By Amir Ganjavie.
Based on firsthand observations from his childhood, Thomas Vinterberg’s latest movie, The Commune, helps us reflect on the difficulties involved in many people living and sharing together in a big house. This take on communal living could be seen as a metaphor for a type of idealized alternative society. Cinema in the recent years has shown an extensive interest in alternative societies, both utopian and dytopian, but what makes The Commune unique is the fact that this community does not vanish and lose its appealing qualities despite the significant tensions within it. This is a very brave and radical approach compared to the usual representation of utopia in cinema. Directors using such material often criticize the notion of utopia or any attempt to create a better western society. These films usually end with the collapse of the society due to the tensions that have grown within and, thus, seem to justify the current pessimistic neoliberal view that there is no viable alternative to capitalism.
Following the screening of The Commune in Berlin, I sat down and discussed the movie with Vinterberg.
What I like about your movie is its optimistic ending. We have seen several movies on the theme of a utopian society but these usually end with the collapse of the society because of the tensions that had grown. Thus, these films seem to justify the current pessimistic neoliberal view that there is no viable alternative to capitalism. Your movie shows that there are some tensions but at the end the society managed to resolve its issues, which I like. Do you have any comment on this?
I don’t think that communal societies are necessarily utopian and I think this experiment, as it was, had sacrifices and dark sides; there were huge problems built into it. But it also has a great deal of opportunity and strength and virtues that I miss. My own sort of romantic view of it is that the people living in the house are being tested here by the loss of life and loss of love. Still, they can overcome it because they are a group of loving beings who are actually capable of smiling at the end even after the loss of a child. There are many interpretations of the ending with some being much darker than others. I guess that some people think it is a verdict on communal living.
I was actually relieved by the ending.
I agree but what Tobias, Lindholm, and myself are trying to do is to be transparent and open to different interpretations. We want it to be as truthful, honest, and confrontational as possible since we have made a film about the impermanence of things. Things are running out. Things disappear. People die. People fall out of love and the seventies are no longer there. Sharing is no longer the big thing.
I realized that when you were young you had the same experience of living in a communal society. What was the most beneficial thing that living in a commune taught you?
Well, I guess that human beings consist of many things but also they consist of what you want to show to the world and what you want to hide from the world. In a commune you get both. After three weeks, people in this commune stop making an effort to control how the world sees them. You see that in marriages too and as a child living in that kind of situation that I got used to navigating to. It was like “Okay, he wants to move into our house and everybody loves him, but let’s see how he is on Monday morning after having been drunk on Sunday night.” So I started navigating these matters and to some extent I have made that my profession. That’s what I’m doing when I’m writing. People are irrational; they behave irrationally all the way down into the little details. Someone might say “I have got to go” but then they sit down and talk for half an hour. That is normal behavior. In many of the scripts that I read, it is erased and it is made into a pattern that makes sense. Life doesn’t make sense and I guess that I realized this in the commune.
Would you be able to do communal living now?
No, for many reasons. First of all, I have a family and I want privacy because I meet so many people all over the place. I have also developed this sense of allergy towards small democracies. When I go to my class with my children and the parents have this meeting where we start discussing how much the present for the next birthday can cost then I get ill. I get aggressive. I get crazy. So I can’t do it.
But is that because of the commune?
Yeah, we discussed this dish cleaner for thirteen years. We never got any.
So do you see the experience as a failure?
No, I think it worked. I think it is a possibility. However, I don’t think there is a society or desire to pick it up again. There was a renewal with it that made it sexy. They did something against the conventions of families. They can’t pick it up again because it is no longer sexy. However, I do think that you can live in a commune and you can overcome your loneliness and you can learn some great virtues from having to give and give and then give again. That is what you have to do in a cult; you have to give all the time. That would be healthy for a lot of people.
Do you think that love can be shared? What is your opinion on that and what was your experience in the commune?
A big problem here is that there is such a strong agenda about these matters. Let’s look at today – if you are unfaithful today then it is almost criminalized. It is completely illegal and people go completely crazy and start crying at work all because someone has been unfaithful. When you look back then, it was the opposite. You can’t own your partner. You can’t imprison your partner, you have to be able to let go because that means love. These are two agendas of how to life your life and I think that is very dangerous. I think out a relationship, a mutual respect, a mutual love, and an ability to hear each other; then out of that you should build your own rules for living. I have been in a marriage – not my own marriage but I have been a guest in a house with two people who didn’t have sex. They happened to have sex with everybody else but they were married and had a great marriage. They managed to make a couple of children and that was fine. I talked to a psychiatrist once who said that he often has clients who declare to him that they are homosexual but they are in a heterosexual marriage. They can successfully go back to their partners and say that they are homosexual and go on with their marriage. People have different ways of being and they have different needs and the public agenda is what is dangerous.
