The Hunt: a film about a society in thrall to its children

Thomas Vinterberg's latest film is a commendably cool study of hysteria.

The Hunt (15)
dir: Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg’s first feature to be released internationally, Festen (1998), was also the first product of the mischievous “Dogme 95” manifesto. This vow of artistic chastity was cooked up by Vinterberg, Lars von Trier and other Danish film-makers who sought to strip cinema of such unconscionably decadent elements as artificial lighting, dubbed sound and tripods. “Dogme 95” may be dead but The Hunt brings Vinterberg back full circle to Festen, thematically if not stylistically. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camerawork, though handheld, is elegant, while the film is crisply beautiful, with blazing autumnal colours giving way in the second half to arctic hues. Even music is permitted: the film begins with a group of hunting buddies leaping into a lake to the sound of Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Given what follows, “Bad Moon Rising” might have been a better choice.

Where Festen concerned a patriarch exposed as a child abuser, The Hunt is set in motion when the same accusation is levelled against an innocent kindergarten teacher. To British eyes generally unaccustomed to seeing male staff at nursery schools, there may already be something odd about Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) playfighting with toddlers on the scatter cushions. Cultural norms aside, though, he is a model of propriety, which is partly his undoing. Rejecting a gift and a kiss from one of his doting young wards, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), he provokes the child’s wrath. She makes a mumbled, fictitious complaint about him to the headteacher, who takes her at her word. Lucas is cast out and branded a monster, or, in current parlance, thoroughly McAlpined.

I worried at this point that the psychological implausibility of Klara’s behaviour would capsize the film. Even the coincidence of having been shown a pornographic image by her older brother doesn’t explain her calculated strike on Lucas. Young children can be spiteful, though rarely in the same ways as their elders. This poppet operates briefly on a sophisticated plane of vindictiveness worthy of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction.

Vinterberg’s depiction of the panic provoked by the scandal is robust enough to override this narrative bump. The Hunt is a commendably cool study of hysteria, with a taut performance by Mikkelsen that recalls Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. It helps that the indictment of the small-town Danish community precedes Lucas’s woes. The children’s playful ritual of spying on him as he strolls to work, hiding in bushes to ambush him, foreshadows the attacks that will be carried out by their adult relatives. The film plants the suggestion that mob rule is latent in even the gentlest communities. It’s there in the playground. All it needs is a nudge.

The hunting party to which Lucas belongs provides the film with both a motif and a sense of circularity (his teenage son is waiting to be inducted into this masculine tradition). But the threat is not exclusively male: the whispering women who convene at the kindergarten are every bit as dangerous as the rifle-toting men. Regardless of gender, they all revere Klara’s word. When she tries to recant, they urge her to cling to her complaint: “It did happen,” her mother tells her. (Other lines include: “I believe in the children” and “My little girl doesn’t lie”.)

This is a film about a society in thrall to its children, a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era. As long as someone out there is demonised as a defiler of innocence, the attention is deflected from our own failings, minor or otherwise. Near the start of the film, Klara’s parents are arguing so furiously that Lucas has to step in and take her to school for them. Their neglect is a form of child abuse too. The suggestion of a larger crime against their daughter is for them as much smokescreen as nightmare.

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas in "The Hunt".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt