Whenever I mention my hatred of Life is Beautiful, people counter with, well then, what Holocaust-set dramas do you like? Glad you asked: Jakob the Liar, the East German, non-Robin Williams version, and the Danish The Island on Bird Street, the latter concerning a boy left behind by his parents in the Warsaw ghetto. The filmmaker of the second, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, accepted my compliment when we talked in January at the Nortel Palm Springs Film Festival, but all he retains of that 1997 shoot in Germany is a memory of how miserable the experience was: "I could smell from the beginning that things were wrong. The production broke down because of financing. I lost the boy I originally cast. Everyone on the shoot was sick."
Unlike for Begnini, there was no American distribution.
He's far happier with his current film, Mifune, the amusing romantic comedy about the three-way relationship of a disillusioned Copenhagen yuppie, his "mentally challenged" brother, and the hooker-with-a-heart-of-Snow White who comes to be a housekeeper for their messy farmhouse. Mifune is also "Dogma 3," the third film to be made under Lars Von Trier's stripped-down, handheld camera, natural-light Dogma rules.
"Why did Eric Clapton turn to using acoustic music? Mifune is an acoustic, unplugged film," said Kragh-Jacobsen. "Dogma is about shooting eight or ten scenes a day, and the actors stay warm because they never wait. It's total freedom, no sticky fingers, completely inspiring to make a Dogma film once. Every 50-year-old filmmaker should try it."
Born in 1947, Kragh-Jacobsen is the oldest of the Dogma directors, which include, in addition to Trier, The Celebration's Thomas Vinterberg and Harmony Korine. He was brought into the Dogma fold by the two Danes, Vintenberg and Trier, because he was their professor at the Danish Film School. "Lars (von Trier) had a yellow Walkman and he sat with his back to me. Everyone thought it was very disrespectful. Actually, he's a very gentle man with a pile of ideas. And in school, he was a wonderful crazy, an 'enfant terrible' who made the best films."
What is the evolution of Mifune, which he wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen? "I wasn't trying to do a comedy but a human story with comedy elements. I wanted to do a film I'd go to myself on a Saturday evening, a more light Dogma film. Also,we wanted to be surrounded by beautiful women: everyman's dream of hookers! And I definitely wanted to have a love story because in Denmark we don't have a strong tradition. I think we need special actors, because ours have a filter on themselves, being intellectual and ironic. Think instead of Julia Roberts, who really wants the audience! I also want to have that man in the back seat of the smallest movie theater in Iowa!"
For Mifune, Kragh-Jacobsen cast Danish actors who exude some of this star power. His handsome leading man, Anders Berthelsen, a Danish TV star, has since shot the American movie, Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight of Water.. And his lovable hooker actress, Iben Hjelje?
"I met her in Japan when she was very pregnant. Very pregnant and beautiful. I decided to write the part for her .She has the sensuality, the secrets, and the face to travel. I introduced her to Stephen Frears at Berlin, and she's starring now in a Frears production opposite John Cusack. I think she lived in Boston for several years of her childhood, and she speaks very good English."
Jesper Asholt, who plays the retarded brother? "I saw him in a film school film and he had 'the look.' But off screen, he's a completely normal guy--a father, and married."
Finally, the title, Mifune? Kragh-Jacobsen admitted there was pressure on him to come up with a more commercial one. But Mifune it remains, in homage to Akira Kurosawa's leading man, Toshiro Mifune. In the movie, the normal brother, Kresten, plays an elaborate game with his child-like sibling, Rud, claiming that Toshiro Mifune is living in their basement. To pull it off, Kresten runs around in the bowels of their house (Rud is too frightened to go down there) grunting and shouting in simulated Japanese.
His monologue is based on a sequence in Kurosawa's The Seventh Samurai. "I asked Anders to watch that scene over and over, where Mifune finds the uniform of dead samurais, drags these before his fellow samurais, and admits that he's really a peasant boy. The same with Kresten in my movie.These characters have the same destiny."