Thomas Vinterberg On ‘The Commune,’ And His Own Commune Childhood: ‘I Adored That Way Of Living’

Getty Image / Magnolia Pictures

Thomas Vinterberg was just 26 when he cofounded the Dogme 95 collective with Lars Von Trier (13 years Vinterberg’s senior) and went on to direct the first Dogme film, the critically acclaimed The Celebration. His final collaboration with Von Trier was 2004’s Dear Wendy, and since their split (he says they’re still friends) he’s been adhering to pattern of “one in Danish, one in English” for his films. His latest, The Commune, which opens this weekend in theaters and streaming platforms, is Vinterberg’s first since 2015’s Far From The Madding Crowd, a Thomas Hardy adaptation he described as “traditional director-for-hire work,” his break from being the auteur.

Madding Crowd was, in turn, Vinterberg’s follow-up to 2012’s The Hunt, a film about small town molestation hysteria starring Mads Mikkelsen, which was well received enough to forever inoculate Vinterberg from being called a one-hit wonder. It was also derided in some corners as misogynistic, and perhaps not surprisingly, hailed as a “red pill movie” in the opposite corners, where misogyny allegations are considered a fine pedigree. How much that fight had to do with Vinterberg’s actual movie is debatable. Can you make a movie about a false allegation without alleging a culture of false allegation?

In any case, Vinterberg’s vacation from being an auteur is over once again, as he returns this week with another film in Danish, arguably his most personal work to date. It’s easy to call it that, since Vinterberg was himself raised in a hippie commune. The film grew out of his friends’ fascination with it, and people in his life constantly pushing him to make a film about it. That grew into a heavily improvised theater project in Vienna, which eventually evolved into a film.

Here in the US, raised on stories of Jim Jones and Charles Manson, we’re somewhat conditioned to watch a commune narrative waiting for that proverbial moment “when it all goes wrong.” The Commune doesn’t really have one of those, probably because commune living wasn’t that kind of traumatic experience for Vinterberg. Having lived in one from the age of seven until he was 19, he appreciated the experience so much that when his parents divorced, he stayed. You expect The Commune to have “a take” on communal living, but mostly it doesn’t. If anything, it’s a work of bittersweet nostalgia. As Vinterberg has said, “The film came out of that longing.”

Watching it I wondered if communal living was yet another one of the Boomer generation’s potentially good ideas that was ultimately poisoned by all its bad ones (doing lots of drugs as enlightenment, the idea that jealousy was a bourgeois hang-up that could be cured with drugs, etc). Vinterberg wasn’t ready to be quite that judgmental, but he did have some insights on what ’80s culture gave us that ’70s culture couldn’t, and what parts of communal living he misses even if he wouldn’t necessarily trade to get them back.

Hey, good morning.

Good evening.

Oh, where are you speaking to me from?

I’m speaking to you from Copenhagen, Denmark. I was supposed to be in Brussels, but I’m back for a funeral. And then I’m visiting my dad. Actually, I’m in the house that was… My old commune.

Oh, wow.

How appropriate.

Yeah, very much so. What were you shooting in Brussels?

It’s called Kursk. Starring Colin Firth, and Matthias Schoenaerts, and Léa Seydoux. And about the Kursk accident in year 2000, the submarine that went down.

Is that another one that you wrote, or is that going to be another one that’s like Far from the Madding Crowd where you’re a director for hire?

It’s going to be nothing like Madding Crowd, but yes, I haven’t written it, no. It’s written by Robert Rodat, who wrote the Steven Spielberg movie, what’s it called? The war movie. Saving Private Ryan. Beautiful script.

Speaking about growing up on a commune yourself, why did it take you so long to make a movie about that experience?

Well, first and foremost, I was asked to, by many people around me. People seem to be very fascinated by that subject. Secondly, I felt it was natural for me, because it’s kind of a theme that reappears in my life many times. Many times, the individual against the community theme, as in The Hunt, and The Celebration, as well. I don’t know if you know, but the way it started was a theater director from the National Stage in Vienna. Burgtheater. He flew up to me, and wanted me to make theater, and convinced me to do that. And also convinced me to make this play about a commune, so I did. I said, “I had the idea of making a movie about it at some point when I grow old.” He said, “Well, take the material, on my stage. See if it works.”

It sure did. It played two years, a couple of times, standing applause. That was a very, very nice experience for me. I decided to do the movie.

Would you say that creating that was sort of like a communal experience itself?

Oh, totally. When he encouraged me to do the display of the commune, there was, I think it was three works before rehearsal. I said, “There is no way I can write a play in three weeks.” He said, “No, don’t. Write six or seven essential scenes. Improvise the rest. I’ll give you my best actors.” He sure did. It was absolutely amazing ensemble. There was 100 actors to pick from. I had the best, it was fantastic. We created that together.

How long between the play and the movie?

