Spectator’s trust as an indicator of film authorship. Is Vinterberg a film auteur?

Gerwin van der Pol

Dit artikel verscheen als: Van der Pol, Gerwin. “Spectator’s Trust as an Indicator of Film Authorship. Is Vinterberg a Film Auteur ?” Studies in European Cinema (2015): 1-16.

Department of Media and Culture Studies, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

In this article, the Trust Model is presented as a new theory to tackle the old film theoretical problem of distinguishing film directors from film auteurs. The model proposes that in certain films, the spectator becomes problematically engaged to the fiction and to certain characters. During the viewing process, the spectator experiences moral emotions like shame and guilt. Those are at first denied as a result of cognitive dissonance; but, in the end, the spectator has to face his or her own moral emotions. It is at this final phase that the spectator actively begins to search for the auteur, as the person seemingly responsible for causing those moral emotions. The auteur is then ‘questioned’ about the sincerity of his intentions and ‘asked’ for dissolving those emotions at the end of the film. The spectator accordingly begins a trust rela- tionship with the auteur. The proposed model is applied to four films in the oeuvre of Thomas Vinterberg, a famous film director on the brink of being acknowledged as a film auteur.

Key words: Moral emotions; authorship; auteur; trust; Vinterberg

Emotions instead of style: auteurism

Why do some call Thomas Vinterberg an auteur, and why do others strongly object to call him an auteur? Why is it not enough that he is a film director? Why do some films have the capacity to promote their directors to such status, and why do others not? To answer these questions, the common practice by film scholars, based on half a century of theorizing the auteur, would be to look for certain features in the oeuvre of these film-makers. But looking for certain features in and for itself is only the result of having already established the director as an auteur. A more accurate question would address the issue of the need for authors. Foucault argues that authors perform several functions in society, one of which being to take the blame for moral transgressions in society (Foucault 1977). This article traces the problem to a more personal level: why do individual spectators choose certain film directors to perform Foucault’s author functions?

Auteur theory in cinema has constantly been evolving since its conception in France in the 1950s (Thompson 2010, 38–41). The term ‘auteur’ was coined and defended by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, amongst whom André Bazin, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The battle between them about who should be hailed as an author, and on what grounds, usually centred on a film’s mise-en-scene. Describing the mise-en-scene became a tool to distinguish films that were based on the same story, or to distinguish films within the same genre, or films being produced in the same studio

Although specific requirements and definitions vary greatly, directors are given the distinction of auteur for their merits mainly regarding technical competence, creating a distinguishable personality and propelling an interior meaning within their film (Sarris 1968). Eventually, the auteur is always understood as inscribing a certain ‘personal vision’ in a film (Staiger 2003). Other theorists understand the auteur as a selfish claim for authorship in disrespect of what actually always is a group effort (Sellors 2010).

Most influential on auteur theory has been the backlash by Roland Barthes, who claimed in his lecture, ‘Death of the Author’, in 1968, that a  spectator  should  be allowed to watch a film without being aware of the author and enjoy the film for its own merits (Barthes 1977, 142–148). The lecture and subsequent article had a detrimen- tal effect on film studies, which responded with a radical and permanent switch to studying genres and their ‘ordinary’ spectators.

What is most striking is that despite the move of film studies towards popular culture, and despite the death-declaration of the auteur by Barthes, the concept of the auteur is more alive than ever. Even Barthes himself heaves a sigh saying that ‘[…] As an institution the auteur is dead […] but in the text, in a way, I desire the auteur’ (Barthes 1977, 142–148). He voices something shared by the general public: a certain emotion that somehow is a component of film viewing. That is, people are aware of the concept of the auteur, even without actually knowing the terminology and, even more importantly, without knowing the auteur.

The auteur Thomas Vinterberg?

I would prefer to introduce Thomas Vinterberg first as an ordinary director, and consec- utively show by what machinations he could be turned into an auteur. But the process of separating him from his fellow crew and addressing him either as a person or as a film-professional directly positions him within an auteur debate. Any discussion on auteurs brings with it mentioning issues of biography, fame, art movement, nationality, style, politics and work process. Thomas Vinterberg was born on 19 May 1969 in Copenhagen, Denmark. He graduated from the National Danish Film School and immediately after directed his first sucessful short film, Last Round (1993). Vinterberg received both the jury’s and producers’ awards at the International Student Film Festival in Munich that year, as well as first prize at the Tel Aviv Film Festival. Two years later, Vinterberg directed another award winning short film Drengen der gik baglæns/ The Boy Who Walked Backwards (Vinterberg 1995). The year 1995 saw the founding of the Dogma 95 movement, initi- ated by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. The two published a manifesto including 10 rules of film-making, the so-called ‘Vow of Chastity’. These rules were supposed to cleanse the movie producing community from the reign of superficiality, the pressure of high-budget productions and so-called ‘films of illusion’. The proclamation of the Dogma 95 movement created massive media hype around Vinterberg and his Danish colleagues.

In 1996, Vinterberg directed his first feature film called De største helte/The biggest heroes (Vinterberg 1996), which won three awards at the Robert Festival. Vinterberg’s first movie that followed the strict rules of the Vow of Chastity is Festen/The Celebration. (Vinterberg 1998), The Celebration became a major success all around the globe and established Vinterberg in the community of art house directors. Among the many awards that Vinterberg won for this film was the Grand Jury Award at the film festival in Cannes. In total, Vinterberg directed 14 movies, including an independent one called

The Third Lie (Vinterberg 2000b), an experimental TV movie called DDag (Vinterberg 2000a), failing miserably with It’s all about Love (Vinterberg 2003) and rebounding with Submarino (Vinterberg 2010) and Jagten/The Hunt (Vinterberg 2012).

