The Hunt

“Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor”

It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that we’ve all been both guilty of and been the victims of the breaking of this commandment, which is probably why stories about the falsely accused have resonated through the centuries.  It’s what fueled Othello on stage and The Count of Monte Cristo on the page.  Alfred Hitchcock made a career directing films about the wrongly accused.  The Fugitive captured the attention of TV viewers in the sixties and later moviegoers in the nineties.  Stephen Sondheim dramatized how being falsely accused can lead to murder and madness in his musical Sweeny Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the fact that users of the Internet Movie Database (imdb) have routinely voted The Shawshank Redemption as the number-one movie of all time week after week for years now certainly says something about the power of such stories.

Yet what happens when the person who bears false witness is a five-year-old girl?  One who genuinely loves the accused and who simply acted out of frustration, not malice?  That question lays in the heart of The Hunt, a superb thriller directed by Thomas Vinterberg.

The central character is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, a Danish actor who is perhaps best known for playing the villain in Casino Royal and the title character in Hannibal), a divorced man approaching middle-age, living in the same town he’s lived in his whole life, save perhaps for when he went to college.  The town is an insular community in rural Denmark where families have known each other for generations.  He lives alone, except for his springer spaniel Fanny. His son (Lasse Fogelstrøm) is about to come over for Christmas and is also planning on moving back in with Dad.  During the winter Lucas and the men he grew up with go deer hunting, followed by a round of beers.  He’s also in the early stages of an affair with co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), an Eastern European emigre who speaks better English then Danish.

Lucas was a college professor, but the school where he taught closed down.  Needing work, he’s taken a temporary job teaching kindergarten at a local school.  He’s clearly overqualified for such a job, but he’s known many of the children since they were babies and has a genuine rapport with them.  In one scene, a boy is sitting on the toilet and asks Lucas to wipe his backside.  Since I don’t have any children I don’t know if such a thing is acceptable in the U.S.  Lord knows I’d be uncomfortable doing it.

One of his charges is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).  Since her parents are having problems, Lucas often takes Klara to and from school.  He also let’s her walk Fanny from time to time.

Klara is clearly very attached to Lucas.  One day at school she makes him a present, a little plastic heart which she hides in his coat.  Also, during a game, she jumps on top of Lucas and kisses him on the lips.  Afterwards he takes Klara aside and tells her that it’s not right for her to kiss anyone but her mother and father on the mouth.  He then produces Klara’s gift and suggests that she should give it to her mother.  This hurts the young child.  She denies having given Lucas the gift and goes off to sulk in another room.

The school principal (Susse Wold) spots little Klara and asks her what’s wrong.  She claims that she “hates” Lucas.  She then says that he “has a penis”.  Well, all men do, says the principal.  But then Klara gives a description of Lucas’ manhood that’s surprisingly graphic for a five-year old.

Earlier, we saw Klara’s older brother carelessly showing her a pornographic image on his iPad, so we know where Klara’s understanding of the male anatomy comes from.  But the principal doesn’t.  Frankly, Klara probably doesn’t remember where she saw it.  She simply said something about Lucas because her feelings were hurt.  In the past, a teacher or principal might have just shrugged such an accusation off.  Today of course, teachers can’t just dismiss such claims as being the mental images of a child’s imagination.  There have been way too many cases of sexual abuse towards children.  The matter must be looked into.

Lucas is questioned by the principal, who suggests that he should take a leave of absence until things are straightened out.  Klara and her parents are then called into the school.  A child psychologist (Ole Dupont) is also called in.  He questions the girl, but after a while the inquiry takes on the feeling of cohesion.  Here little Annika Wedderkopp gives one of the most extraordinary child performances I’ve ever seen.  By the time the meeting is through Klara is simply confused.  It’s very easy for children to believe something they’ve imagined, especially when adults start insisting that it was true.

Soon this leads to a police investigation and, perhaps inevitably, Lucas becomes a pariah.  Usually a very calm and reserved man, Lucas begins to lash out, sometimes at the wrong people.  Nadja is one of the few people to stand by him, yet he takes his anger out on her.  His son eventually does come and visit him, and he too defends his Dad.  Still, things get uglier and uglier.  This includes a scene where Lucas is evicted from a supermarket and an unpleasant scene at a midnight church service.

Along with fellow Dane Lars Von Trier, director Thomas Vinterberg co-founded the Dogme 95 movement.  The goal was to take a cinematic “vow of chastity” and to make movies that abstained from cinematic razmatazz in order to emphasized character and story.  Vinterberg’s Celebration is considered the first of the Dogme pictures and was one of the first theatrically released features ever to be shot entirely on digital video.  The technology was very new at the time, and more than a few people found it unwatchable.

Today, digital video has become the dominant medium in filmmaking and may or may not render celluloid obsolete in the near future (for the moment at least, film has been given a reprieve.  Many top filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan have made their desire to work with celluloid known, thus resulting in several studios renewing their contracts with Kodak).  Digital Video has certainly caught up with film as far as image quality is concerned and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen beautifully creates the proper foreboding mood that will almost certainly remind you her fellow Scandinavian cameraman Sven Nykvist, who lensed so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films.

The Hunt is timely because pedophilia has only recently been recognized as an abnormality.  For centuries in western culture it was covered up, ignored or in some cases even socially acceptable.  On the one hand it’s very good that we’re aware of it and are doing something about it.  Children should not be afraid of telling an adult they trust if they’ve been abused.  But at the same time have we become too hysterical?  Do television shows like To Catch a Predator  just lead to paranoia?  The Catholic Church’s decades of covering up sex scandals has probably damaged their image irreparably.  Most priests would never harm a child, yet many of them are looked upon with suspicion.  Adults who act too affectionate towards children are sometimes called into questions.  Back when photo labs were still the norm, some employees reported people who had taken pictures of their children in the bathtub.

But regardless of the crime, the need to scapegoat and punish presumptive evil doers is one of the major flaws in our selves, not in our stars.  We’re told we shouldn’t judge less ye be judged.  That everyone is innocent until proven guilty.  That he who is without sin shall cast the first stone.

It’s safe to say in The Hunt that Klara is without sin.  As angry and bitter as Lucas gets, he clearly can’t bring himself to blame Klara.  Also, while the whole ordeal is more than she can ever understand, she slowly realizes that she’s done something terribly wrong, even if she doesn’t quite understand what it is.

The Hunt is now streaming on Netflix and Amazon