Bird Watching – Susanne Bier’s “Brothers”
Bird Watching is a new column that will appear on Mondays, in which I’ll discuss films that were directed or written by women.
I’ve only seen two of Susanne Bier‘s films, but I’m prepared to call her one of my new favorite directors. It was just this past summer that I finally saw her 2006 film After the Wedding (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars). It affected me deeply, and I think of it often. I believe it to be easily one of the best films of that decade. But I’ve been slow to catch up on the rest of Bier’s filmography. Now, with her newest film In a Better World also receiving a Foreign Language Film nomination, I’m making the time to catch up with her work.
The film that Bier made just before After the Wedding was 2004’s Brothers (Brødre, if you’re Danish and/or super cool). You may know this as the film that was remade into 2009’s Brothers, starring Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal, from director Jim Sheridan. The original stars Ulrich Thomsen as Michael, a major in the Danish army with a witty, beautiful wife, Sarah (Connie Nielsen), and two young daughters. The film opens with him preparing to leave for a three month operation in Afghanistan. Just before his departure, his brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is released from prison following a sentence for his involvement in a bank robbery gone wrong. It’s hardly surprising that family tensions are high, exacerbated by Michael and Jannik’s father Henning (Bent Mejding), who is unable to hide his preference for Michael and disdain for the life choices and anti-war opinions of Jannik. Their mother Else (Solbjørg Højfeldt) tries half-heartedly to keep peace, but doesn’t have the strong personality of any of the men. Sarah concerns herself with her daughters, rather than joining in the squabbles of her husband’s family.
Michael leaves. And in Afghanistan, his helicopter is shot down. We see this happen from a certain distance, and for several long seconds, an unbroken shot shows the black, billowing smoke cloud filling the sky. It is ugly and quiet. There is no Hollywood glamour in this moment.
Michael’s family is informed of the news that he is dead. Bier and her screenwriting collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen make some beautiful choices about what to show us, and how much of it. Sarah seeing officers at the door, calmly telling her daughters to go upstairs, and then placing a hand over her mouth—this is all we need in the notification scene. Later, a drunken Jannik shows up at her door, having borrowed Michael’s car and having no idea what has happened. Sarah tells him, matter-of-factly. With wildly impressive acting from Kaas, Jannik seems to pass the spectrum of disbelief, bargaining, anger and sadness in mere moments.
We will know this far before the characters do (before the movie begins, if you’ve seen the trailer, the DVD box, any of the ads for the remake…): Michael is not dead. He is being held prisoner, and in his quest to survive long enough to be rescued and return to his family, he does something terrible and unforgivable. Bier makes that scene almost unwatchable in its horror. This is necessary, to understand what Michael will become after this moment.
By the time Michael is rescued and returns home, Sarah and Jannik have become close. They spend a lot of time together, drawing comfort from shared grief, but also from getting to know each other and appreciate each other in ways they never did before. Except for one ill-advised kiss, things are not romantic. But dynamics have undeniably changed, and when Michael returns to his home, now a damaged man, he sees things that are not there, and becomes obsessed. This obsession drives the rest of the film.
There is not a single poorly acted moment here. As she did for After the Wedding after it, Bier put together a cast that hums; the actors take over the space of the movie set and make it feel like reality. Most astonishing is the perfect performance from 12-year-old Sarah Juel Werner as elder daughter Natalia. Her sadness at watching her father leave, obstinance in the face of his death, anger when life isn’t perfect again when he returns—it’s all incredible, and her role in the vibe of the family is so key that any misstep would have been glaring. Connie Nielsen will make you wonder why she isn’t one of the biggest movie stars in the world, she’s so good here. And I feel like I want to rent every film Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Lie Kaas have ever been in.
If you haven’t seen either version of Brothers, please watch the original. I don’t mean to slight the work of anyone involved in the remake, but it just doesn’t compare. Perhaps I would have liked it if I had not seen the source material, or at least not so recently beforehand. But after seeing this story told in Susanne Bier’s immediate, intimate style, unafraid to show all the pain and violence of a moment, unconcerned with actors looking attractive, anything less feels shallow. The pure storytelling at work here, coming through in writing, acting, and directing, creates layers of conflicted emotions for the viewer. There are so many situations where I just didn’t know what I wanted the characters to do. Think about how rare a feeling this really is in the experience of watching films. The viewer almost always has an opinion of the thing a character should do next. But here, I never knew what the right reaction would be. I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for them to make their choices. Watching the remake afterward also deepened my admiration of how Bier is able to handle themes and plot twists that might easily veer into melodrama and cliché, without ever having you notice that was even a danger in the first place. There is something truly great at work in her filmmaking style, and I look forward to exploring it further.