Split between Kenya and Denmark, Susanne Bier’s In A Better World has war and peace in its sights as its playground bullies test the pacifists to the limit.
The End Of Violence by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Susanne Bier has issues. And if it was paternity in After The Wedding and recovery in Things We Lost In The Fire, it’s violence in In A Better World that muddies its waters. Its Danish title Haevnen translates as The Revenge, a violent blow its English translation neatly parries, but with its opening and closing scenes of the African savannah beaten by a cruel wind blowing, it’s clear this isn’t a better world. But rather an imperfect world where law of the jungle reigns supreme, no matter how hard the peace-loving liberals try to fight it.
Working as a doctor in a clinic camp in Kenya, Anton’s peace is shattered by a pregnant girl macheted open and rushed in on a wheelbarrow. The victim of the local militia sadist, she’s the opening gambit in an irreconcilable but oh, so human argument on the nature of violence. The polemic doesn’t restrict itself to post-colonial tensions though. Cue ten-year-old brace-toothed Elias, whose daily torment only stops when new classmate Christian comes to his rescue, battering school bully Sofus with a bicycle pump and threatening him with a hunting knife. It’s law of the playground in its purest form – hit back hard or become the next victim. And it’s an undeniable logic that the children’s elders and betters struggle to refute.
Despite Christian’s father Claus’ liberal reproach of “That’s how wars are started”, there’s a nagging doubt that adult reasoning doesn’t quite cut the mustard against the boys’ ravenous thirst for justice. When Anton tries to separate a fight on a children’s playground, the kids’ tussle escalates into a war between the parents, with Christian disgusted that Anton won’t shop the bully to the police and that the slap goes unpunished. Slyly gaining the man’s address, Christian and Elias demand Anton sets the record straight. But Anton’s attempt to stand up to the stocky mechanic (a rather simple type, it’s hinted, who needs to master others to feel like a man), to show the boys he’s unafraid, responsible and able to rise above primal urges towards violence, falls rather flat. And the kids’ rage at their father’s humiliation is crystallised in a tirade of angry expletives voiced by blue-mouthed Morten.
This dialectic between stopping oppression and keeping the world turning in harmony culminates in Christian and Elias taking justice into their own hands and making a firework bomb. The explosion sees the more empathic Elias hospitalised as he tries to save a mother and daughter idly running by, and Christian riven with guilt to the point of suicide. But here, there’s a lapse in the adult veneer of merciful civilisation, as Elias’ mother Marianne, distraught at her son’s critical condition, accuses Christian of killing him, of being a little psychopath trying to control people’s lives. There’s no stop to the violence as the momentary opportunity for a delicious revenge takes over, and Christian stands on the roof ready to jump from the harbour-side silo.
Back in Africa, Anton faces a similar dilemma as the violent tribesman responsible for slicing open so many expectant mothers drags his maggot-infected leg into the Swede’s clinic. The Hippocratic duty to heal all ye who enter here, regardless of colour, creed or morality becomes hard to swallow, and Anton’s decision to treat the murderer provokes a mutiny among the nurses and a call to arms from his victims. Anton lays down the law, insisting on there being no more than two visitors and no guns, but when the war chief recuperates enough to salivate menacingly over a victim they failed to save, “a little pussy who needs a big knife,” Anton drags him out of the camp, out of his protective jurisdiction and into the clubbing arms of the villagers.
Despite the adults’ best intentions, a human desire to see someone crushed often takes over. Schadenfreude and violence spiral in an endless dance of death – an unending chain of retaliation and recriminations. And it’s not hypocrisy, just a failed desire to be better. It’s this human weakness that the kids uncover and from there, there’s no return. The adults have lost the moral high ground, lost all sway over the wayward boys. And if Elias agrees to the bombing through fear of losing the only friend he ever had, Christian’s acute sense of injustice is a bitter wound that won’t heal. Let down by the adults who failed to protect his childhood, where he stared death in the face, saw his mother reduced to a little girl again, his own existence effaced.
Born of his mother’s painful death from cancer and fuelled by the mistaken perception his father wanted her to die, Christian’s generational mistrust not only drives the emotional resonance behind the plot, it’s also incorporated into the mise en scène, as Christian peers in at his father, from a hall darkly. Claus’s empathy for his wife’s wish to die, for which Christian blames him so bitterly, is eventually explained. And finally resolution seems possible. And yet, In A Better World avoids such simple solutions. Christian may have found peace, but the question of how to make everything right in the world remains. The harmony of the world hangs in a fragile balance still.
And with its credits sequence of the law of nature in action – lions hunting the Kenyan plains and spiders lurking in their tingling webs – violent justice is an inescapable, irreducible part of life. Adults may deny it, idealistic kids may embrace it, but justice is more than a lofty virtue whether eye-for-an-eye or blind. It’s dirty and fought for daily. The only chance for a better world is personal – a moment of respite, like Anton swimming in a Danish lake, a chance to vent and restore one’s own balance. It may not endure, but still it ripples.
In A Better World is released in the UK on 19th August 2011