterberg Delves into "The
by Jeremy Lehrer
In “The Celebration,” 29-year-old Danish director Thomas Vinterberg
explores the explosions that occur when family tensions reach critical
mass. The film, which played at the New York Film Festival and won a
special jury prize at Cannes, explores the ties (and nooses) that bind
when a Danish family reunites at a country retreat to commemorate the
family patriarch’s 60th birthday. Close on the heels of one sister’s
suicide, the patriarch’s three surviving children bear their own baggage
as they buckle under the weight of a loss born of dark deeds. What
begins as a birthday party evolves into a bloodletting when Christian,
the eldest son, decides he can no longer keep silent about his father’s
A cinematic experiment shot entirely on a hand-held digital video
camera, “The Celebration” (in release from October Films) is the first
film made in accordance with principles developed by Dogme 95, a group
of Danish directors opposed to “the auteur concept, make-up, illusions,
and dramaturgical predictability” (Lars Von Trier’s “The Idiots” is the
second Dogme 95 film). The members of the so-called Dogme 95
Brotherhood–Von Trier, Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Soren Kragh
Jacobsen–must sign a “Vow of Chastity” that certifies their commitment
to rules intended to “force the truth out of [a director’s] characters
Because, no doubt, the Dogme 95 rules will be the subject of debate,
consternation, and perhaps inspiration, Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity” is
The Vow of Chastity
I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed
by Dogma 95:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be
brought in (If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location
must be chosen where this prop is to be found.)
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice
versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is
3. The camera must be hand-held. And movement or immobility attainable
in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the
camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If
there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single
lamp be attached to the camera.)
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons,
etc., must not occur.)
7. Temporal and geographic alienation are forbidden. (That is to say
that the film takes place here and now.)
8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
10. The director must not be credited.
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am
no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work,” as I
regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is
to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so
by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any
Thus I make my Vow of Chastity.
indieWIRE: When you were actually sitting down coming up with the
rules–the 10 principles of the Vow of Chastity–how did you go about
doing that? What were those discussions like? What things didn’t you
Vinterberg: It was very banal. I did this with Lars Von Trier, who did
“Breaking the Waves,” and it took half an hour and we had great fun and
a lot of laughs. And you know it was very simple. We said, “What do
you normally do when you make a film?” And we forbid it. That was very
Normally you would put on lights. [So we thought], “But that’s also
boring–let’s take it out.” And it felt extremely, extremely encouraging
doing it. It was such great fun, I had immediately the feeling that
this was going to be something. I didn’t even have any idea for the
script. I didn’t know at all what to do. Until half a year later or
something. But immediately I felt very encouraged to make a film. It
was a great refreshment, a great relief.
iW: So you didn’t have arguments like, “We should put this in, we
shouldn’t put this in…”
Vinterberg: No. We decided this is the ten rules, and it’s
undiscussable. And we found out that some of the rules didn’t work and
some of them did and so on. But still, you don’t change The Bible.
But we had lots of arguments and discussions after whether or not they
were [followed]. Because actually you can make a huge production value
film with lots of digital effects, then bring it to the editing room,
show it on the screen and copy it with a hand-held camera, and still
follow the rules. You can break them all without breaking them. So all
the time it’s a question of morals, so to speak. So we had to be
policemen to each other, and we had a lot of debates.
And that’s what it’s about. When you’d play cowboys and indians as
kids–you’d have this set of rules, and without this set of rules it’s no
fun. Yet at the same time, you’d have lots of arguments whether someone
kept his rules and promises or not. So it was playing. A part of the
whole game was all these discussions.
iW: But it’s almost like it gives you more to think about.
Vinterberg: Yeah, and it’s like it’s opening up a lot of possibilities
[though] you’re closing some. It’s very strange. And yet very obvious.
iW: Once you’ve actually got the rules, and you’re on the set– You
mentioned at the New York Film Festival that the set had the feel of a
home movie. How did this affect the psychology of both you and the
actors? Is it much different from having the set-up of film camera,
lights, and other crew there?
Vinterberg: It was very much different from that. First of all, the
crew was about five people. And the camera was the size of this cup
[Vinterberg motions to a coffee mug]. And you could very rapidly change
decisions. You were very free, within these restrictions. You could
move all over the place and you could do everything you wanted. And you
were “on” all the time. We were shooting all the time. So the
concentration, the level of energy for the actors did not fall. They
did not have breaks. They were “on” all the time. That was very
Everybody on the set had the feeling of doing something completely
insane, and yet a bit of genius at the same time. In all humbleness.
Lars Von Trier made the ideas, so I can say “genius.”
And that was a very good place to be, that you could play and still at
the same time feel very serious about it. And also the feeling that we
did something that nobody did before. It created this boy scout
atmosphere, which we’re very good at.
iW: Specifically what camera was it that you used for this?
Vinterberg: I think it’s called the PC-700, from Sony. It’s a DV camera
with a flip screen, and it’s half the size of this machine [Vinterberg
motions to a tape recorder that is the size of a thick hardback book].
iW: It’s nice the way the medium parallels what’s happening in the
film. So, at the end of the dinner, towards the evening, when the
family is falling apart, the film looks as though it’s
“disintegrating.” What other ways did you think about that, what other
ways did you use the medium to try and relate the story?
Vinterberg: Actually, part of the manifesto is that we’re not allowed to
have a taste. So I didn’t think much about it. But of course, writing
the script, I was aware of the darkness coming to the family. And I
knew, this is going to be grainy. And, I thought, well, that’s fine.
Let’s make a scene that fits the grains. So, again, it’s going with the
Actually, [the Dogme 95 Brotherhood] encouraged me to make even worse
scenes. Looking at that picture, seeing all the grains, I felt, “Wow,
how depressing.” And that was inspiring.
iW: There are some people in the film world who are very opposed to the
use of video.
Vinterberg: I understand why, actually. And I am actually a bit
[opposed] myself. Because it’s not organic. It could sound like vanity
for the film, but it is actually [true]. The digital thing makes it
somewhat cold. Which happens to be okay for this film, because it’s the
cold registration of something very troubling. But it doesn’t create
life to shoot on video. Not at all. It is a dead medium. Completely.
And to be honest, I would have preferred to shoot this on Academy 35.
But, on the other hand, then you would have been fooling around with
this major camera–
iW: You wouldn’t have achieved the same thing, in an interesting way.
Vinterberg: No, that’s right.
iW: Do you foresee that in the future, you might do a film that combines
both film and video?
Vinterberg: Yeah, it could be possible. That has been done. If you
watch Oliver Stone’s work, I think he’s very successfully mixing the
different medias. And I really like his way of using it. I mean, it’s
another color on the palette.
iW: And was the decision to do this [on video] a monetary, financial
Vinterberg: Yeah. Again, this whole video thing, which turned out to be
very good, came out of a restriction. Which was the budget. We simply
could not afford shooting it on film. Because at that time nobody
counted on commercial success. I mean, this was about childhood roots,
and was handheld camera and some actors. Well, [we thought] 10 people
are gonna see this. That was the estimate. There was no money for
Academy 35. And also [the production company] knew that we were going
to improvise some. That takes, monetarily. So that was it.
iW: How was Nimbus Film [the company that produced “The Celebration”]
formed and can you relate the history of that and how Nimbus found the
financing for this film?
Vinterberg: The European financing system is so different from the
American [one] because it’s state-subsidized. So Nimbus Film is my
colleagues from the film school, and they made this company and we stuck
together. Or we’re sticking together. And this particular film was
paid by television, mostly, and then by Nimbus Film. But for one time’s
sake, it was not directly state-subsidized, which they normally are.
But we made this agreement that nobody was allowed to read the scripts
besides the [Dogme 95] Brotherhood. So the state wouldn’t agree on
that. Then we went to television, and they would. But the television
company I’m talking about is the national television, which is
state-subsidized. So, it comes from the same [source], it comes from
iW: You seem to have a good mentoring system in Denmark. It seems like
you have people who have really encouraged you, like Lars Von Trier and
your co-screenwriter Mogens Rukov [who is a professor at the National
Film School of Denmark, where Vinterberg studied].
Vinterberg: That’s what I love about being in Denmark. It’s far more
interesting for me to have meetings with these guys than seeing Michael
Douglas in a cafe [if you are in] Los Angeles. And it is because it’s a
small society, and it’s going very well for this film society. Because
there is some generosity and camaraderie going on. Of course there’s
also a lot of small people. A lot of competition. But a person like
Lars, a person like Mogens, they’re so self-confident, they have no
problem giving away things.
iW: You mentioned that the film can be seen as a metaphor for growing
fascism in Europe. Can you explain that?
Vinterberg: You know, fascism is very much about the anxiety of the
“foreign.” And I guess this whole story is about that. The anxiety of
something else other than what you’re used to. Something breaking the
rituals, something disturbing the system that you live in. And that’s
why I think Gbatokai [the African-American boyfriend of Christian’s
sister Helene] in the story has a parallel to Christian’s story.
But, as Mogens said [following the New York Film Festival screening], a
story like this can be seen in many ways. You can find many metaphors.
He met a guy who thought it was a great comment on the things going on
in Kosovo. And I’m very glad he thinks so. But he creates that
himself. And if this film encourages people to re-think about what they
had in mind, I’m very glad then. But it’s not because I know much about
Kosovo, or growing fascism actually, it’s just that it’s communicating
with some people and some emotions in the audience. And then all the
things that they have somewhere in their mind comes up to the surface.
I think that’s part of the mechanism.
iW: It’s more of an abstract experience.
Vinterberg: Exactly. But of course the story about Gbatokai is a direct
comment, it is.
iW: If, in the future, film is shot on video completely, and someone
looks to your film as “the death of film,” how would you respond to
Vinterberg: I would feel responsible. And I would be very sad. It’s of
course not going to happen. Dogme was made as opposed to something
else. Hopefully, somebody’s going to make something as opposed to
Dogme. And that’s the whole point. It’s not movie fascism that we’re
trying to do, it’s not the Church of Scientology. It’s just meant to be
[Jeremy Lehrer is a New York-based freelance writer.]