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Filmbyen is in a former army barracks in the city’s Hvidovre suburb. There’s a swimming pool, tennis courts, a dining room, Ping-Pong and pool tables, and a sauna, but the luxuries are kept to a minimum. The studio is organized on broadly socialist lines, and, sensibly, the money goes into films rather than Ferraris. Trier, along with his good friend Thomas Vinterberg, director of the international Danish Dogme hit Celebration, has an office in what is known as “the bullet room,” a small one-story building where ammunition was once stored. An American tank, kept in working order, stands nearby, and the interior of the editing facilities is painted the exact mint-green used in the States on Death Row. (It’s meant to calm you.) There are several sound stages, along with documentary, youth and pornography divisions, and even school rooms where children from the provinces are taught the rudiments of filmmaking. There’s also a large film set, called Pocahontas Square, a replica of a town center in New Mexico, used in Dear Wendy, a film written by Trier and directed by Vinterberg (it’s currently being edited) about “redneck American gun nuts.”
It is here, in Filmbyen’s sunlit HQ, that I meet Peter Aalbaek Jensen, who describes himself as the “muscle” to Trier’s “brain.” He’s the same age as Trier but looks older, with thinning hair, a salt-and-ginger beard and a modest paunch. We have a game of Ping-Pong before sitting down to talk. Though he is unapologetic about his youthful communist phase, and still jokingly refers to the U.S. as “enemy” territory (he’s made two very brief trips to the country, venturing no further into the interior than the west side of Manhattan), Jensen admits to being a little more mainstream these days. In the entrance of the editing complex there’s a lengthy quotation from Chairman Mao stenciled on the wall. Over it, however, someone has stuck a piece of paper with a purported quote from Margaret Thatcher: “A man who will not work . . . shall not eat!”
In Denmark itself, of course, that doesn’t quite apply. A man who will not work shall, in fact, not only eat but be granted government housing and two weeks’ annual vacation as well. In the “Free State of Christiania,” the 41-acre enclave of Copenhagen taken over by anarchists in 1971 and slated to be leveled in 2006, welfare rebels openly sell hashish (the different varieties are displayed like slabs of chocolate), and the air is glassy from the heat of spark-shooting fires set in rusted oil barrels. The buildings (like Filmbyen, Christiania is in a former army barracks) are drenched in elaborate graffiti, and huge, mangy dogs wander the streets with a curiously dignified air. Though some are kept on a leash, most appear to be free citizens of Christiania too — it’s another kind of Dogville, and very different from the city around it.
“It’s very hard to tell a story here, because nothing is happening, you know?” Jensen says, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone I speak to. “It’s not interesting that people meet and work and go home. So we have no stories. But we have a lot of films like Italian for Beginners where we explore the quiet lives around us. And it’s so weird that we can live in one of the richest countries in the world, where it’s so stable, and still we have one of the highest suicide rates here. And the same goes for Sweden. It’s well-organized, it’s civilized, everything’s so decent, so nice — and people are bored to death.”
In the States, I say, the right has always taken potshots at the “socialist paradise” of Scandinavia by saying that everyone commits suicide there.
“It’s not a lie,” Jensen replies equably. “If you are making a poll asking people about their lives here, everybody says they are happy. The only thing that doesn’t match with that is the suicide statistics. It’s a society where if you’re sitting next to somebody in a bus, you never talk to him. You isolate yourself a lot. That’s part of the mentality. And we are not good at talking about how we feel. Even though someone’s getting ready to hang himself, he will claim everything’s fine.”
Is this because of the character of the people, or a result of the government system?
“I don’t know what’s a consequence of what, but I’m sure that if it was not as stable a country, probably we would need to be a little bit outgoing, just to survive.”
Denmark is slightly less stable than it used to be, however, due in part to the immigration of Turks, Palestinians, Somalis, Iranians, Nigerians and others that started in the 1970s and has now become a politically volatile issue. Though it accepts fewer immigrants per capita than any nation in Europe (approximately 32,000 per year), and immigrants as a whole make up only 5 percent of the population, Denmark has the continent’s toughest anti-immigration laws. Requirements for asylum have been tightened, funding to ethnic minority groups withdrawn, the waiting period for permanent residency extended from three to seven years, residency permits for “foreign missionaries” (i.e., imams) restricted, and — incredibly — laws put in place making it illegal for a Dane under the age of 24 to marry a foreigner.