Interview: Film Director Anders Refn on his WW II Epic Into The Darkness

With Into The Darkness finally in cinemas, the films’ director, Anders Refn talks to The 13th Floor about this important look at the past and what it tells us about what’s happening in the world today.

Danish director Refn is known, not only for his own films, but as a collaborator/editor with Lars Von Trier and Sally Potter. 

Now the filmmaking veteran is back at the helm with Into The Darkness, the World War II epic he’s been working on for 10 years. With shooting for the film’s sequel postponed because of Covid, Refn had time to chat with The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda about what this film means to the people of Denmark and how it can teach us something about today’s political climate.

Listen to the interview here:

Or read a transcription here:

M: How are things in Copenhagen as far as the virus and lock down and all that? How is Denmark doing?

A: We are doing quite well. Sweden is suffering a lot but Denmark and Norway are doing quite well and they are trying to open as much as they can now but you know, it’s a terrible disease. People are very scared. But the rate of dead people is quite low in Denmark. It’s very high in Sweden because they have a different policy but of course film production has turned down totally. I was supposed to be shooting now. I had finished shooting actually because I was stopped by the Corona.

M: Were you working on the sequel to Into The Darkness?

A: Yes, of course, yes. Of course that was very annoying but that’s how it is. I had quite a lot of older actors and they are of course very scared to catch the Corona.

M: We’ve been lucky here in New Zealand. It helps being an island country I think so we’ve only had a few deaths and we’re kind of over it.

A: Only a few?

M: We had 22.

A: Wow, that’s amazing.

M: Yeah, it’s a good place to be at the moment.

A: Immigration.

M: Well, they put anybody who comes into the country has to be in quarantine for two weeks.

A: Wow, yeah. Of course, you have to be careful immigration, it can cause a lot of problems.

M: Exactly. So, let’s talk about the movie if we can.

A: Yeah, of course.

M: Cause it’s going to be playing in the theatres here very soon and it being kind of like a World War ll epic drama, how important is it for you for folks to see the film in  a theatre rather than on their monitors at home?

A: Of course, I’m a cinema lover and of course I think the film is much more stronger in the cinema. Of course you can enjoy a lot, you have big screens now in your homes but I think the experience of the silver screen is second to none for me anyway.

M: I agree. This is the first film that you’ve directed in quite a few years. You’ve been doing a lot of editing and script writing but what brought you back to directing?

A: You know, Denmark is a very small country and we have a lot of directors so it’s hard to get through and I’m very careful to do all the shows that really matter something to me because I think it’s very hard and difficult to get the financing together. But I worked on this project for more than twenty years but it’s a double feature and the problem with it and other Danish films,  it’s a very dark period in our history but the earlier films were made about the brave Danish war. This movie, the bad guy in Germany but he was much more complicated. We were Hitler’s favourite protectorate. Hitler was very pleased with Denmark in the first three years because it worked very well. But that was something like a taboo you couldn’t talk about because it was embarrassing that we were so cooperative. But being a very small, flat country, we’re only four and a half million inhabitants, it didn’t make sense to fight back. At that time the most, the strongest army in the world at that time, the Germans were so powerful and they knocked out France and Poland and they had taken Austria, they had taken Czechoslovakia, they took Norway and Denmark in half a day and Norway a bit longer so we had no other options to them than to find  a way to work with these big guys and of course that was smart in 1940, but he was not so smart in 1945 because then you were like an ally with German… an the great paradox in the war was that there was smart in 1940 was criminal in 1945, you know the resistance people were chased by the Danish police.

M: It must have been very difficult to be a citizen at that time and try to sort out where you needed to stand. Did you talk to anybody who lived through that period?

A: We have been extremely careful with the research so everything which is in the film, is modelled on reality so we had a lot of both people from that period but also we have scientists and professors in history so everything in the film is double checked more than we ever could because it’s a very delicate scene in Denmark because it was a painful period for a lot of families. They were split in their loyalty, some went with the Germans and some went with the resistance movement and especially at the end of the war when everybody knew that the Germans was gonna lose the war, then of course it was very obvious… then there’s the Danish Resistance movement started and the part one of this project, Into The Darkness is dealing with this collaboration dilemma, you know, what the fuck would you do when your son in the tanks or the soldiers walking in the streets. Do you want to make a deal with them or you just don’t want to fight them because it didn’t give any meaning to do it because we didn’t have an army, we a very small army. But that stuff… suddenly this movement grew up and that’s what you see at the end of the film, the young character, he goes into the resistance movement and it became very bloody and very brutal in Denmark in part two which we were supposed to start shoot here in March and should have finished now but we stopped because of the Corona so we have decided to start to shoot in January instead so we will have the opening in Autumn next year for part 2.

M: The film obviously takes place eighty years ago and there’s been a lot of World War two films since then, how do you feel, especially younger folks who may see the film, how can they relate to what’s going on in today’s world by what they see on screen in your film?

A: I think fascism didn’t die with Hitler you know, especially in Europe we have several Right radical movements growing up both in Germany and Sweden and even in Denmark so of course the wish for a strong leader it pops up once in a while and even we have fascistic problems even in the States, that president who’s very close to this, the discussion about democracy and how to respect the democracy. And of course it’s also a matter of taking a standpoint because when these people had to choose which side they wanted to support in the war, no one knew how it would end. Because people thought that Hitler would win the war. It was obvious, he was the strongest and then suddenly changed and then you had to change your attitude to it as well and that was of course very painful. A lot of people couldn’t change their point of view because they had already committed themselves. For example, the Danish Voluntary Corps, who went to Germany and fought with the SS, they were suddenly…you know. It was a very muddy and complicated situation and it can come back sooner than you think because the Danish democracy was collapsing in one day. So I think Democracy is a very vulnerable thing. Especially in Hungary for example, they had a very long tradition for right wing policy and the Hungarian Civic Union is trying to destroy democracy in Hungary and even in Poland have the same problem so just because Hitler collapsed because…the more people know the better, they have a chance to avoid this to happen again.

M: I mentioned that there’s been a lot of films about World War ll since then, the one that comes to mind when I was watching your film was, believe it or not, Casablanca.

A: Yeah, wow.

M: There’s some ambiguity there as far as who’s on what side and there’s also a great scene in your film where they started singing in the pub and I was expecting the La Marseillaise to come out any time then.

A: I’m very pleased that you’ve connected that because that’s one of my favourite films. I’m very flattered by it. But of course you know, Denmark has been among the historians or the scientists for dealing with World War ll as well of the reports about how painful it was for Danish or just to look back how they cooperated way too much with the Germans.

M: Well, it’s easy to say in hindsight but like you say, when you’re right in the middle of it and you don’t know which way things are going it’s hard to judge.

A: Exactly. And especially the politicians, after this liberation of course in the beginning the Danish police were the enemy for the liberation movement. It was the Germans they just … people because the Danish police were so eager to keep any resistance down and I read that the Danish politicians sent them to Germany also so it was a very dark period in our history. And of course we had this thing, I don’t know how much you know about Danish history, but the Jews were saved in 1943, it’s not in the film but it will be in part two. We are very proud of that because we managed to save a lot of Jews but that’s only one of the few things we are very proud of.

M: Well it’s something, that’s for sure.

A:We have made six or seven films about that period but we never talk in films about how much we collaborated with the Germans and that was of course our ambition to tell the truth about how it was.

M: This film, played in theatres in Denmark at the beginning of the year and from what I understand did very well in the box office. What kind of reaction did you get back from people who’d seen the film.

A: Fantastic reactions because people started to talk about all these embarrassing things and I did a lot of Q & A, I very often go to…after the screening I go to Q & A and people discuss a lot, and of course people could suddenly talk about it, they had a grandfather or grand person who after he’s dead, they found letters from the Eastern front because it was so embarrassing to be connected with the Germans right after the war so it was taboo, people couldn’t talk about it. But they open up about it because we tried to let people come with their own opinion about it so it’s been an extremely positive reaction I must say and even in Norway, the people of Norway. But of course on a very small scale also because of the Corona but only allows you to say 50 people in the cinema but even there they had also the same discussion because they also are very eager to show that Norwegians, they fought Hitler but that was not true. They had a coup d’état in Norway and that’s why it’s important that the girl character in the film, she falls in love with a Captain and then she goes to Norway and realises how tough the situation is there because Norway got held with an iron lock because there was 360,000 German soldiers in Norway so they were really and much more Norwegians participated on the German side than on the Allied side so there’s a big wish to come to terms with what really happened.

M: I imagine part two is going to deal quite a bit with that as well.

A: Exactly.

M: You said that you were planning on having it pretty much shot by now but it’s been delayed, what can you tell us about, as like a little teaser for the next film.

A: Of course this deals with the radicalisation of the Danish resistance movement. Its very bloody and very brutal because the Danish police got more and more corrupted by or tried to be more loyal to the resistance movement it was much more complicated and then at the end of 1944, the Germans lost their patience with the Danish police and sent them all to concentration camps and took over the Danish resistance movement and that was really tough. That’s why the last part of the film which ends up this summer, Denmark becomes a democracy again. A lot of the characters, some die and not a lot but several of these leading characters get into severe problems in part two and some of them even lose their lives.

M: Ok, the thing that struck me about the first part, which is just about to open here, is the fact that you have a two and a half hour epic World War ll film and there’s no battle scenes which is interesting.

A: Yeah, but there were no battles in Denmark. In the open scene when they knocked out the Danish air force, the first scene where he tries to get this British business guy out of Denmark and then they try to go to the airport in northern Copenhagen and the Stukas the German planes are bombing the Danish air force which was very small, they  had 30 planes or something but they were knocked out. The same morning they attacked Denmark but after that it was peaceful, it was called the ‘Whipped Cream Front’ because everything was so nice in Denmark and the Germans could relax from when they came from the other battlefields they went to Denmark to recover and have a nice time because Denmark was so nice and Denmark supported Germany with food. We have a big production of food. And even a lot of workers were sent to Germany to work in the German weapon industry and so on which is also indicated in this film when we see our leading actor, Jesper Christensen who plays…

M: Karl.

A: Yeah, he tries to avoid to cooperate with the Germans but all the people and even the government forces him to do it and so at the end he gives up. But some of his workers will,  as you see in the scene where they are sent to Germany to work and then they of course want to come back to Denmark as soon as the industry gets up and going in Denmark. And of course we had this problem with the Communists. The Danish police arrested all the Communists and put them into a concentration camp in Denmark where they were kept so it’s…

M: It’s very complicated.

A: That’s why it’s important to tell it.

Into The Darkness is in cinemas now