The autobiographical information focuses on the fact that he grew up in a Danish hippie community called Freetown Christiana, a commune in the heart of Copenhagen. In 1990, he married Maria Walbom, with whom he has two children. The couple got divorced in 2007; and, in 2010, Vinterberg married his present wife Helene Reingaard Neuman. In the meantime, his production company collapsed, after which he slowly retrieved his enthusiasm for film-making.

Does all of the above make Vinterberg an auteur? First of all, there is much stress on the rewards he received, as a signal of international acclaim of his work, which makes him stand out as ‘better’ compared to other ordinary film directors. Secondly, his films are shown in art houses, and are thus, connected to the concept of art cinema, which theoretically and historically usually is conflated with auteur cinema.

The ‘personal style’ argument is not a very convincing argument. The Dogma style, although personally manifested by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, became an international group style, being copied by other film-makers. Actually, this only stresses the problem of a category like ‘personal style’: most individual film-makers become associated to ‘waves’, or groups with a similar lineage, be it nationality, historical period or style period.

As for the oeuvre: the only common feature that binds an oeuvre is either style or ‘the vision’ of the auteur. Because Vinterberg’s films are very distinct in style, the only shared feature could be the shared ‘vision’. By making an effort for finding some commonalities, one finds a special interest in the problems and beauties of family life. This, of course, explains the many interviews in papers, magazines and television programmes, which all relentlessly dig into Thomas Vinterberg’s personal life.What remains as the most important aspect of ‘auteur theory’, is not the descriptions of certain film directors as auteurs, but the effort (or drive) to get to these descriptions. Such a drive is  described by Nikolaj Scherfig about the reception  of Vinterberg in Denmark as Vinterberologi; a wish to discuss Vinterberg’s success, and especially what it was that went wrong after The Celebration (Scherfig 2007).

Vinterbergologi is an excellent example of sociological phenomena that must derive from personal and emotional experiences by laymen and not be predetermined by film theory. The origins of such a social phenomenon are the focus of this article: it ques- tions which emotions are triggered by what kind of aspects from a film to make its spectators look for its auteur?

Steering the discussion away from auteur film for its artistic qualities and their subsequent aesthetic emotions, I emphasize the emotion-evoking capacities of the auteur film. This is in line with cognitive film theorists, when they are discussing the relation- ship between film and emotions (Tan 1996; Smith 2003). As I claim, in the way the narration is structured, it opens up certain responses of the spectator. What it also shows is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: only when the social emotions were evoked, a film qualifies for the status of auteur film.

As Truffaut already implied, a good film is not recognized by its content, but by its emotive force. That emotive force is moral. Although many important films have moral dilemmas as the motivation for the diegesis, my model focuses on the way the spectator becomes engaged with those morals resulting in moral problems felt by the spectator. Whereas other auteur theories claim that style is what distinguishes auteurs, I contend that it is narration that performs this function. Style can be used as part of the narration.

It is important to make the distinction of ‘narration’ as compared to ‘narrative’. Of essence is the sequence of six emotional phases that a spectator experiences. The first phase logically begins in the first second of screening time, and the sixth phase ends at the last second of screening time (and lingers on afterwards). The length and point of departure of each phase varies across all films. The first three phases almost coincide (usually within the first few minutes of a film), and are part and parcel of every fiction film. In an auteur film, however, those three phases are later recognized as a set-up for phases four, five and six.

I will introduce the model and explain it by applying it to Vinterberg’s The Celebra- tion. In the next part of my article, I will show some variants of the model by applying it to It’s all about Love and Submarino. I will also elaborate on some of the theories at stake. The more concise version of this model is: the spectator works hard to engage with the film, and in the end, his own morals become questioned in some way or another. At last, he seeks and hopes to find trust with the auteur.

The trust model and The Celebration

The Celebration tells the story of a family reunion to celebrate the anniversary of the head of the family, Helge (Henning Moritzen). What starts off as a typical family celebration soon turns into a nightmare that reveals lies and cruelty. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), the second oldest son, first breaks the illusory happy nature of the party, when he announces in front of the group party-goers that his father Helge used to sexually abuse him and his twin sister Linda (Lene Laub Oksen), without their mother intervening. Linda recently killed herself as she could not live with the memories of her childhood. Neither the guests, nor the film spectators, know how to judge this informa- tion. Who is right; the respectable hotel owner and family man Helge or Christian, who inappropriately ruins a celebration?

At first, not even his older brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) believes him and everyone wants to throw him out of the party. But Christian goes on to interrupt the celebration with recurrent attempts to convince the gathering that his father truly raped him and his sister.

Eventually, Helene (Paprika Steen), the second sister, reads out a letter from Linda, in which Linda also accuses her father of rape. Michael, who until this point refused to believe in the story of the rape and tried everything to get on good grounds with his father, realizes that everything Christian has said was true. Late at night, he goes to his father to beat him up in order to force him towards a confession. The next morning the family sits reunited at the breakfast table when the father and the mother (Birthe Neumann) enter. Helge gives a speech similar to the one Christian gave the night before and apologizes for his misdemeanour. After a short moment of silence, Michael goes up to his father and quietly tells him to leave. Christian appears to have somewhat over- come his anxiety and manages to ask his love Pia (Trine Dyrholm) to come with him to live in Paris.

All articles, reviews and books written about this film focus on the moral problems within the film. The bourgeois plea for ‘keeping up appearances’ is revealed as a facade for immorality, which is a blow to morals in general. Apart from the insecurity about morals being problematic enough, it is also difficult to face the immoral characters and immoral acts.

My argument is that the real moral problem lies in the engagement of the spectator with this immoral story world.


