It would be difficult to find a man who has had a more dramatic impact on his nation's recent cinematic reputation than Danish writer and director Anders Thomas Jensen. From his early days writing for Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg's Dogme 95 movement of the 1990s (founded to rectify the perceived stagnation in modern filmmaking), his career has been marked by a truly astonishing prolificacy. In the years following his 1998 Oscar win for Best Short Film, he has written over 25 features, including After the Wedding, a finalist for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.
His directorial abilities are no less formidable. Upon completing a number of successful shorts, he turned his attention to feature films, writing and directing Blinkende lygter (Blinking Lights) in 2001 and, in 2003, De Grønne slagtere (The Green Butchers). Both opened to significant critical acclaim in his native Denmark, and both featured bizarre, violent (and often violently funny) story lines. Interestingly, they also featured nearly identical casts, a creative monogamy that Jensen explains with the unassailable yet undeniably terse defense that "we work well together."
In 2005, he and his trusty cast created Adams Ǽbler (Adam's Apples), a film described by its poster as "a movie about good people and those beyond hope." An official selection at the Sundance, Toronto, Seattle, and San Francisco Film Festivals, it was also Denmark's submission for the 78th Academy Awards. Only recently made available in the States, it is an occasionally humorous, often disturbing, yet always interesting fable of the conflict between good and evil, as well as an unusually engaging examination of the Kierkegaardian conflict between faith and reason.
Most interesting of all, however, is its wholehearted and intentional contradiction of the claim made on its very own poster: The world is indeed filled with evil – a fact that the film makes almost too abundantly clear – but more importantly, it reminds us, no one is ever beyond hope.
Ulrich Thomsen – perhaps most familiar to American audiences for his turn as an evil Russian henchman in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough – is Adam O. Pedersen, an inveterately violent neo-Nazi recently released from prison. Arriving at a quiet village church to serve out the terms of his parole, he meets the local pastor, Ivan, played by Mads Mikkelsen – ironically, most famous for playing Le Chiffre in the recent Bond resurrection, Casino Royale.
Adam quickly learns that Ivan is more than a bit strange. In fact, he's a complete nut – a quiet, friendly lunatic who has learned to cope with nearly overwhelming suffering in his life by cheerfully denying its very existence. (The Book of Job, which plays a prominent role in Ivan's motivation and apostolate, clearly serves as Jensen's inspiration for Ivan's amazingly tortured past, and it raises one of the more interesting questions in the film: Which of the two characters is Job: the skinhead or the priest?)
Adam, disturbed and then angered by the pastor's irrational optimism in the face of a grim reality, resolves to force Ivan to confront the truth. The village doctor, a foul-minded (and foul-mouthed) rationalist, encourages him with the belief that confronting the truth would probably prove fatal for Ivan – a result that is not undesirable to either of them.
The presence of several other unrepentant criminals that Ivan has taken under his wing angers Adam even further, as does Ivan's repeated assertion that they have reformed. (The rotund Gunnar – a former tennis pro and sex addict – drinks constantly, despite Ivan's insistence that he has not touched a drink in years. And Khalid – a Saudi Arabian with shockingly violent tendencies and an absurdly poor grasp of Danish profanity – rewards Ivan's confidence in his new, peace-loving disposition by planning and executing nearly nightly robberies of the local gas stations.)
As the actions of Ivan and his prodigals grow more illogical and disturbing, Adam is turned aside from his self-appointed mission of destruction by his efforts to understand their actions in the new, larger context of Divine Providence, of good and evil. When the time comes for Ivan to tumble from his faith-shielded perch, it is Adam who recognizes the transformative power of the pastor's faith. And when his former skinhead companions arrive to take Adam home, he must struggle to rectify this newfound belief in higher, happier things with the cold, cruel reality of his former life.
At first, it's unclear just how much of this overt spiritual conflict Jensen intends his audience to recognize; his statement that "a lot of people still need a kind of belief system" is hardly a ringing endorsement of faith. But his claim that the story's characters must undergo a profound and redemptive transformation during their bizarre journeys lends support to the more spiritual interpretations of the film.
The story's crucial denouement, when combined with Jensen's cryptic explanations, provides a dramatic sequence greatly reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor and her "moments of grace." Like O'Connor, Jensen makes use of idiosyncratic, grotesque, and often violent imagery to bring his points forcefully home – a practice that risks the wrath and (in some instances) disgust of his audience. But, again like O'Connor, his creative decisions are defensible ones, and he has a tremendous amount to offer to those audiences that can bear to watch.
The fact that philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Anders Thomas Jensen are both of Danish descent is a particularly interesting prism through which to view the film. Perhaps the Danes are more acutely aware of the apparent contradiction between knowing and believing than we Americans, as Jensen is clearly grappling with many of the same issues that consumed Kierkegaard. His resolution – a leap of faith similar to those present in Kierkegaard's philosophical writings – is ultimately as unsatisfying as that of his predecessor, yet Jensen seems determined to trace Kierkegaard's footsteps down the path of irreconcilable conflict.
Described by numerous reviews as either "irreverent" or "a pitch-black comedy," the film is neither particularly irreverent nor primarily humorous. True, there are numerous moments of bizarre, brutal humor that leave one feeling slightly guilty for the laughter they evoke, as well as a number of superficial events and stereotypes that could be seen as irreverent. But both these characterizations do a disservice to the inherent seriousness of the themes being explored in the film, and to the deft, almost whimsical way in which Jensen brings the audience to consider them.
And what about the apples? That you will need to discover for yourself.