But don’t you think that at least one of the couples gets hurt like the women in the film?
Oh yes, I think so but they do it anyway. Love is brutal.
You said during the press conference in Berlin that the movie is also about how brutal it can be to replace one person with another. Is there a way to make up for that?
I think it is brutal that people replace each other. I was in a marriage for twenty years before doing it and what I am telling my children is that continuity between people is important and if you want to divorce then there has to be a damned good reason. There was a good reason in our case, though that is private. But you know, I do find it brutal, this whole thing about yearning towards youth. I married younger and she is even in the film. Everybody is afraid of dying and everybody is afraid of the skin falling off our bones. There is this element that I want to shout about. It’s more than a confession. Let’s talk about it.
Yesterday you said that people leave their mark and that they are more loyal than ever because they let go of being open and connect authentically to each other. Why do you think they let these things go? What were they trying to hold onto?
Their right to privacy, which I also think is a virtue. This whole dream, you call it Utopia, I think it is a dream and a possibility in life but that was already replaced in the eighties by a sense of individualism and individual freedom and the right to privacy, which I also think is very strong. It is another set of values that we can’t complain about and which happen to be the values to which people increasingly adhere. We should know that a community like this can erase you as a personality and erase your privacy and your rights to have feelings.
I can’t help but think about what you said during the press conference about the law in Denmark and the refugee issue with regard to property and privacy. Yes, in not only Denmark but also in all of Europe they went from sharing and collectivism in the seventies to individualism in the eighties but now I think we are going in exactly the opposite direction. People are clinging to identity and who they are.
I think that sharing and mutual courtesy have been replaced with fearfulness and lack of dignity and petty behavior. I come from a country that printed ads in Arab newspapers trying to prevent refugees to choose our country as a destination and to encourage them to go somewhere else. I am ashamed of that. I think it is embarrassing and I think it is wrong, but I have to say that behind that, behind the face of this country, there is still a nation of pretty good-hearted people. I think people are just very confused and disoriented and rightfully fearful because it is a big country; it is very complicated. I just think that such behavior by the people in my country who are responsible for this is absolutely shameful.
You’re not commenting just on Denmark, are you? I mean all of the values that you just spoke about could be applied throughout Western Europe.
Yes, with Denmark and Hungary as the leaders. I don’t know because I am not a politician but that is my impression.
Isn’t it dangerous to idealize so much of the past?
Idealize the past? Do we idealize the past?
I don’t know, which is why I’m asking since sometimes people do idolize it or make a positive memory of those things.
I don’t think that I’m idolizing the past. There are a lot of people saying that I am definitely not going to live in a commune now, and I loved it. I wanted to contribute this possibility but actually the dark side of it, such as the erasing of this woman’s identity and all of that, actually prevents people from loving the idea of living in a commune. I don’t think that I have idealized it. If we compare ourselves and Europe today with the past then let’s look at this country. It was a secret that people went to the camps for two or three years. Nobody knew, or at least very few people knew, it was a very well-kept secret. Now we know everything. We see people in every form of media today. We see children dying. Everybody knows and nobody takes responsibility. I find that very interesting and disturbing.
Is it correct that this film was a stage play first?
We played with that concept before. Festen was a film and it became even more successful as a play and is still touring around. Then this smart theater director from Vienna suggested to me that I try the other way, proposing to test my dramatic material on his stage to see if it works before bringing it to the screen, so that’s what happened. Obviously, the theater stage had only the kitchen. There was only the table and that was it. Everything else was sort of towed behind and between the scenes, which was actually very interesting. It’s like, you have a room and there are some people who had their journeys through that room and there was no kid. Kids on stage are trouble. They can’t act. In the film it’s like you traveled with the actors through different rooms. It is just a different medium so we changed it a lot.
The main character is an architect who is in love with Le Corbusier and modern architecture but the big house in the movie is not very different from the houses that you normally see in cinema. I thought that maybe experimenting with other forms of buildings and rooms could have been relevant for this movie, such as for showing how the collective spaces could be different in relation to the types of spaces in which we now live. Do you have any thoughts on this?
What I had in mind initially was my own house and there’s a sort of satisfaction with that. They felt naughty doing this, like it was a revolt against existing manners. What they enjoyed was breaking off the wooden oak tree panels and burning them and painting them purple. We didn’t do that. No, I didn’t work with that; I am sorry. What we worked with was developing how a house looks when it is lived in by one person and how it expands into this enormous mess when more people join.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.