The Trust model

Phase 1. The experience of reality

The spectator is inclined to understand the diegesis in the light of his everyday experience of the world. We come to understand the story world by applying our embodied nderstanding of the world around us. We understand characters as human beings; we understand space and time in the film to be as space and time in our reality. Even those filmic aspects as shot-transitions that do not comply with this everyday real- ity can easily be understood through information from our film-knowledge schema that we have gradually learned in the course of our lives.

The Celebration, as the first Dogma 95 film, follows a specific set of rules, includ- ing the sole use of hand-held cameras and the sole use of music that would play on set. These rules affect the aesthetic of the movie as images are often shaky or blurry, not exactly focusing on people’s face. Hence, there is a strong harmony between the form: an amateur video, and the content: a family reunion. This harmony is very helpful when it comes to understand the movie as a real world.

Having met the main characters and starting to understand their mutual relationship, the audience can see the diegesis as a real world; a world that goes beyond the limits of the film but that they can understand. Also, Vinterberg successfully makes the world relatable to all spectators, as the archetype ‘family’ is a universal aspect of human life. The uniqueness of each individual spectator’s family is also universal and thus, provides the ‘safeness’ outlined in the second stage of the trust model. The audience both relates to and believes the world presented to them, yet feels safe knowing that the represented family is not their own.


Phase 2. The experience of fiction

Following phase one, the spectator tries to understand the film as fiction. Fiction is best understood as a choice to understand reality in a different mode. In this mode, one imagines reality in a different state. Objects attain a different functionality, for example, one can sit on a table, making it fictionally true that the table is a chair. The table becomes a prop in our game, in which tables are chairs. Beginning with Johan Huizinga, theorists have described this state in terms of ‘play’ or ‘make-believe’ (Walton 1990; Bateson 1972; Huizinga 1974; Walton 1978, 5–27). Apter makes some strong arguments for the emotions that go with this. (Apter 1992) Certain emotions that are in reality undesirable change into appetitive emotions in the play mode. Play leads to reappraisal of emotions, and to a reappraisal of actions. An encounter with a real tiger normally leads to extreme fear and flight reactions. But these feelings are reversed when we encounter a caged tiger in the zoo and pretend we are encountering this tiger in the wild. Within the fiction, the bars become leafs that can be pushed aside. We want to come as close as possible to the tiger, and we experience pleasant excitement instead of fear.

In the case of The Celebration, the understanding of the diegesis as a fiction is important to make the film bearable to the audience. Seeing the film as the mere display of the real world would make it hard to accept. Rather than facing a moral crisis, the spectator would probably reject the film and not get involved.

It is the spectator’s responsibility to regard the film as a fiction; however, the film helps the audience make this choice in a specific scene. In minute 14, Helen is brought to her dead sister’s room, and upon her entry, the audience perceives a strong sense of metaphysical presence. With the camera angles, the floating curtains and the blurriness of some images, it is easier for the spectator to distance themselves from the diegesis and accept it as a fiction.


Phase 3. The experience of characters

The spectator is a social being, and thus, inherently fascinated by and interested in other people. The spectator wants to find out who they are and what their intentions and goals are. Within seconds, we know someone, adding missing information by using stereo- types, prejudices and misjudgements, but thinking of ourselves as excellent unprejudiced observers (Kunda and Thagard 1996, 284–308).

Seeing and judging people is the beginning of getting related to them, whether they are real or fictional (Brain 2012, 329–353). We slowly become engaged to characters in film, but instead of making a conscious, well-considered choice, spectators react emotionally and biased, on the basis of looks of characters, favourable actions, certain portrayals and screen time.

The levels of engagement to characters are theorized by Murray Smith in Engaging characters (Smith 1995). He argues that we favour certain characters and  become alleged to them. Not only do we like them and wish well for them, we share their morals. Smith distinguishes between three consecutive phases of engagement with characters: recognition, alignment and allegiance.

Smith argues that people must firstly recognize other people as people. This issue is less relevant in the light of this study; in live-action fiction films, the characters are always recognizable as people.

On the second level, the spectator becomes aligned with the character. This occurs when we know more about a certain character, when we come to follow that character more than another character.

The strongest engagement we can feel with a character is allegiance. Smith argues that, at this stage, we truly choose the side of that character and wish for the same outcomes as that character does.

Through the process of impression formation, we quickly come to a certain assessment of characters based on quick reasoning, emotional reactions and the use of stereotypes. In classical films, such judgements are not problematized: we are shown what those characters can achieve with their given identity. In auteur films, the problem lies in the fact that some characters are not what we judge them to be. This realization is the essence of the film, which causes phases four, five and six to occur.

Almost from the start, the spectator suspects issues in the family. For example, Michael is not on the guest list and he acknowledges having a bad behaviour when he drinks. Helen, the sister, is mad at Michael for not going to Linda’s funeral and not paying his debts. This display of the relations between the characters is important because it gives the audience a better understanding of their behaviour. The audience is introduced to the father in the 10th minute. Although Christian seems very intimidated, the father appears both nice and caring, asking his son when he will come back to live in Denmark.

Not only does the audience understand the characters as real, but the audience becomes emotionally attached to specific characters. In The Celebration, the audience very quickly engages with Christian. It is important for the concept of the moral crisis that the spectators base their allegiance to characters on very limited information. In fact, their choice of allegiance despite the limited information they have is supposed to lead  to  the  moral  crisis,  showing  them  their  own  tendency  to  make  prejudiced judgements. The constant violence, stupidity and rudeness of Michael make him act as a repelling character and help the spectator to identify Christian as the ‘good guy’. The spectators also feel aligned with specific characters such as Pia because she seems to be quite supportive of Christian. Overall, the entire set of characters who take part in this family reunion is considered as a whole; only a certain number or characters are seen as individuals. The spectator feels aligned to this group of people because they fit stereo- typical roles in a family, as people they could know or interact with, they feel aligned to the entire group as a representation of the world they inhabit. The scene where the group sings ‘happy birthday’ to Helge is instrumental in presenting this family as a typi- cal, traditional family, and as such, a good one. In the third stage, the audience must form an emotional attachment to a character or characters. Vinterberg accomplishes this quite easily by slowly revealing the emotional baggage which each sibling carries.

