One's Memories: Nils Malmros Discusses a Life in Film (Web Exclusive)
by Aaron Cutler
A miracle takes place early in the film Sorrow and Joy. We see a man (played by Jakob Cedergren) sitting at home, shaken, days after learning that his mentally unstable wife (played by Helle Fagralid) has been interned for killing the couple’s infant daughter. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door, and he discovers two men outside who wish to speak with him. They introduce themselves as parents of young children at the school where the woman works as a teacher. They have come to show him a petition signed by every parent whose child she teaches, all of whom know that she was sick, have forgiven her, and want her to be freed to return to work.
Their action impacts not just the woman, Signe, but also her husband Johannes, for whom it helps release his feelings of guilt and shame over what has happened. Nils Malmros’s twelfth feature goes on to show Johannes, a filmmaker, recalling the path of the couple’s relationship, from the two people’s initial bar meeting and subsequent courtship through to their present-day place. As he does so, his love for her deepens, and his process of recognizing his own mistakes—above all else, neglecting her—teaches him how he can help Signe recover.
Malmros’s film (which is Denmark’s official submission for the next Academy Awards) focuses on two people whose relationship is tested by an extraordinary crisis, and who afterward find the strength to assemble an ordinary mutual life. Like many of Malmros’s films, Sorrow and Joy is marked less by histrionics than by a calm, clear, and simple search to understand the responsibilities that people hold toward each other. Like many of Malmros’s films, this deeply felt artwork is based directly upon the filmmaker’s memories of events from his own life. What happens to Johannes and Signe in fact happened to Malmros and his wife Marianne, including her reintegration into society and the story’s eventual resolution—over thirty years after the tragedy took place, the couple is still together.
Sorrow and Joy premiered at the 2013 edition of the Rome Film Festival, after which it screened as part of a near-complete Malmros retrospective organized by Olaf Möller and Gerwin Tamsma for the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The retrospective (which this writer attended) offered audiences the chance to see a life progress on screen. Malmros was born in 1944 as a neurosurgeon’s son in the city of Aarhus, and his childhood among a group of alternately playful and mean-spirited peers is recalled in delicately observational films such as Lars Ole 5.c (1973), Boys (1977), and Tree of Knowledge (1981). These films hold much in common with later Malmros works likeBeauty and the Beast (1983), Pain of Love (1992), and Aching Hearts (2009), which collectively follow Malmros’s path into adulthood.
Almost all of Malmros’s films are based in autobiography, save for his debut feature, A Strange Love (1968) and his lone literary adaptation, the eighteenth-century-set romance Barbara (1997). He often shows scenes from his life in a way that avoids a first-person approach, instead presenting his stand-in character as part of a large ensemble. His films focus on characters that fall in love, then have their hearts and trust broken, and they do so without mocking or condemning any of the parties involved. Malmros shows us careless and even cruel human behavior in order to present its consequences—the wounds that we open in others through our actions, and that, if we are lucky, we can be present to help heal.
Malmros’s studies culminate with Sorrow and Joy, his first film about requited love. The film also presents several scenes of “Johannes” at work on his films, with Malmros candidly showing the conflicts that he allowed to emerge between his professional and domestic lives. He also deals plainly with the disregard he held toward his wife’s mental illness in other ways, like prematurely urging her to go off of medication. The film tells a story about growing as a result of experience. In Sorrow and Joy, as throughout his film career, Malmros opens his life to viewers such that they might learn from what he has been through.—Aaron Cutler
Cineaste: How did you begin making films?
Nils Malmros: Oh, it’s a long story, but I shall try to keep it short. When I was young, I was open to everything. I would see a painting and think that I had to paint something like it—not to make a new masterpiece, but to understand what I was seeing. When I saw Jules and Jim (1961) for the first time, it had a great impact on me. I felt that I had to make a film just like that one so that I could realize what a film was. With that, and without any previous knowledge of filmmaking, I began to make a feature.
I had been studying medicine before that because my father was a neurosurgeon, and he wanted me to become a neurosurgeon as well. Most of my friends also studied medicine. The film school in Denmark had only recently been founded, and there was so much competition for slots that attending it seemed to be rather impossible. I must have talked about filmmaking quite a lot, though, because one day my father came into my room, placed a little suitcase on the table, and said, “This is the neurosurgical ward’s 16mm Bolex camera.” Then, without joy, he left. I think he believed that I should try to make some films, realize how difficult it was, finish with that dream, and go back to my medical textbook. But things went differently.
