By Greg Burris.
A film that manages to peer beyond the horizon at a time when doing so has become impossible for so many of us.”
Films do not often bring me to tears. Even less often do those tears come in the first twenty minutes of the movie. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s latest masterpiece, Another Round (2020), can thus be counted as a rare film, and the tears that it brought out of me came from a variety of emotional places. There were tears of sadness, tears of empathy, tears of loneliness, tears of grief, tears of loss, and – most importantly – tears of utter joy.
On first glance, Another Round is a film about drinking. Indeed, the film’s original title, Druk, is the Danish word for binge drinking, and almost every frame seems to be dripping with alcohol – beer, wine, champagne, bourbon, vodka, and absinthe. On some level, the film is a critical response to Danish drinking culture. People are drinking in almost every scene, and one character even tries to sniff his booze instead of swallowing it. The film opens with a large group of teenagers taking part in drunken antics: an inebriated footrace around a lake and a disorderly party in a subway. Alcohol is also the driving force behind the plot. Four middle-aged high school teachers – Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), and Peter (Lars Ranthe) – try to spice up their social and professional lives by constantly boosting their blood alcohol levels. Despite experiencing a number of initial improvements, things go predictably – and horribly – wrong.
While alcohol is omnipresent throughout Another Round, I do not think it is actually the main subject of the film, and I want to make two points that a more cursory reading could easily overlook. First, alcohol is not the cause of the protagonists’ woes. All of the main characters are already having difficulties before they turn to the bottle. Tommy appears to be living a lonely life of solitude in the wake of a failed relationship; Nikolaj’s family life is dominated by monotonous chores and bedwetting children; and Peter does not seem to have any love life at all. These problems are increasingly experienced as crises, and they especially seem to affect Martin. His marriage with Anika (Maria Bonnevie) has grown cold, and his teenage sons scarcely have a word to speak to him. This dreariness also casts a shadow over Martin’s career, and his teaching lacks the inspiration it once had. A scene at the beginning of the film demonstrates the sadness of Martin’s situation. After his students confront him about his poor exam preparations, he retreats to his office, and we briefly see him sitting alone in the dark, silently looking out the window. Outside, the world is colorful and vibrant, but none of this seems to reach Martin.
After introducing us to all four of the main characters, the film brings them together at a restaurant to celebrate Nikolaj’s fortieth birthday. This heartbreaking scene, which occurs less than twenty minutes into the film, is an emotional tour de force. Amidst the warm atmosphere, jovial conversation, live music, and copious amounts of liquor and caviar, Martin loses it. His three friends gradually recognize that something is amiss, and each of them gives Martin a quick, concerned glance. With a swig of wine, Martin finally breaks down. Struggling to hold back the tears, he admits, “I don’t do much. I don’t see many people.” Mads Mikkelsen powerfully delivers these lines, allowing his strong, stoic face to turn fragile and delicate. As he downs another glass of wine, it is as if Martin is literally trying to drown his sorrows. Alcohol is not the cause of Martin’s problems; they were already there.
This brings me to my second point, and if alcohol is not the cause of these protagonists’ crises, abstention is not necessarily the solution. Sobriety is not always a royal road to happiness, and in one of his inebriated lessons, Martin makes this same point to his students, comparing the drunken predilections of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to the relatively alcohol-free lifestyle of Adolf Hitler. Simply put, one can be sober and wrong. While Another Round is critical of alcohol abuse, it should not be mistaken for some sort of anti-drinking morality film. Indeed, if this were the case, it would be an extremely hypocritical movie. With all of its remarkable close-ups of cocktails and seductive sounds of uncorking bottles, the film certainly makes you want to take a drink yourself.
If Another Round is not really about drinking, then what is it about? An early clue presents itself in the opening quotation, a line from Kierkegaard’s Either/Or: “What is youth? A dream. What is love? The content of the dream.” The film’s soundtrack is bookended with Scarlet Pleasure’s “What a Life,” a song that overtly celebrates being young and alive. Another Round is thus a film that celebrates youth – but a particular type of youth. While there are plenty of young people in the film – the high school students, the young football players, Nikolaj’s bedwetting children, Martin’s estranged sons – none of them are given more than marginal roles. Another Round is a film about youth without being concerned with actual youth. That is, the film defines youth not only as the number of laps that one takes around the sun but as something that exists as a potential within us all. It is a spirit, energy, or attitude. It is life itself.
With no more hope, no more lust for life – in short, no more youth – Tommy gives into his darkest demons.”
In order to emphasize this embrace of youthful vitality, the film first presents us with a vision of death: the character of Tommy. We first meet Tommy in his home. When Martin compliments his suit, Tommy admits that it is a leftover from previous times, from his failed relationship with a woman named Mette. Tommy is living a lonely life. His only companion is his aging dog Laban – a pathetic animal that can no longer even urinate without human help. Like his fancy clothes, this dog is presumably another leftover from Tommy’s previous life, and if Laban once saw better, healthier years, so too did Tommy. Significantly, this dog’s picture is the most prominent decoration on Tommy’s relatively bare refrigerator. Tommy is alone.
With his marriage on the rocks, Martin seems to be following in Tommy’s footsteps, and he warns Martin against it. Speaking about his own life, Tommy declares, “This isn’t worth anything.” With no more hope, no more lust for life – in short, no more youth – Tommy gives into his darkest demons. Of the four protagonists, he is the only one who cannot let go of the bottle. Falling deeper into alcoholism and despair, Tommy commits suicide. Taking his boat for one last trip around the bay, he throws away his life vest, thus symbolically throwing away life itself.
Importantly, even though Tommy is lost, we should not count him as a complete failure. Even after death, he still lives on. First, there is the indication that he has touched his students in important ways. Midway through the film, I admit being worried. Given Vinterberg’s history of making films that address pedophilia – i.e., The Celebration (1998) and The Hunt (2012) – I became apprehensive when one of Tommy’s young football players, “Specs” (Max Kaysen Høyrup), started holding his drunken coach’s hand on the field. Thankfully, the film did not go this grim direction, and instead, “Specs” is used to show the importance that Tommy played in his students’ lives. With Tommy’s encouragement, “Specs” overcomes his bullies and scores a goal, and during Tommy’s funeral, he puts a flower on the coffin and leads his teammates in a song. Tommy might have been overcome by the forces of death, but through “Specs,” his legacy lives on. Tommy also lives on through his final words to Martin, his warning not to follow in his footsteps and his encouragement to embrace his estranged wife. As Martin and Anika later admit through their text exchange, Tommy is still rooting for them, even beyond the grave.
If Tommy is the film’s representation of death, it is in the film’s final cheerful scene that we get the clearest glimpse of life. Early on, we learn that Martin once trained as a jazz ballet dancer. Numerous times throughout the film, he turns down requests to show off his moves. It is only after Martin has begun to transcend and conquer his crises that he allows himself to dance once again. Tommy has passed away, and there will always be scars, pain, and loss. But somehow in the midst of all the suffering, Martin manages to rediscover his own youth. Rather than following Tommy’s destructive path, Martin chooses life. With a few short text messages, Anika indicates that reconciliation is still possible, and when the graduating students arrive to celebrate their accomplishments, Martin and the other two protagonists go out into the streets to join them. If Martin’s earlier statement of loneliness had been the emotional lynchpin of the first part of the film, his rapturous, jubilant dancing provides a much-needed catharsis. Martin’s dance should rightly be considered one of the cinema’s great moments of life-affirming joy. The film ends with a freeze-frame, Martin concluding his dance by leaping into the sea, thus embracing life itself.
As always, context matters, and I have to admit that I cannot separate this beautiful film from the dark times in which I first watched it: the early days of 2021. Between the global COVID pandemic and the menacing lunacy of the Trump cult, we are living at a time when the world seems to be on fire. In such a situation, it is easy to lose oneself and begin suffocating in the seemingly endless present. This is precisely why Another Round rises to the rank of true art. It is a film that manages to peer beyond the horizon at a time when doing so has become impossible for so many of us. We might not yet be able to glimpse a more hopeful future, but films like Another Round exist to remind us that it is there. In Another Round, Martin is drinking for himself, but he is dancing for us all.
Greg Burris is Associate Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut and the author of The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Temple University Press, 2019).