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.
And where is the commune and the socialism when the ambitious architect Erik chooses the younger and more intellectually understanding student over his Anna, the TV hostess? Did he find a better sense of community here, than with the group? This is the pivot point of the movie, the point where the harmony is broken, with its subsequent consequences. Anna, who originally was the very reason for the commune – she wanted something more than a nuclear family with Erik – has to pay for the idea and tragically, herself falls victim to the “socialism” she prescribed.
Still. The movie reminds us of the warmth of sharing, the openness of being inclusive towards others, including the commune’s dark-skinned immigrant. Three floors of different characters, people who find each other through dinners and conversation, by spending time together among beer bottles and psychologically revealing confessions at house board meetings. They made the leap, and moved away from the virtues of the nuclear family and behavioural rules of the 1950s and exchanged it for generosity and friendship.
The 70s. Vinterberg experienced the commune for himself when his family moved into one in 1975, when he was fourteen years old. He wanted to stay there forever. Was he Freja in the movie? As opposed to the myth of the drug abusing hippie commune with free love or a religious sect at a farm in the country, this was the commune that gave the film its background – aesthetic and with professionals from the media sphere, and with a highly optimistic and vital environment. Vinterberg’s father was a film critic, many of them were academics and their attitudes were clearly leftist.
Vinterberg wanted to return to this kind of life. But socialism was abandoned for the freedom and individualism of the 1980s – the film ends symbolically with Freja putting on headphones from a Walkman.
But today, Vinterberg’s daughter has again sought out the ideas of the commune, and elderly people seek together in groups in Denmark. International political movements are protesting neo-liberalism and the tendency of individualism to develop into distanced egotism: M-15 and Podemos in Spain, Nuit Debout in France, Syriza in Greece. Something is happening.
But again, with the dangerous hurdles that come with the idea of sharing. My philosophy professor once told me that the 60s and 70s became too radical to be acceptable as a substitute for the nuclear family and capitalism – with a middle class background and conservative blood flowing in their veins, people were unable to completely let go; some privileges were necessary, you couldn’t share everything. And Marx’ slogan – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs – often resulted in an emphasis on need rather than ability. This is what happens in The Commune.
The alcohol. Vinterberg is still among the top directors in Scandinavia, and is currently working on a new film – a declaration of love for alcohol. Is it possible, as he says, to create life through film, an enthusiasm, to bring out “that which lives, and which stays with us”? The recognition is that alcohol expands life, contribute to creativity, that a lot of our best literature was written in varying degrees of intoxication. And with another confessional film from Vinterberg, which might be entitled “Drunk”, may also come new forms of criticism of virtue and morals, the return to family life in the 90s and the excess of rules of conduct. Then, we may again chuckle at the closed nature of Scandinavian Protestantism – or recognize ourselves in Erik from The Commune.