Phase 4. The experience of cognitive dissonance

From this phase onwards, the auteur film becomes different from other fiction films. The character we become alleged to does not act as we should expect from someone we trust to have our morals. Instead of acknowledging that this character acts immoral, we, as a result of cognitive dissonance, deny it; find other reasons for this character acting differently; and instead of distancing ourselves from this character, we become stronger alleged (Festinger 1962; Cooper 2007).

At this stage in The Celebration, the audience realizes that the family is in fact

immoral and not at all like their own family or own world. Christian’s initial speech, comically titled ‘When dad has his bath’ disturbs what was previously a relatable world. With this speech, Christian brings forth the first problem of the film; he accuses his father of sexually abusing him and his dead sister. With such a bold accusation, the audience expects that the family members will be strongly affected, but to the audi- ence’s shock, after a moment’s silence, the family resumes with the festivities as if noth- ing happened. This previously beloved family with their typical family dynamics becomes less typical and far less appealing. Although Vinterberg pushes the audience away from the diegesis in this scene, he follows it by bringing the audience right back to the family. In 36th minute, the grandfather offers comic relief that seemingly makes the family forget what just happened and lightens the audience’s mood. The spectator does not want to confront the possibility of an unjust world and comforts himself with enjoying the comical aspects of the situation.

Phase 5. Moral crisis

More difficult to cope with is the shock we get when we realize that the character we are alleged to, behaves even worse, and proves to be immoral. It becomes someone we wish we hadn’t alleged with. We can feel that moment coming, at which point, we experience autonomous moral suspense. It does not have to be shown; the sugges- tion is more than enough. Although we do recognize that the film is just a fiction, we also feel that our judgements of characters and situations were based on our everyday- life morals. The moral crisis is made of acknowledging a failing sense of judgement and the loss of a belief system. The spectator experiences shame and guilt. These moral emotions affect the Self of the spectator. To no avail, the spectator seeks support in the fictional nature of the auteur film: for moral emotions, it doesn’t matter whether they emerged in fiction or reality

In phase five, the film reveals this character to be immoral beyond the point to which we can sustain the assumption that this character is a moral character. The specta- tor comes to understand that this is a character one never wants to be alleged to, but unfortunately, that is exactly what the spectator is.

This puts the spectator in a true moral crisis, which even surpasses the fact that the film was understood as fiction. Although the character is fictional, the moral crisis of the spectator is real. The way the spectator constructed this character  and  became alleged to him was done in the very same way as the spectator understands people in real life. Consequently, the spectator becomes aware of the prejudiced way he judges others and the immorality of his own moral belief system. Margarethe Bruun Vaage describes a similar realization as reality check (Vaage 2012, 218–237).

To fully understand the nature of the moral crisis, a short explanation of how a moral belief system is understood within the cognitive psychological field is necessary. Morals do not exist outside persons, they are part of a psychological state that people construct and live up to during their lives. Moral is understood as a personal schema. But although a moral schema is highly personal/ subjective, in this study, I use Michael Lerner’s Belief-in-a-Just-World belief system, as a typical Western European belief system, overarching both the Judean-Christian morals as the secular morals (Lerner 1980).

The Belief-in-a-Just-World posits that the world is a just world. The main point of this belief system is to uphold this ideal image of the world as just. The consequence of every injustice occurring in this world means that there must be a reason for it, and final justifications. If someone is murdered, that does not destroy the image of the World as Just, as long as the murderer is punished. And even when the murder is never solved, we retain this image of a just world by believing that the murderer will somehow get his comeuppance.

Some injustice like starvation, war and disasters cannot be explained in this way. We have learned to accept the existence of such injustice by defining it as part of a different world order: the unjust world, of which we proclaim ourselves not to be its citizens.

Explained in this way, this belief system appears to be quite immoral in its founda- tion. In general, people live up to this belief system, unaware of its immoral base. The Belief-in-a-Just-World just explains the folk psychology of people dealing with moral issues.

What is really problematic about the moral crisis of the spectator in phase five is the realization of the spectator that either (a) his moral fault places him as an unjust person in a just world or (b) his moral fault (generated by relying on his moral system) shows the ugliness and bankruptcy of the moral system itself.

Every spectator, and every review and article about The Celebration, notices the felt abhorrence of Helge’s hideous acts. (e.g. Chaudhuri 2005, 153) This aversion is not necessarily structured by the narration: we are shocked about the fact that a well- respected citizen is capable of raping his children. The fact that we are shocked is because we know that it is a fact in our everyday world, of which the fictional character Helge rudely reminds us. But it is hardly through our engagement with Helge that we feel those moral problems. We are not allied to Helge. In some scenes, we become aligned with him, and we understand that he is well respected. But we do not become allied to him.

Two engagements, however, do cause moral emotions. In the 70th minute of the film, when Michael leads the entire family in a racist song as a response to Helene’s black boyfriend Gbatokai (Gbatokai Dakina) standing up for Christian. This horrific  scene shows how immoral the diegetic world truly is. In this scene,  the  audience realizes that the family’s issues are deeper rooted than Christian’s speech, and that in fictively joining the festivities as spectators and recognizing the family as similar to their own family, they are now suddenly being lured into acting as racist and immoral. At first, the spectators were just as dumbfounded by Christian’s speech as the family members, being aligned with them. But whatever bond we felt with them, whatever likeness we began to find to our own family members, here, we want to draw a line between us and them; we no longer want to be part of this diegesis; and we hasten to find arguments that our morals prevent us from those racist acts. The film does give us some relief, by positioning us with Gbatokai and Helene, the righteous underdogs.