The first problem that I encountered was that the camera was an old-fashioned device with clockwork and therefore was very noisy. So, I made a box where I fixed the camera at the bottom, with the result that I amplified the noise. Then I made a new box, where I placed the camera in some foam, and now the noise was gone. I had invented what I learned later is called a blimp. The story is typical of my whole film career. The entire time I have had the problems before the solutions—different from if I had attended a film school or immediately gotten a job in the film business. In those cases, I might have had the solutions before knowing what the problems were. Instead, my whole life in film has been learning by doing.
I needed some money for making that first film. As a medical student, I could get on the night ward in the hospital, so for a year and a half I did that and got the money that way. The film was called A Strange Love, and it was not a good film. It played for three days in my hometown and three days in Copenhagen, and it received very bad reviews saying that all the young people dreaming of making films should watch it in order to see how poorly things could work out. That was the beginning, and I must admit that I was very happy to be able to go back to my studies.
I continued to study medicine for some years, and, then, for several reasons, I realized that I had very precise memories of my childhood. The problem with my first film was that I had been so influenced by Jules and Jim that I felt I had to make a film that was deep and poetical. I was not deep and I was not poetical, so the result was fake. Why not try to use my own memories, then? I would make a film based directly on my memories of my youth, without trying to be deep in any way—just telling what I remembered.
Once again I raised funds by sitting guard in the night ward. The film was Lars Ole 5.c., and it won the prize for Best Film of the Year in Denmark. Since then, the Danish Film Institute has supported me for every single film project that I have proposed.
As a filmmaker, you’ve got to obsess to bring something up onto the screen, and I found that I could use my memories. I have continued making films that way—about myself, my father, my mother, my classmates, and, finally, my wife. In some way, I have made an In Search of Lost Time. My oeuvre is my own personal version of Marcel Proust’s work.
I should say as well that I have never felt that I was a spectator to my life. I never felt that I was standing outside myself and looking at myself, or thought at the exact moment of an event that I would later use it for a film. I have simply called on what has happened already. Nearly all of my films are about unrequited love—when I was twelve years old, and eighteen years old, and twenty-four years old. They are all stories about unhappy love.
Cineaste: Why was that?
Malmros: Because that was my experience. My romances always ended with unhappy love. Yet I missed making the final film—about adult, mature, mutual love—until recently. I had the story, but I couldn’t tell it. I couldn’t do it, because I couldn’t do it against my wife. A few years ago, though, Marianne retired from her work as a schoolteacher and gave me permission, as a love present. She felt that I had saved her life, and that I, as a gift, must tell what happened to us. And that is Sorrow and Joy.
I think I must say an important thing before going too far that way—when I’m telling the truth about other people, I should also be open to being self-critical. I must be at least as critical of myself as I am of anyone else in the story, even if that sometimes means bending the truth.
You saw Tree of Knowledge. In that film, I am one of the children who bully the schoolgirl Elin (played by Eva Gram Schjoldager). In real life, I tried to help the girl, but I don’t tell that in the film, because it would be wrong to make me special or set me apart. I also chose to omit much of the hardness that the girl’s father showed her after she grew depressed and did poorly in school as a result of the bullying. A truthful scene of the father beating his daughter would be strong, but we’ve seen that kind of scene before. The strength in the film is the little movements and reactions between the children, and I chose to focus on that.
In Sorrow and Joy, I show myself working with the children in Tree of Knowledge, including the actress Line Arlien-Søborg, who played a schoolgirl named Anne-Mette. She was very charming and I could not help but feel attracted to her. After Tree of Knowledge, I believed that I had to make a film with her in the leading role, and that became a story of a girl and her possessive father called Beauty and the Beast. You can also see me directing this film within Sorrow and Joy.
Cineaste: How did you direct her there?
Malmros: With the way that I directed, she didn’t have to feel much. I used very, very short shots, often lasting no more than five seconds. Of course, I would discuss with her what was going on in the scene and what the character was feeling so that she would understand, but she wouldn’t have to give her soul. If an actress plays an emotional scene for a full minute, like Jakob Cedergren and Helle Fagralid do at times in Sorrow and Joy, then that can be very painful. But not with Tree of Knowledge, nor with the other two films that I made with Line, Beauty and the Beast and an ensemble comedy with serious undertones called Aarhus by Night (1989). Those films involved a different kind of directing.
Line did not need to be an excellent player, but with the kind of direction I used, she was brilliant. I really ran into a problem when we were making Beauty and the Beast, though, because that method was quite different from what Jesper Klein, the actor playing her father, was used to. He was a known actor who didn’t expect to play just a few seconds at a time, but I had to treat him the same way that I treated her. I told him to do what I was saying—say this, show this facial expression, and then I will cut it together and it will be very good.
The film ended up being the best film that he made, and he even won a prize in Denmark for his performance. At the time he didn’t believe in me, though, and shortly before the premiere he gave a big interview calling what we had done a failure. He said that a viewer should pay attention to how the film was made. When the father was looking deep into his daughter’s bosom, he said, the audience should understand that it was not the actor who was looking—it was Nils Malmros.
Cineaste: In Sorrow and Joy, this insinuation, made by several characters, proves distressing to the filmmaker’s wife. The film even suggests that it helps lead her toward madness. Is that what actually happened?
Malmros: My wife knew that I was making films, and that doing so entailed that I use my feelings for my protagonist as fuel for the work. If you can’t feel anything for your actress, then you can’t expect your audience to feel anything for her. I should use that material. And saying that I should stop being a film director, or offering to change myself in some other drastic way, is not a good backdrop for a relationship.
You can see so many possibilities afterward as to what you should have done differently, though. At the time that our catastrophe took place, I had been studying medicine for twenty years, but I had not yet read psychiatry or psychiatric theory. I only did afterward. I knew something about manic-depressive psychosis, but very little. For instance, I didn’t understand that throwing my wife’s lithium pills away would prove to be a mistake. I didn’t know that.
I could say that my wife’s mother should have sensed our troubles coming, because ten years earlier she had experienced my wife slice her wrist. I had not seen this—she had. So I thought that she must understand better than me what was at stake. I should have been more precise in my communications with my wife’s family, but I didn’t dare say what I was thinking. It would have been insulting to suggest to my wife’s mother that my wife might kill our daughter. Furthermore, I myself didn’t dare to think that the situation could be so dangerous, or to try to understand what really was at stake. I could see afterward, but in the moment, I didn’t believe that things could turn so fatal.
Here I am raising at least two different issues. You can discuss why I could let her depression develop, and you can discuss how I could have secured her so that the fatal event didn’t happen. These are different things. Additionally, up to now I have been talking about my responsibility for my wife. I haven’t brought up my responsibility for my daughter. That’s a bigger problem. I had the ideas, but I didn’t believe in them. Of course, I feel some guilt for what happened. But the guilt did not overpower me. It has not been so strong that I cannot live with it.
Following the disaster, I thought that perhaps we could get a new child, yet very soon I realized that my wife didn’t dare to have one. This was not because she feared something would happen again, but rather because she feared how her child would look at her when it became aware of what had taken place before its birth.
I must say that I respected her for her decision as to how to move on. It was very, very important to me that she didn’t feel any guilt. If she had felt guilt, then I would have been carrying two guilts, and that would have been too much. “You have no guilt”—I succeeded in getting her clear. I forgave her for what had happened, and it was essential that she also forgive me for nearly spoiling her life.
Yet, you can’t have a relationship based upon guilt or forgiveness. Having something to fight for together can help two people, and having a big sorrow in common can help them, but these things are not enough to sustain a relationship. Love must be there. You have to love each other for it to work. And this is the most important part of the story—that love conquers all. Amor omnia vincit. And with that, I have come to the end. Sorrow and Joy was my last film. I have used up all my memories, and now there is nothing more to tell.
Cineaste: Do you really believe that you will make no more films?
Malmros: I might continue with filmmaking or television in some capacity, but I will likely not use my name as a director. It is important not to pollute one’s oeuvre, and there are many who should have stopped earlier than they did.
I do not need the work. You see, I also continued to study medicine, and after twenty-two-and-a-half years of study I became a doctor. For two years I worked in the neurosurgical department that my father had built, though after making my last film I have not operated on anyone.
My father was somewhat of an obscure person to me. I didn’t know him well. Once I made a film about his life, though, called Facing the Truth (2002), which helped me understand him and his problems. Late in life he was accused of having caused the death of over a hundred patients in the 1930s and 1940s by using the X-ray contrast medium Thorotrast during procedures. I use the case as a framework for my film depicting his experiences. There are some scenes of surgical operations in the film, and my hands are the ones performing them.
When my father was old, he fell one day and hit his head and got a wound. I gave him six stitches, after which he said, “So we finally got some use of your education.”
Cineaste: Sorrow and Joy initially surprises the viewer with the news that the woman has killed her child. Then, subsequently, there is another surprise—that the townspeople have forgiven her, and want her to continue teaching their children. What do you make of this?
Malmros: It’s a miracle. Many people tell me that this couldn’t happen today, to which I reply that I will ask those townsfolk about it the next time I see them. When I did so on the most recent occasion, they said, “Of course. Today we would act in precisely the same way.”
This tells me that maybe we are better people than we realize. When it comes to the substantial points, we are more decent than we think.
This interview with Nils Malmros was conducted at the 2014 edition of the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Thanks to Olaf Möller for research help.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism website, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine