Grief at the realization that all things must pass or the impermanence of existence is what drove Thomas Vinterberg to make The Commune. During a seminar at the Berliniale this year, the Danish director spoke openly of the fact that he still cannot accept or understand that we are all mortals, that existence comes to an end, that we all must die.
That everything will disappear and pass away becomes gradually clear in The Commune. The first hour rises energetically, then the first cracks in the harmony start appearing. Similarly as in his successful movie The Celebration (1998), where he lets the storyline arch upwards in a classic narrative form, then fall and end with another rising and “cleansing” third act on the morning after the great family dinner.
Vinterberg hails from the Danish Dogma movement, where he was the most prominent director alongside Lars von Trier. This too, had to pass. When 1400 people rose to applaud him after the premiere of The Celebration, he realized that this was the beginning of the end for the Dogma movement. The idea consisted of handheld cameras, natural lighting, no added music and no artificial effects added afterwards. The Dogma rules from 1998 quickly grew into a fashion – a uniform to wear in order to look good, an -ism, a success that he had to get away from in order to renew himself. At the seminar in Berlin he explained that he had to move from the inside to the outside. Indeed, social engagement, or an interest in community rather than the world of me-me-me, emerges more clearly when you pass thirty years of age and start tiring of the incessant Self.
Community. There are many qualities to “The Commune”. Particularly the photography, which is reminiscent of the work of another Dane, painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916). From the great house of the commune, one can sense the greyish hues from his art in darkened, empty rooms, doors, pitched ceilings, sun and shadows, as in Hammershøi’s “Dust Motes Dancing in Sunbeams” from 1900.
The plot of the movie is half scripted, half improvised. One can also sense the dust of Dogma in some of Erik’s (Ulrich Thomsen) facial expressions – contorted and enclosed. We see the warmth and openness of Anna (Trine Dyrholm). The daughter Freja’s puzzled and thoughtful gaze at the world of adults. And from the inside to the outside: From one person in the frame – the daughter, the boy or the mother – to the relation between two people across several images. And then, the whole group in the frame – drinking at the dinner table, diving and skinny-dipping by the docks, looking dashing while walking down the street wearing bell-bottoms, with a cigarette dangling from the lip, or in despair, carrying the half dead boy after the dance around the Christmas tree.
The content of the film addresses the experimental socialism or anarchism from the 1970s: the house is shared, but only for as long as it’s possible; until the commune rejects the real landowners new wish – it became too much, as the Danes like to put it. Erik harangues everyone, tells them to pack up – the commune might fall apart. Is it socialism when Anna lets Erik include his new girlfriend? It only lasts until it starts eating at her. With age, she doesn’t consider herself attractive anymore. The teenage daughter Freja may seem the wisest among this Carlsberg-guzzling “world of adults”, but she is headed out into the difficult world of love and relations. And the little boy with a weak heart, who keeps mentioning that “I will die before I turn nine” is included in the commune through jokes that he is using his mortality as a way of picking up girls. Behind the joke lies something far more serious, that he will soon disappear, we are all alone in death in the end.
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