Immediately following this scene, Helene storms away from the dining room and breaks down in the bathroom, exclaiming that she can’t do this and that she is going crazy. The audience shares this desperate feeling and feels an urge to continue watching in hope of reconciliation. The film offers a glimpse of hope a few minutes later when Pia finds the letter from the dead sister that Helene has been hiding.

We have formed allegiance with Christian;  the film begins with  following him, focusing on him and portraying him as sympathetic. One of the reasons that the audi- ence allies with Christian is that he has to deal with the very unsympathetic presence of Michael, whom we dislike from the start. As soon as Michael sees his brother, he throws his wife and children out of the car to give Christian a lift. He shouts at his wife, in the hotel, he is at first refused because of his earlier misbehaviour. He humili- ates Gbatokai. He committed adultery with one of the maids and instead of admitting to her claim, he beats her.

What really causes the moral emotions in the spectator is the stubborn refraining from engagement with Michael. When he becomes convinced of Christian’s truth, he supports him and wants to revenge him. The spectator also comes to understand why he did not know about the truth: in his youth, he attended boarding school abroad, which saved him from being raped by Helge, but also made him an outsider to the family. But most importantly, he takes action for his opinion.

Engaging with characters that are revealed as immoral is severely problematic to our morals, but it is equally problematic to have discarded of people because of their supposed immorality and then understanding them as righteous. For example, we could have noticed in the introduction that Michael, while throwing his wife and children out of the car, actually was helping his brother and was being kind to him. What is the worth of our moral belief system, which orders us to treat others as human beings and with respect, that makes us discard of people after the  first  mistake  they  seem  to make?

Phase 6. The experience of trust

In phase six, the spectator seeks trust with the auteur, which causes a search for the auteur; this search creates an awareness of the style of the film, which is the only tangible proof of his existence. Typically, the spectator will have a silent one-way dialogue with the auteur, asking questions like: are you sincere; why did you lay bare my moral vulnerability; how will you get me out of my moral crisis?

Trust has the remarkable characteristic of replacing one’s doubt concerning one’s own

actions with expectations of the positive actions of others. Because good behaviour is cen- tral, it should be at the core of the ethical philosophy. Nonetheless, the actions of others have long remained neglected in ethical philosophy because ‘[…] Kant’s unconditional morality removes the need for trust’. (Weber and Carter 2003, 145) Philosophers such as Annette Baier and Eric Uslaner have made clear that the ethical behaviour of others is also of great importance (Baier 1986, 231–260; Uslaner 2002).

The auteur defuses the spectator’s moral crisis with the way he finishes the narra- tion. This leads to a conflicting attitude: the auteur must follow through the conse- quences of the wrongful judgement into the extreme. At the same time, the auteur must, after the moral crisis has emerged, offer a way for the spectator to restore his moral. This means that the auteur film usually ends with a fatality, reckoning, complete break- down of the system, but in good spirits. Of course, it is for the spectator to judge whether the auteur proved trustworthy enough. Sometimes the film ends in such a way that the spectator feels left alone in his moral crisis, and he will feel distrust to the auteur, and will judge the auteur as insincere. This is the main  reason  that  auteur debates are always so vehement. The feelings of trust or distrust to a director are so deeply felt that any argument about this director feels like a personal attack.

Strongly felt trust leads to the loyalty of the spectator and a lasting feeling of friend- ship. This leads to an excessive interest in everything that has to do with the auteur: interviews and biographies.

In the final phase of The Celebration, Vinterberg regains the trust of his audience. In the finale, the audience is not sure what to expect. The morning after the family is sitting around the breakfast table, joking and laughing together. Their jolly nature fur- ther confuses the audience as to the happenings of the previous evening. The first way in which Vinterberg instils trust in the audience is Christian asking Pia to move to Paris with him. In this request, the audience is seeing the possibility of a brighter future for Christian, what appears to be an almost fairy-tale ending. Vinterberg fully regains the trust of the audience through the actions of Michael. Michael finally stands up for everyone else and asks Helge to leave the breakfast table.

It’s all about engagement in It’s all about Love

The success of The Celebration (1998) created extremely high expectations for It’s All about Love (2003), expectations that the film did not meet. Neither audience nor critics offered a positive assessment of the film.

It’s All about Love (2003) tells the story of two characters fighting for their love, and ultimately, their lives in an out-of-control world in 2021. John (Joaquin Phoenix) and world-famous figure ice-skater Elena (Claire Danes) are married, but have lived apart for several years. Time has ensured that the distance between them has grown. Eventually, John arrives in New York with divorce papers demanding Elena’s signa- ture, but upon arriving, notes that unexpected events occur around his wife. Slowly, he comes to realize  that  there  is a conspiracy going on, with Elena’s brother Michael (Douglas Henshall) revealing it, and assistant Betsy (Margo Martindale), both being the only ones to be trustworthy. Since Elena has a heart  condition, she becomes a financial risk to David (Alun Armstrong) and the company that produces her shows. Thus, three stand-ins have been trained to replace her and  make  her  superfluous. Where Elena at first seems to be a drug addict, who pays more attention to her career than to John, John comes to realize that she is drugged; blackmailed to keep secrets; and that she actually still loves John. After most of the conspiracy is revealed, David still presents himself as a kind godfather and gives Elena a farewell party, and offers a retirement. Elena and three doubles go skating at the ice rink. They are ambushed by Mr Morrison (Geoffrey Hutchings). Miraculously, Elena is the only one to survive.

John and Elena escape with Michael. In flight, John discovers that Michael is also part of the conspiracy. Michael apologizes and walks away. Michael dies in a blizzard, and later, Elena and John die too, be it in a fairy-tale snow landscape. The story is inter- mitted by images and text from Marciello (Sean Penn), John’s brother, forever circling the earth on a plane.

The story is set against the backdrop of a collapsing world, where gravity has disap- peared in Uganda; where it snows in summer; and where people die for lack of love. To the credit of the film could be said that it tries to achieve a certain mood of distance and beauty. The strange features of this future world are both frightening (because of our fear of the effects of climate change) and aesthetically impressive.

We could interpret the film as having the same structure as The Celebration. Shared features are the family reunion, the frightening façade of friendliness and the powerful father figure being revealed as pure evil. Also, the problems of engagement concentrate on the brother. Contrary to The Celebration, in which Michael turns from seemingly bad to inherently good; Michael shifts from seemingly good to inherently bad.

Although the film has all the ingredients for an auteur film in my definition, it fails in its execution. Instead of helping the spectator to engage with the diegesis, it both confuses and distracts. It shows a future world where nothing really has changed, but just some strange aspects are added to  give an image of the future. Those  strange aspects, people are dying suddenly from an insincere love affair; people are left dead on the streets; and the already-mentioned floating people in Africa, are all given, but not explained. Spectators accept such strange inserts within our everyday world, but need some reason for engaging with it. Such explanations do not necessarily have to be given explicitly, as long as the spectator can find some metaphorical justification, some possi- ble relation to their everyday world. For example, the climate going haywire in this film does not have to be explained, since the global warming is a current debate in our society. But how that results in people floating in the air in Uganda does need some explanation.

Because the unexplainable events constantly remind the spectator of the fictional nature, the spectator works hard to experience the film on a realistic level. The fictional nature of the film prevents the spectator from actively, and by his own initiative, playing the game of make-believe. Instead, the film presents itself as fictional, thus taking the fun out of it, and the necessity.

The engagement causes problems. In most art films, characters are presented in a narrative vacuum, in which the spectator first has to deal with people, and only later on, with the events. This film is no different, withholding crucial information and just presenting characters without background information.

We do like John because he is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix. We also like him because the powerful thugs that pick him up at the airport look threatening, have the power to overrule all airport rules and ignore his pity for the dead people on the ground. John is, and remains, the good guy. And since we engage with him (if at all), we remain on safe moral grounds. In the beginning of the film, John is not very active: people make decisions for him. In the course of the film, he regains agency. But all the factors that warrant the spectator’s engagement to John also function to show that all those who obstruct his agency are seen in an unfavourable light. Hence, all members of the happy circus family are, from beginning to end, understood as a dangerous, conspir- ing bunch of people. The counterexample could be Betsy, who remains a good friend. But even that is no surprise, since she is presented as different from that awful circus family.

The spectator is given too much conflicting information about Elena to enable engagement. She shows too many different moods for multiple and mysterious reasons, in ever-changing, unclear circumstances. Heider and his commentators taught us that we understand people as the outcome of three mutual influencing factors: the triangle iden- tity, actions and circumstances. (Heider 1944, 358–374) But if all three are constantly changing, we withhold our judgement. (Jones 1990; Kelley 1967, 192–241; Read and Miller 2005, 124–139) It also does not help that there are three doubles, which are difficult to differentiate from her. The film sets itself a difficult task in suggesting a sincere love affair, even if ony a mythical one, based on John and a girl without an identity.

The only really  problematic character is Michael, posing as an ally, family and friend to Elena, to be finally revealed as a fraud, a careerist, a conformist, betraying his loved ones. That revelation could have come as a shock. But from his first entrance, his behaviour is shaky, restless and nervous, suggesting he is not sincere. Even the camera work and editing suggest to the spectator that he is secretly talking to the circus family and plotting something evil, where John believes he is just helping him.  In  every respect, the film suggests to the spectator: do not trust him. And, indeed, we do not trust him, so we cannot be hurt by the revelation that he betrayed them. It is so evident that he betrayed them that we even think low of John for not figuring that out himself.

Because of the lack of engagement, and of not getting wrongly engaged, the specta- tor does not experience dissonance, nor moral crisis, nor trust. We could have experi- enced those phases had we liked and believed the paterfamilias; had we earlier seen a sincere Elena; had we not seen through Michael’s evil plans; and had we strongly been engaged to the diegesis.

It’s all about love is an interesting showcase for having all the ingredients, but lack ing in the fine art of convincing portrayal. Some faults could have easily been solved, the engagement to characters would have certainly gained by longer exposure to them; the producer’s cut of the film to 104 min was a major mistake. But also, the struggle between positioning the film somewhere between an art film and a mainstream film had a detrimental effect on this film. An overload of mystery and action – both in the diegesis as in the narration – begs for stable characters, turning the film into a mainstream film. But it becomes problematic that the film also pursues the goal of having art film anti-heroes in identity crisis and portraying them in the style of a fairy-tale, and on top of that suggesting a profundity that fairy-tales never have. The general dislike suggests that this balancing act did not work.


Submerging in an unjust world in Submarino

Submarino tells about two young brothers, who tenderly take care of their youngest brother, who is a baby. Their mother does not take care of her baby because she is con- stantly drunk. In a moment of neglect, the baby dies. The remainder of the plot shows the separate and desperate lives of the two brothers as grown-ups. We cannot help but feel sorry and revolted for them as they are shown as victims of their past, looking for redemption, but showing addictive and self-destructive behaviour.

