In her new release “In a Better World” Dutch filmmaker, Susanne Bier gives us a tense look into the violent human interactions that surround our daily lives, and forces the viewer to question the civility of our civilized world.
The film focuses on two parallel stories, the story of Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), two boys in grade school in Denmark, and the story of Elias’ Father, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a doctor who commutes from Denmark to work in an African medical camp.
In Anton’s daily routine at the camp he sees infections and malnourishment, but he also consistently treats young women, the victims of rape and physical abuse, brought to him with huge life-threatening gashes across their bellies. These grim souvenirs from the machete of Big Man (Odiege Matthew), the local warlord, constitute only a small portion of the atrocities this tyrant commits.
The violence Anton sees in the third world conditions of the African medical camp are paralleled in the story of the bullied Elias and Christian. Christian and his father, Claus (Ulrich Thomsen), have recently moved back to Denmark from London after the death of Christian’s mother. When Christian rushes to defend the bullied Elias, the gang of bullies rounds on him. Christian responds by beating the leader Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) with a metal bike pump before threatening to cut his throat with a knife.
The ineffectual nature of the school’s administration and their inability to protect Elias or Christian from violent bullying seems to justify Christian’s vigilante act. Christian’s use of violence continues to mount as the story progresses and he witnesses how the meek and the nonviolent fall victim to the aggressive.
Bier also brings the characters of Marianne (Trine Dyrholm), Elias’ mother and the emotionally estranged wife of Anton, and Claus, Christian’s father, into her story. Marianne confronts Anton about his affair with another woman, and Claus attempts to deal with Christian’s emotional distance after his mother’s death. Bier uses these subplots to show us that often the violence we cause or fall victim to is intimate and emotional, not physical.
Anton’s story comes to a head when Big Man seeks medical treatment at the camp. Anton must choose between his commitment as a doctor, and his loyalty to the people, who have suffered under Big Man’s rule.
Christian, after seeing an adult man belittle and slap his friend’s father, decides to teach the adult bully a lesson, and makes plans to blow up the man’s van with a homemade bomb.
Bier’s ability to weave the stories together while maintaining a wonderful subtlety is remarkable. Her choice to use handheld camera for the majority of the film gives the viewer a sense of tension even though most of the moments on screen are quiet ones with little movement. The drift and shake of the camera reinforces the emotional turmoil of her characters, and gives the frame an almost documentary feel that adds to the intimacy of each scene.
A series of nature shots are used as a motif throughout the film to punctuate moments of introspection. The original Dutch title of the film is “Hævnen” which translates to English as “revenge.” The Dutch title can be seen as a question, but the English title “In a Better World” has a poetic quality that works well with the shots of dusty sunrises or a large spider spinning its web.
These acts of violence that Bier presents to us seem to be the very nature of this world that we live in. Bier posits many questions about the distinction between justice and revenge and the relationships that are built on power and control, but like any good filmmaker, she gives us no easy answers.
It is as if Bier offers a hypothetical solution with her title “In a Better World,” then quickly reminds us that this is not a better world, and yet kindness, forgiveness and love must survive.