Quite a bit of time, because I did the English movie first, Far from the Madding Crowd. I was about to do The Commune. Then this offer came, of Far from the Madding Crowd. I left the Commune for a while, went over and did Far from the Madding Crowd, then went back and did it. I’m in a kind of similar situation right now, because I’m with the same writer. We’re in the middle of writing a Danish film about alcohol. A celebration of alcohol, which we’re enjoying a lot. But now it’s sort of gotten interrupted by this American film. Some people would argue that I should just stay back and make my own movies, but I get the sense of isolation then. I want to get out sometimes. I feel also a sense of relief by making other people’s work, so I’m enjoying this.
Well I for one always enjoy directors’ takes on other people’s material. What do you think attracts people to the commune, to a commune in general?

I don’t know, I guess there’s… I guess it’s to reach a common way of living. I think there’s a curiosity towards it. I think also there’s a lot of sexual curiosity, which unfortunately is not being really satisfied in that movie. I think people have an image of Scandinavia which is related with very willing women, and stuff like that. But I also think that people on a more serious level, are fascinated with this family experiment. This extended family experiment. How that could work out. And how can it work out to live with other people.

I think also people are trying for a little bit more. It can be attractive to some people. In my country, and I guess in many places in the world, there’s never been so many people living alone. It’s peaking. Everybody lives alone. Even couples live separately. And everyone’s complaining about loneliness. I thought, well, maybe it’s the right time to do a film about how it actually is to live with people. I thought, this film ends dark, but I still miss it and adored that way of living, I have to say.

Do you believe in the idea of the commune yourself?

If you’re willing to share, if you’re willing to give, if you’re a generous person, yes. I also think that, what we did not have in the ’70s, and what we gained in the ’80s, is the right to be an individual. It was just not fashionable in the ’70s to be yourself. If you’re that kind of person, you have the right to be that kind of person, then you shouldn’t be yourself. But I’m sure that there’s a lot of people who think differently, and who feels attracted to being part of larger groups. And that I can recommend.

Do you think there’s an aspect of living in a commune that is people trying to relive their youth? It sort of felt like the commune dies when the characters grow up.

I think so, yeah. Well, that is what happened here. In ’75, the house that I’m in fact sitting in right now, was a bunch of happy, well-off, naïve academics, who really lived freely but respectfully with each other in the same house. It was crazy at times, and it was very lively. If you cut to ’85, it was like 3 families who shared a garden and a house and had a cleaning lady, and didn’t want to move out because it was a really nice house. You know what I’m saying?

Yes, growing up is not necessarily good for communes, but I think growing old gives you another opportunity. It’s like, there is a certain point in your life where you’re too busy being caught up in your career and your own children to live in a commune. But then when the children move out, maybe there’s another era of living in a commune that’s possible.

Do you think people get more selfish as they get older? Why do you think that is?

Um, I don’t know. Maybe because they found what they need to find amongst others. I guess their curiosity with other people has been replaced with a need for privacy, and a need for recovering and stuff like that.

I was curious about the Erik character [Ulrich Thomsen]. He kept flying off the handle, and I wasn’t always sure why. I don’t understand why he yells at Allon in the beginning, and I wasn’t exactly sure why he was so mean to the teepee kid. Is Erik just a dick? Where does his anger come from?

Well most people hate Erik. I don’t. I think he’s socially very incapable. He’s that kind of person I talked about before. He’s a kind of person who deserves to live privately, and define his own life. But out of love and respect to his wife of many years, he says yes to, even finances, this experiment. I guess his temperament comes partly from being in the wrong confinement, but also comes from his dad, the dad he’s trying to avoid becoming. That’s just who he is. He gets increasingly desperate, because he’s not capable of navigating this emotional game here.

It’s like when his wife, his ex-wife, says, “Why don’t we all move in together?” He’s pragmatic, and he says, “Okay,” and that’s what he does. Instead of hearing what she really wants to say. Which is, “Please take me back, please don’t leave me.” I think a lot of men are like that. I don’t think it’s because they are bad, or unnecessarily sadistic, or mean. It’s just because they’re pragmatic, and emotionally blocked. They’re men.

I think what happened was that they were in that vulnerable part of a marriage, where things have become a routine, where sex is good but it’s as expected. What they decide is to open up to the rest of the world. They decide to open up to other possibilities. They grew in each their direction. He meets another woman because it’s a possibility. I don’t think he would have been open to seeing one of his students if he hadn’t been living in this commune. It would have been a different set of rules, really.

It seems like sex brought down a lot of the more famous communes. Is sex inherently possessive? Can you be idealistic enough for commune living when there’s sex involved?

I don’t know. I think a lot of communes have been created by abusive, sexually harassing leaders. But this was not the case in my commune. It was open, but it was very respectful. They didn’t shack around here in this house. They did have, some of them had open marriages. I just realized recently that my mom and dad also had an open marriage. But never anyone near them. They would do that somewhere else. That was the time back then. People experimented with that. It has now been replaced with enormous chastity, I would say. I find myself more comfortable in that, but I think there’s a lot of people who don’t. I think there’s a lot of people who find themselves trapped in the marriage.