DK’s only Oscar and Emmy award winner – who is film maker SUSANNE BIER?

Since its release in December 2018, her first Netflix movie, the thriller “Bird Box”, is also her largest measured by audience numbers. Who is the woman behind the success?

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By Adriana Alcina              Pictures: NF Rolf Konow, NF Doane Gregory, Les Kaner, PR

Becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker is not without challenges, especially when you come from a small country like Denmark. Nevertheless, Susanne Bier has earned her spot amongst Europe’s best known and most respected film directors thanks to a solid career made up of various critical and commercial successes.

Her success is due to her talent for combining commercial entertainment with powerful and emotionally compelling stories.

In 2011, she won a Golden Globe and the Oscar Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” with “Hævnen” (“In A Better World”), a formidable film about revenge and forgiveness. Previously, her film “Efter Bryllupet” (“After The Wedding”) had earned her an Oscar nomination.

And in 2016 she won an Emmy award for the British mini-series “The Night manager”.

She is the only Danish filmmaker to have been awarded such distinctions.

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Navigating human emotions
A master in portraying human emotions in an intense and realistic way, the Danish filmmaker has a knack for heart-wrenching melodramas and universal themes such as broken personal relationships. As she explains:

“It is really about addressing the conflict between the characters and addressing the storytelling and psychology. That way, the feelings are the undercurrent of the whole story.”

Susanne Bier

Denmark’s leading female filmmaker and Oscar-winner Susanne Bier combines commercial entertainment with powerful and emotionally compelling stories

Thus, her movies generally place characters in very difficult positions and explore their behaviours and emotional turmoil in critical situations.

The same can be said about the characters in her new thriller “Bird Box”.

Susanne Bier says to Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten that she has had the same freedom in her direction of the Netflix movie as she usually has with more traditional movie makers.

She explains how from the beginning, she wanted the monsters to be invisible in the movie, leaving their visualisation to the audiences’ own imagination.

Despite attempts at changing this, Susanne Bier managed to get it her way, the monsters remained invisible.

The movie has received very diverging reviews amongst the Danish press, but Susanne Bier says that is not important to her. What counts, is how her audience reacts to it and whether they get an emotional experience or not.

However, despite the reviews, the movie has received a great of attention, perhaps even enhanced by the publication by Netflix of the normally “secret “streaming figures.

With 45 million member accounts having viewed the movie after the first seven days,  the scary thriller “Bird Box” has surpassed all records Netflix has announced, claiming that it had the best opening week ever for a Netflix movie release to date.

“This is without comparison the largest movie I ever made, measured on audience number, and it is a great relief. There is always an element of stress in putting all your energy and hard work into something and then to having to wait and see if you got it right. I have never made a global phenomenon before, and that’s really something mega, “ Susanne Bier said in a recent interview with Jyllands Posten.

Bier’s tendency to include dramatic elements in the storyline is often connected to her own family’s roots. During the Second World War, her Jewish relatives escaped across the sea to Sweden fleeing Denmark after the Nazi invasion.

At the same time, her international background makes the film director feel very comfortable in multi-cultural environments. Bier has shot films in many foreign countries and she is used to working with an international cast.

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An extensive filmography
Bier’s filming career took off in 1991 with “Freud Flytter Hjemmefra” (“Freud’s Leaving Home”), and her subsequent movies (mostly dramas focusing on family relationships) achieved immediate success in Denmark.

Her first major breakthrough came eight years later with the romantic comedy “Den Eneste Ene” (“The One And Only”), and she was later praised for her Dogma 2002 film “Elsker Dig For Evigt” (“Open Hearts”). Bier saw it as a real challenge to make a movie following the Dogma austerity rules:

They forced me to deal with the storyline and the characters, and I believe in artistic limitations. I’ve always thought that setting out a set of rules before you start and then being completely consistent with them is the only way to make a really good film.”

But it wasn’t until 2004 with her powerful drama “Brødre” (“Brothers”) that Bier captivated the international press. The film explores the conflict between two brothers tragically affected by the war in Afghanistan, and it became so popular that Hollywood decided to adapt it for an American audience.

Following this success came “Efter Brylluppet” (“After The Wedding”), a family drama that explores healing and forgiveness by portraying an ethical and moral dilemma when the head of an orphanage is offered a donation by his ex-girlfriend’s wealthy spouse.

The film was critically acclaimed and received several awards, including an Oscar nomination. The next step was Hollywood.

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Filming in Hollywood
Her first Hollywood film was “Things We Lost In The Fire” in 2007, a drama starring Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro. The film received mostly negative reviews as the character development was deemed poor and the story was not moving.

Another of Biers Hollywood dramas, “Serena”, featured one of Hollywood’s most fashionable screen couples, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

Even though the movie was released last year, she had actually cast them before they performed together in the Oscar-winning “Silver Linings Playbook”.

In 2012, Bier also directed “Den Skaldede Frisør’ (“Love Is All You Need”), a light comedy with a positive tone set in the picturesque Italian town of Sorrento.

 “A Second Chance”

En Chance Til Directed by Susanne Bier Nikolaj Coster Waldau Zentropa Productions Photo Credit:Rolf Konow

“A Second Chance” was her first collaboration with popular “Game of Thrones” actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

Another Bier film, “A Second Chance”, premiered in January 2015 and it was her first collaboration with popular “Game of Thrones” actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The movie is about paternal love and our desire to do things right on our own terms, even when the means are legally questionable.

The movie received mostly negative reviews, as many critics found it lacking subtlety and the storytelling weak and unconvincing.

“The Night Manager”
The  six-part miniseries, The Night Manager, was her first ever mini-series. It is based on the best-selling spy novel by John le Carré, and is a sweeping, trans-global thriller about a hotel manager, actor Tom Hiddleston, who is recruited by MI6 to bring down an international arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie.

The series earned Susanne Bier an Emmy in 2016.

In 2019 she is to instruct the HBO series ” The undoing”, starring Nicole Kidman as the main character.

 Susanne Bier facts

  • Born on 15 April 1960
  • Susanne Bier grew up in a German-Jewish family in Copenhagen.
  • She studied Art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Architecture in London and graduated from The Danish Film School in Copenhagen.
  • She has collaborated successfully with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and they have worked together on some of her most remarkable films such as “Hævnen”, “Elsker Dig For Evigt” and “A Second Chance”.
  • She lives in Copenhagen with her partner and has two grown children.