P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

An interview with Nils Malmros

Jeppe Knudsen

Nils Malmros (born 1944) has won numerous prizes for his largely autobiographical feature films, portraying childhood and teenage dramas with unparalleled depth. Malmros taught himself filmmaking and is also educated as a surgeon.

1968 - En mærkelig kærlighed (A Strange Love)
1973 - Lars Ole 5.C (Lars Ole Fifth Grade)
1977 - Drenge (Boys)
1981 - Kundskabens Træ (The Tree of Knowledge)
1983 - Skønheden og udyret (The Beauty and the Beast)
1989 - Århus by Night
1992 - Kærlighedens smerte (The Pain of Love)
1997 - Barbara
2002 - At kende sandheden (Facing the Truth)
2009 - Kærestesorger (Aching Hearts)

Truffaut as an inspiration

I've read that you made your own version of Truffaut's Jules et Jim [1962] and that Jules et Jim later inspired your own films. What was it in this film that inspired you so deeply?

It was a very emotional film. It connected with my own insecurity about love. The expectation of everything that was about to happen combined with a sense of resignation - that was the dual emotion Jules et Jim left in me.

It was the film that started it all. It's the one I still refer to. Every time I make a film it's another attempt to make my own version of this film. This is also the case with latest film Kærestesorger [2008]. Although Jules et Jim is special in the sense that it's about two friends who - despite their rivalry in a love triangle - remain friends. That's not the case in Kærestesorger, in which the two main male characters are very much rivals. And it's the same in Barbara [1997].

Truffaut was part of the nouvelle vague but he made the most conventional films compared to Godard and Orphüls. What is it in Truffaut's work that appeals to you so much?

His first films were the most emotional ones and it's those I'm mostly affected by. They weren't as conventional as his later films like Le dernier metro [1980] or La chambre verte [1978]. The substance of these later films was very special. La chambre verte is about Truffaut's fascination with dead people. Not with death, but with the notion that life has ended.

What is it in Truffaut's films that fascinates you?

That he is so fiercely suggestive. You become chloroformed by the mood. It's something he does particularly on the soundtrack. Jules et Jim is very much carried by Georges Delerue's music. I'm also fascinated by the great feelings which his films ironically dissociate themselves from. He makes definite verfremdungs-effects but it just become more seductive in a strange way.

What distinguishes Truffaut from Godard, Rohmer and the others?

Godard is wildly experimental - especially in his first feature A bout de souffle [1960]. He experiments with the very form of the film; he cuts in the middle of a plot, he suddenly cuts music off, he turns toward the camera and he is full of verfremdung. Godard's films became obsolete long ago, while Truffaut's films are still moving.

Are there elements in the nouvelle vague which have inspired you in your own films? And if so, which elements?

It's primarily the auteur-theory - to write and direct my own films. Therefore there is a short distance from vision to completed film. A single film is not an isolated work - it's part of an oeuvre. I can't just make a mainstream blockbuster - it would disturb the oeuvre. Some may think that Barbara ruins the oeuvre, but in the same way that Jules et Jim was my awakening to the film medium.

Barbara was the first real novel I read and it had largely the same influence on me. I've said that I would never do a screen version of a book, but if it had to happen then it had to be Barbara. That was the result of Truffaut's and the auteur-theory's influence on me.

Does Truffaut, in your opinion, make use of good guy and bad guy characters?

Now when I wonder if there are more films that I have to make and what it takes to make a film, I am shocked when I discover that a lot of films can't be made without a bad guy. An example is Mænd der hader kvinder [2009]; if it weren't for the exceptionally brutal mass-murderer, there would be no film. And that is worrying. So I have to think to myself: what about my own films? In Kundskabens Træ [1981] the bad guy is clearly Helge who orchestrates the persecution of Elin. The bad guy reappears in Kærestesorger in the shape of Toke, and although he isn't malicious in the same way as Helge, both characters are nevertheless modeled on the same person. He is the bad guy because he is the rival. And the rival is always the bad guy.

So you think it is necessary to have a bad guy in a film in order to achieve suspense or to drive the action forward?

Yes, in a way. In At kende sandheden [2002] there is a bad guy in the form of a journalist who personifies the press. I have a bad guy here, but the bad guy isn't the precondition for telling the story of the dilemma involved in using the medical substance Thorotrast. The dilemma itself does not necessarily involve a bad guy.

How do you think Truffaut would relate to good guy /bad guy in his films?

In Jules et Jim there is no bad guy. The film is about the fact that their friendship survives the ménage-à-trois. In other Truffaut films, Tirez sur le pianiste [1960] for example, there are some gangsters but they're very sympathetic and funny. In his debut Les Quatre cents coups [1959] there is a teacher who hits the children, but he's comical. I don't think that there are any real bad guys in Truffaut's films.

The essence of good and evil

What is evil to you?

Evil is first of all being selfish. But evil is more than that. Evil is also the desire to hurt others. And we all have malice in us. We all have a little sadist in us - more or less repressed. The point in Kundskabens Træ is among other things that the pupils suddenly become aware of their own malice. They become aware that the way they're treating Elin is cruel.

In film, and especially in American film, evil is something ultimate - the struggle between good and evil in Star Wars or the viciousness that makes Hannibal Lecter so scary.

Yes, and a contemporary example would be Changeling [2008]. The precondition for that story is a man who enjoys killing children. America is such a vast country - so these people exist over there. But in Scandinavia, like in Mænd der hader kvinder, it's hard to accept the existence of a serial killer. I don't know of any Scandinavian serial killers.

Your films are quite different from those which relate to good and evil in a categorical way.

I don't know about that. Kundskabens Træ portrays categorical evil. It's categorical malice that is done to Elin.

Okay. Your films are about everyday life. Could you say that they treat the malice of everyday life?

Yes, you could say that.

What is goodness to you?

"Goodness is altruism," to quote my latest film. It's unselfish; doing something to please others and not just to please yourself through the pleasing of others. That's the hard thing to do, right? I do a lot of things to please others, but I can't help getting pleasure by doing it.

In American films we often see a typical arch hero who is completely sympathetic and with whom we can identify. In your films there are no clearcut heroes because it's the people of everyday life that you portray. How do you relate to heroes in films, and do you get inspired to use some of these character traits in your own films?

I am more interested in the everyday hero. To overcome oneself is a far greater feat than freeing the princess. It's these kinds of heroes I would like to find. Heroes within the horizon of everyday life. But I don't know if I have these in my films. In the real story behind Kundskabens Træ I did some heroic deeds to help Elin, but they're not in the film. For example I always danced a duty-dance with her.

Which films depict goodness and evil in a way you find realistic and credible?

It's not exactly an answer to your question, but the film Closely Watched Trains / Ostre sledované vlaky [1966] has a very fine moral. It's about a little wimp during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Thankfully someone takes care of him and he can become a man. And when he becomes a man he's ready to be a part of the resistance - so he blows up a railroad train. The moral is that you have to be something to yourself in order to be anything to others.

Can you see any qualities in a stereotypical depiction of evil? Does it mean anything to us today?

The exciting film is one where evil is being practiced not because people are evil but because of misunderstandings. That's makes a good film. One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest for example where the head nurse is a true witch, but in her scheme of things she's doing the right thing. She believes that it's the correct the way to treat confused patients. And it's the same with religious moralism. Today's terrorists force their beliefs upon others - that is evil, but I don't think the Taleban look upon themselves as evil people. On the contrary - they see themselves as good people. You can easily find films where the bad guys don't consider themselves as bad guys. And it's exciting to look upon oneself and ask: "When do I do evil things in the belief that I am doing good?"

What is the use of depicting goodness and evil to us as humans?

We can use it to look at ourselves. The moment we meet the evil of the big world in some way, we must react and respond. We must not allow anyone to terrorize us.

Good guy and bad guy in Malmros' films

What character traits does the good guy typically have in your films?

The interesting thing about my films, and that may be what bothers some people about them, is that I actually don't portray any good characters. Instead I make fickle characters.

Love and evil

Jules et Jim is a ménage à trois. It's about two friends and their love for the same girl. A ménage à trois appears in several of your own films, for example in your latest film Kærestesorger in the relationship between Jonas, Agnete and Toke.

The difference between Kærstesorger and Jules et Jim is that in my film, the two suitors are no longer friends after their fight for the girl.

Why did you choose to build your story on such a drama?

It's because I search my own life and memories for stories and use the ones I find as the fuel for my films. It's not that I wanted to find a ménage à trois, but one was there and I thought: "let me use it."

Nearly all your films have love as their theme - in one way or another.

Truffaut says: "If nine out of ten films are about love, it's one film short."

In Kærestesorger Toke is depicted, if not as evil then highly disagreeable. How do you use his unpleasantness in the story?

He is the rival. The scene where Toke sits with his sunglasses on would have been funny if he wasn't the rival. Then you might have thought: "Ha, he's teasing the French teacher." But as he is the rival the sunglasses become an expression of his arrogance. It's the jealousy that makes us see Toke through certain glasses.

Evil in the classroom

Evil can manifest itself as bullying. In Kunstskabens Træ you depict a school class in which bullying and victimization are part of everyday life. What are your thoughts about depicting the bullying and some of the pupils as bad guys? Later in the film you actually sympathize with some of them. What's behind this choice?

There is a bad main character who says TRL [translated from the Danish as Transportable Travel Hooker]. But there is also an evil class that suppresses its conscience and engages in malicious behavior. And of course there is a dynamic in the fact that it's the rejected small boys who start the bullying; Jørn obviously but also the other guys. And the girls are jealous of Elin. But there's also something about Elin - about her very being.

You could say that the whole class is the bad guy in Kundskabens Træ?

Yes. The tragedy is that when the class becomes aware of its own malice and tries to save what can be saved, the tragedy becomes even more extreme.

And Elin is in no way a good guy?

No. She's just a victim. Elin took part in bullying Mona at the start of the film. So she's not at all a good guy.

I presume that a class has always got some bullies. How did you depict them?

The interesting about Kundskabens Træ is that it takes place at Århus Cathedral School - a very bourgeois environment. And it would be compromising if anyone was a bully in the traditional sense. It was more in a psychological sense that children there were bullies. No one hit or tripped anyone.

What can say you about the good-bad dynamic that rules in a school class - is it always there?

Yes. It's there until the pupils have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. Until they have realized what evil is. Until they have recognized their own evil.

April, 2009

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