Danish Jewish film director behind Oscar-nominated movie an anomaly
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Danish Jewish film director behind Oscar-nominated movie an anomaly

Susanne Bier, director of "In a Better World." (Sony Pictures Classics)

Susanne Bier, director of “In a Better World.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Film director Susanne Bier, whose Danish movie, “In a Better World,” is a favorite for Oscar honors, is an anomaly.

She is a woman director in an overwhelmingly male profession, and she is emphatically Jewish in a country and industry in which such affirmation is hardly the norm. Her parents are religiously observant.

After a Golden Globe win for the year’s best foreign-language film, Bier, who studied for two years in Jerusalem, is in a strong position to repeat in that category in the Academy Awards. However, she faces stiff competition from the other four finalists representing Algeria, Canada, Greece and Mexico.

Israel, which seemed close to its first Oscar when its entries made the final five cut in each of the last three years, struck out early with its entry, “The Human Resources Manager.”

Bier, youthful and animated at 50, was born in Denmark, but the fates and persecutions of her forebears in Nazi Germany and czarist Russia have deeply affected her personal and artistic outlooks.

Her paternal grandfather, a real estate executive in Berlin, was farsighted enough to leave Germany for Denmark in 1933, when his son, Susanne’s father, was 2 years old.

Three decades earlier, her mother’s Russian family arrived in Denmark in 1903, the year of the infamous Kishinev pogrom in what is present-day Moldova.

Their secure refuge in Denmark was shattered in 1940, when Nazi armies invaded the country. Both families were saved in the celebrated 1943 boatlift to Sweden, which saved almost all of Denmark’s Jews.

Susanne’s father, then 12, vividly recalled the experience to his daughter. The car in which the family was driving to the boat rendezvous ran out of gas next to a German command post. After a very anxious time, a passing Danish motorist supplied the refugees with fuel.

After the Allied victory, both families returned to Denmark, and from their backgrounds and experiences they transmitted two life lessons to Susanne.

“I felt early on that even in the most secure life, there is always the potential for catastrophe,” she said in an interview with JTA at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

On the reverse side, her parents taught her “to address the world in a positive way,” to look for the good even in evil times, and to deal morally and righteously with others, she said.

Bier grew up as somewhat of a tomboy, preferring soccer scrimmages with the boys to playing with dolls. She was socially awkward, an avid reader and had a creative bent.

Upon finishing high school, she decided to explore her Jewish roots by studying in Israel. She spent half a year at the Hebrew University and one-and-a-half years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

She left Jerusalem after “two years of partying,” she says, with a working knowledge of Hebrew and a vague sense that she eventually would marry a nice Jewish lawyer and have six kids.

Her religious parents, whom she phones at least once a day, approved of this tentative life path. However, Bier discovered that “all the nice Jewish boys I encountered were just too boring,” and she was more attracted to not-so-nice, non-Jewish boys.

In her actual marital life, Bier has struck somewhat of a compromise.

“My first husband was non-Jewish, my second husband was a nice Jewish boy, and I am now in a relationship with a non-Jewish man,” she said. She is the mother of Gabriel, 21, and Alice Esther, 15.

Bier studied architecture in London and then attended Denmark’s National Film School, graduating in 1987. Her movie career took off auspiciously with the Swedish film “Freud Leaves Home,” which won critical acclaim.

Her next effort, “Family Matters,” flopped badly, but Bier recovered and her subsequent nine films, released at the rate of about one every two years, generally have been popular and well received by critics.

Bier really hit her stride as director and screenwriter in the last decade. Her 2004 movie, “Brothers,” was a box office and artistic hit and was remade in an English version.

Two years later, she scored even better with “After the Wedding,” which made the final cut for an Academy Award. Hollywood came calling, and in 2007 she directed “Things We Lost in the Fire” with Halle Berry, Benicio Del Toro and David Duchovny.

Her current Oscar contender, “In a Better World,” was released in her native country as “Hoevnen,” Danish for “Revenge,” which seems a more pointed title.

The film stars some of the leading Scandinavian actors and a remarkable 12-year old boy, William Johnk (ok) Nielsen, whom Bier discovered.

Like many of the director’s movies, “Better World” deals with complex family relationships, this one between two fathers and their sons, and the intense bond between the two boys.

Also typical of Bier’s outlook, the movie ends on a note of hope. “Too many European films celebrate pessimism,” Bier said, “but desolation is no good. It is better to communicate that there’s some hope in the world.”