Nick (Jakob Cedergren), the eldest, is out of prison after serving time for an assault. He drinks, lives in a shelter and hesitantly begins a relationship with Sophie, after having an impossible relationship with Mona (Helene Reingaard Neumann). He tries to help an old friend and ex-brother-in-law: Ivan (Morten Rose), who suffers from a mental sickness. Ivan kills Nick’s Sofie (Patricia Schumann) and Nick takes the blame.

The second part of the film shows us the parallel life of the younger, nameless brother (Peter Plaugborg), who is a widower and drug addict, who has difficulties in taking care of his son Martin (Gustav Fischer Kjærulff ). Nick meets his brother at the funeral of their mother. When an opportunity presents itself, his brother becomes a drug dealer to secure his son’s future, but he fails and gets caught by the police. The two brothers meet again in prison, they share their sorrow, understand each other’s misery and vain attempts to overcome the past. After that Nick’s brother commits suicide. Then finally life brightens up: Nick’s lawyer proves Nick to be innocent. Nick gets on speak- ing terms with Mona. At his brother’s funeral, he meets his nephew Martin again and the little boy finds his hope for a better future by being looked after by his uncle.

Spectators are forced to watch characters being sentenced to life in Lerner’s unjust world. It confronts the spectator with the unjust world, and puts them temporarily in this world they are used to shy away from. Not only are we confronted with this unjust world, we also come to see injustice at its most relentless, since both brothers are portrayed as moral characters. They try to do well, but are constantly reminded of their guilt.

From the first seconds of the film, the spectator is thus thrown in phase five of the Trust Model. The spectators understand the film as realism and grasp at the straw of fiction to protect them. They are presented with characters to allege with (even when they prefer not to), and this alone is enough to evoke their moral emotions.

This means that trust with the author becomes a necessity from the beginning. The felt moral crisis cannot be reasoned away by the fictional nature, and the spectators have to be rescued by the auteur. How else could they continue watching this film? If there was no trust in the auteur, the spectator would leave the theatre thoroughly depressed.

Vinterberg has to show he is trustworthy in two different ways. He has to present this unjust world convincingly as inevitable and true. And at the end, he has to present the spectator with an outcome that will restore the belief in the just world.

Spectators engage with the film because it is a cleverly built structure. Its visual style is raw, ugly and dirty, and almost monochrome, but as a narrative structure, it is elegant. Beginning and end are mirrored; the improvised baptism of the baby mirrored the brother’s funeral in church. In between, the film is first devoted to Nick’s life, look- ing for his brother and not being able to find him. Then the film goes back in time, to focus on his brother, making us notice how they live parallel lives and tragically fail to meet, like ships passing in the night. This narrative structure stresses their ill-fated lives. The tight structure convinces the spectator of the inevitability of the events, where fate will mercilessly intervene in the brother’s lives.

The relief begins when the brothers finally meet in prison. They share their emotions and hesitantly forgive each other. There are limits to what a film-maker can do in restoring our belief in poetic justice; it should not feel like a deus ex machina. Even in its happy mood, it is still restricted to the relentless nature of reality, such as the facts that Nick’s brother cannot be prevented from suicide and Nick has to have his hand ampu- tated. But this double loss breaks the doomed nature of his actions, and we can believe he somehow will be given a chance in future – getting on speaking terms with Ana and taking care of his nephew Martin.

Jagten questions the spectator’s morals in similar fashion, although with a somewhat different mix of the proposed ingredients of an auteur film. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a very sympathetic character which the spectator admires for his kindness and friendly behaviour to children. Without hesitation the spectator becomes alleged to this character. Then one of the children is said to have accused him of sexual abuse. The film remains centred on Lucas, trying to cope with the fact that the whole village sets up against him, and, after the fact that no proof seemed to exist, towards the end of the film tries to continue living as if nothing happened. The film refrains from given facts about what happened. The moral issues within the story world are obvious enough, and discussed in all the praising reviews of the film. The real issue of the film is that the spectator struggles with paradoxical moral problems: either he believes in Lucas’s innocence, thereby holding on to the allegiance, but then having to face the injustice of the world, wherein moral character has no place (thus being confined to an unjust world); or the spectator comes to the conclusion that Lucas is guilty of child abuse, and, as a conse- quence, has to face the fact that he wholeheartedly alleged to a character  who  is revealed to be a child abuser, and thus, proves the fault in the spectator’s moral system.



The essence of an auteur film is revealing the act of viewing by the spectator as a moral act. The moral problems spectators have with certain films are not caused by  the immoral nature of the presented acts in the film. Nor can it be explained by the incon- gruence of the images throughout the film, as Carl Plantinga explains in his essay on problematic emotions in viewing – what I would call an auteur film – The Thin Red Line (Malick 1998). (Plantinga 2010, 86) As shown in Vinterberg’s case: his films are consistent in style. The incongruency lies within the spectator, not within the films. And even in a film as The Thin Red Line that does present incongruent images, that aspect is in my opinion just a minor cause for the emotions experienced, where the moral problems of the spectator would be the main explanation.

The moral crisis is caused by the act of engaging to certain people, certain ideas on the basis of the inherent belief system of the spectator. An auteur film uncovers the structural flaws within that belief system, evoking moral emotions. An auteur, as constructed by the spectator in need of absolving him, will show his trustworthiness by restoring the spectator’s morals. If the auteur succeeds in doing that, the spectator will feel relief and trust. Trust leads to the pursuit of new encounters, to maintain the trust relation, and will lead the spectator to see the auteur’s next film. This film will be viewed with more goodwill, but it does not necessarily mean the next film will re-establish the trust. The simple fact of reunion with the auteur can suffice. But too many failed films can bleed the trust dry. A true auteur will, with some consistency, make a new film by the model I have proposed. This certainly applies for Vinterberg. The Celebration was a prototypical auteur film; It’s all about love was not; and Submarino and Jagten were. After Submarino, the critics and the audience were still doubting whether to call Vinterberg an auteur. But after his impressive Jagten, which just as heavily questioned spectator’s morals as did The Celebration and Submarino, his name as an auteur has been established.



