Nominations are in for this year's Academy Awards, and among those up for Best Foreign Language film is The Hunt. It's the latest from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who made his reputation in 1998 with The Celebration, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and went on to become an international success. Both that film and this more recent one depict the aftermath of allegations of sexual abuse.
Vinterberg was a co-founder of the brief but influential Danish movement called Dogme 95, which urged that films be made with more humility and less Hollywood artificiality. "There has to be a reason to put up a lamp and put on makeup and add music," the director says. "You're not just making movies."
The Celebration and the worldwide acclaim it earned Vinterberg led to a strange encounter — and eventually to The Hunt.
"Someone knocked on my door on a winter night all the way back in the year 2000, a very famous children's psychiatrist," he recalls. "And he said, 'You made a film some years ago called Festen, or The Celebration.' I said, 'Yes?' 'Well, then there's another film you have to do as well.'"
The doctor gave him a stack of papers, but Vinterberg didn't get around to reading them until several years later. When he did, he discovered frightening stories of false accusations of child molestation.
He knows there are plenty of real cases; The Celebration, in fact, was a story in which a man accuses his father of rape and fights to be believed. The Hunt details the opposite problem, portraying a tightknit Danish hunting community where lifelong friendships shatter over a misunderstood comment repeated by a kindergartner. The focus is on the people, not the police investigation.
"Our goal was to make a film about very strong bonds between people, about love, about camaraderie in its best sense and about how vulnerable that can be," Vinterberg says. "It was our goal to make a film about the thought as a virus, so to speak.
"With one click or one wrong statement on Facebook, then your life can be changed or ruined. I thought that needed further exploration."
Having said that, the director pivots.
"I really find it important to say that it's also a story of love," he says. "It's about how much conflict people can actually survive."
The teacher at the center of The Hunt's conflict is played by Mads Mikkelsen, Denmark's biggest international star and winner of the Best Actor Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his performance. He was drawn to the script for the way it expresses all points of view.
"One of the most beautiful things about this script is that it's hard to point a finger at anyone," Mikkelsen says. "When I see it, and when I read it, I understand my friend, and I understand the woman who works in the kindergarten. I understand the little girl, I understand my friend's wife. So for that reason alone, it's very difficult to put your anger anywhere.
"And that is obviously the dilemma of the story," he says. "There are no bad guys. There's just an enormous love that's being turned into enormous fear and eventually into hate. And I think that is the real power and the real story of the film."
Mikkelsen's ostracized character defiantly goes to Christmas Eve Mass, only to break down emotionally.
"He's starting out going to church because he has a right to do it. It is also his city, it's his town. So he's standing up for himself there," Mikkelsen says. "And then I think that the character is getting slightly more surprised with what happens to himself in the church. He's taken aback with his own reaction, I guess. He's getting quite emotional. And then he steps up and makes a situation out of it."
The Hunt is part of a distinguished history of filmmaking in Denmark, one that's more than a century long. Vinterberg says it's also part of a literary tradition of what he calls "dark tales of the north" — and that the film takes inspiration from one of the most celebrated Danish storytellers.
"I see this tale a little bit like a Hans Christian Andersen tale. There's a group of very innocent — naive even — people jumping into a lake, naked, pure. And then this glass splinter comes into the society. Darkness spreads."
But splinters can be removed, and The Hunt seems to have done that for Vinterberg. He's made films steadily since The Celebration, but none as admired or popular as his latest.