The Hunt is a film about child molestation, but director Thomas Vinterberg does not want it to be reduced to just that. Inspired by real cases, The Hunt is the story of a father and schoolteacher in a small Danish town, a real mensch named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who becomes a marked man after a child in his care tells a little fib about their relationship. The kindergartener’s testing untruth propels the local community into moral panic and mass hysteria and that is what the film is about: collective mentality, thought as a virus, stigma.
Thomas Vinterberg’s much celebrated 1995 film Festen (The Celebration), the first film of the chaste Dogme 95 movement, which Vinterberg co-founded with Lars Von Trier, is also about child sexual abuse. Vinterberg considers The Hunt as Festen’s “antithesis,” a word the Danish filmmaker “loves” but has trouble pronouncing. The antithesis is like the foil: a complementary opposite that reveals truths through its other. Festen and The Hunt are remarkable when watched together: two distinct framings of child abuse that make for one encompassing essay on human nature. Together, they may leave you anxious and searching, with a tested moral compass and too many questions, as I was when I showed up for my interview with Vinterberg.
This interview, I’d advise, is best read after having seen Vinterberg’s films. Both The Hunt and Festen should be experienced in the dark, knowing as little as possible about what will unspool. Still, if you’re going to read before watching, here’s your need-to-know: The Hunt’s protagonist, Lucas, is accused of child molestation; his community, save for a few familial allies, turns against him; he is innocent; the kindergartener who initially finger-pointed Lucas later tries to tell her elders that she was lying; her grown-up protectors insist that she is confused; a man-hunt ensues.
The Hunt was prompted by a visit from a child psychologist. He came to your door, gave you some documents… Could you tell me more about this?
It was 1999. I’d moved in to this very posh neighborhood and one day this guy knocked on my door. I didn’t know him. He said, “you did Festen.” I replied, “yes,” and then he gave me some documents and said, “you have to read this.” Seven years later, I did. And I was shocked. The documents were filed with cases reports and newspaper articles about stories similar to the one in the script. Though this film is sort of like the airplane movie version of real life. The real cases are darker. Many of the stories from the States are quite brutal because over here you can—what do you call this, when you take justice into your own hands?
Yes. I saw how these cases were important and could make for good drama. I also saw a potential for a strong story about friendships.
The Hunt is like a counterpoint to Festen. They’re both about child abuse but from very different perspectives: Festen’s about what happens when nobody talks about something and the abuse in The Hunt is prompted only by speech. Did you have that in mind?
Totally. I found that this film was the antithesis of Festen. I even considered making The Hunt within the frame of Dogme. This story is all about truth and lies so the film had to be as truthful as possible and that’s what we did with Dogme: we wanted to undress the movie and make it as bare as possible. But it became a fashion very quickly, so it would be like wearing an old dress, doing that again. With The Hunt, we had to find another way of making it pure and truthful.
To me, the difference between Festen and The Hunt has a lot to do with generational shifts in how we deal with child abuse. It wasn’t until the ‘70s and second wave feminism that child abuse was really brought into public discourse and now it’s this thing that we’re are so aware and afraid of.
You’re pointing out maybe the most important theme for me in this film. I think that there’s been a kind of loss of innocence, which is something I really find sad. When I grew up in the ‘70s—even in a hippie commune, with genitals all over—things were quite… innocent. If I was weeping, my teachers would put me on their lap and hold me. They can’t do that anymore. In the ‘90s, this concern over child abuse became complete hysteria. I think that we violate the children as much through this hysteria. This is the idea of thought as virus.
In trying to protect the child’s innocence, we end up breaching it with our perverted minds, imagining what could happen.
Exactly. In Danish institutions, they very often now have toilets with no doors. Because things can happen behind doors. Already there, you’re suggesting things. There’s a sexualization of that situation. You’re taking away privacy from the children. But it’s difficult because still, it’s happening…
Did you ever think of making the audience doubt Lucas’ innocence?
I was working hard to make them not doubt it. Anytime Mads looked too pedophile, in a sort of low angle or with steamy glasses, we would rearrange those things. You can actually look pedophile. I was recently called by a professor of psychology, not the child psychologist we talked about at the beginning but another guy. He’s been trying to confront this subject [individuals falsely accused of child abuse] in the courts since ‘84. For years, nobody wanted to listen to him, and he said now suddenly they will, because of this film. He was very thankful.
How Scandinavian do you think this film is? I’m Canadian and American and the Scandinavian culture that comes over here is always very dark and often philosophical. I was wondering if that’s just what filters to North America or if there is a real cultural difference. Like, is there a Friends of Scandinavia?
I think there’s a huge cultural difference. If we look at the lives in Canada or the United States and the lives of Scandinavia, they’re equally dark, maybe even darker here in the States. But what slips into the art is different. In Scandinavia, we talk more about it. We’re blunt. And we have a tradition of talking about “the ghosts.” I don’t know why. If you talk about the ghosts they disappear, maybe? In this film, we tried to be lighter. We tried to get some love and some warmth into this world.
I mean, there’s a lot of warm lighting…
There’s not much though. Seriously, I really tried to get out of that Scandinavian uniform and I did not succeed, obviously, because this became a very dark movie.
It’s dark but it’s certainly not monotonal; there’s always some humor or love, some warmth, to cut through the dark. None of the characters are either good or evil.
I want them all to be human beings and I want to find the empathy for them. Or else it’s uninteresting. That’s what we tried to do in Festen as well, with the father. I’m always pursuing that factual, vulnerable thing in us that makes us loveable. I find it uninteresting to just make villains.
If there’s evilness in The Hunt it comes out of the collective. If I were to define this film as about one thing it would be collective mentality…
A witch hunt. Which is classic, I’ve done it before, but I like that better than “child abuse.”
Alright, so that’s how I’ll frame it. Not child abuse.
No, no. Say whatever you want. Say child abuse, Denmark, Scandinavian, gritty…