This article  is an elaboration  of the  Trust Model  as constructed  in my PhD thesis. The full application of the model to the Vinterberg films has been the topic of a Film seminar on the Great Film Directors (September–December 2011). I wish to thank my enthusiastic students for their input, their research, their comments, their agreements, their disagreements and their enthusiasm: Lisa Carlson, Briony Curzon, Christina Dicioccio, Ellen Donnison, Madeline Ellwood, Sandra Espenhain, Davide Gaeta, Rebecca Gorman, Rasmus Bahrt Haulrig, Juri Horst, Alexander Lerose, Sinéad Lillis, Alejandro Lopez Sanfeliu, José Lucas Villa, Lauren Mahoney, Camille  Pierre, Tatiana Rathke, Jessie Stettin, Gabriel Vivier, Rachel Weiss and Jiexin Yang.



Apter,  Michael  J.  1992.  The  Dangerous  Edge:  The  Psychology  of  Excitement.  New  York:  Free Press.

Baier, Annette. 1986. “Trust and Antitrust.” Ethics 96: 231–260.

Barthes, Roland. 1977. “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text, translated and edited by S. Heath, 142–148. London: Fontana Paperbacks.

Bateson,  Gregory.  1972.  Steps  to  an  Ecology  of  Mind:  A  Revolutionary  Approach  to  Man’s Understanding of Himself. New York: Ballantine.

Brain, Robert Michael. 2012. “Self-projection: Hugo Münsterberg on Empathy and Oscillation in Cinema Spectatorship.” Science in Context 25 (3): 329–353.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. 2005. “Dogma Brothers: Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.” In New Punk  Cinema,  edited  by  Nicholas  Rombes,  153–167.  Edingburgh:  Edinburgh  University Press.

Cooper, Joel. 2007. Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Festinger, Leon. 1962. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Language, Counter-memory Practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heider, Fritz. 1944. “Social Perception and Phenomenal Causality.” Psychological Review 51: 358–374.

Huizinga, Johan. 1974. Homo Ludens: Proeve Eener Bepaling Van Het Spel-Element Der Cultuur. 6th ed. Groningen: Tjeenk Willink.

Jones, Edward E. 1990. Interpersonal Perception. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Kelley, Harold H. 1967. “Attribution Theory in Social Psychology.” Nebraska Symposium on Motivation 14: 192–241.

Kunda, Ziva, and Paul Thagard. 1996. “Forming Impressions from Stereotypes, Traits, and Behav- iors: A Parallel-constraint-satisfaction Theory.” Psychological Review 103 (2): 284–308.

Lerner, Melvin J. 1980. The Belief in a Just World. New York: Plenum Press.

Malick, Terrence. 1998. The Thin Red Line. Los Angeles, CA: Fox 2000.

Plantinga, Carl. 2010. “Affective Incongruity and the Thin Red Line (Critical Essay).” Projections 4 (2): 86–103.

Read, Stephen J., and Lynn C. Miller. 2005. “Explanatory Coherence and Goal-based Knowledge Structures in Making Dispositional Inferences.” In Other Minds: How Humans Bridge the Divide Between Self and Others, edited by Bertram F. Malle and Sara D. Hodges, 124–139. New York: The Guilford Press.

Sarris, Andrew. 1968. The American Cinema. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Scherfig, Nikolaj. 2007. “Sex, Død & Thomas Vinterberg.” Filmmagasinet Ekko 39, Accessed December   22.   http://www.ekkofilm.dk/artikler/sex-dod-thomas-vinterberg/

Sellors, C. Paul. 2010. Film Authorship: Auteurs and Other Myths. Short Cuts, vol. 47. London: Wallflower.

Smith, Murray. 1995. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Smith, Greg M. 2003. Film Structure and the Emotion System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Staiger, Janet. 2003. “Authorship Approaches.” In Authorship and Film, edited by D. A. Gerstner and J. Staiger, 27–57. New York: Routledge.

Tan, Ed S. 1996. Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Translated by Barbara Fasting. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Thompson, David. 2010. “Von Sternberg: Six Chapters in Search of an Auteur.” Sight and Sound 20 (1): 38–41.

Uslaner, Eric M. 2002. The Moral Foundations of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Vaage, Margrethe Bruun. 2012. “Fictional Reliefs and Reality Checks.” Screen 54 (2): 218–237. Vinterberg, Thomas. 1995. Drengen Der Gik Baglæns/the Boy Who Walked Backwards. Copenhagen: Nimbus Film Productions.

Vinterberg, Thomas. 1996. De Største Helte/ the Biggest Heroes. Copenhagen: Nimbus Film Pro- ductions.

Vinterberg, Thomas. 1998. Festen/the Celebration. Copenhagen: Nimbus Film Productions. Vinterberg, Thomas. 2000a. D-Dag. Copenhagen: Nimbus Film Productions.

Vinterberg, Thomas. 2000b. The Third Lie. Toronto: Alliance Atlantis Communications. Vinterberg, Thomas. 2003. It’s all about Love. Hilversum: CoBo Fonds.

Vinterberg, Thomas. 2010. Submarino. Copenhagen: Nimbus Film Productions. Vinterberg, Thomas. 2012. Jagten/the Hunt. Copenhagen: Danmarks Radio.

Walton, Kendall L. 1978. “Fearing Fictions.” The Journal of Philosophy 75 (1): 5–27.

Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Weber,  Linda  R.,  and  Allison  I.  Carter.  2003.  The  Social  Construction  of  Trust.  New  York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


%d bloggers like this: