It’s perhaps a cliché to even bring it up but two of Denmark’s greatest cultural exports are, of course, director Carl Theodor Dreyer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard; two men often associated, correctly or not, with austere misery. Denmark, actually Scandinavia generally, has quite the legacy of art that focuses heavily on how life sometimes just doesn’t allow for much of a silver lining. Of course there’s more to it than that but let us indulge in generalisation for a moment so that we might praise writer and director Anders Thomas Jensen’s fine film for bringing high comedy into the mix. Comedy and tragedy have often borne great fruit when intertwined but the mix here is distinctly unlike more familiar American or British recipes. The darker elements sport more teeth and often the comedy, rather than alleviating the strain, seems instead to revel in the unease.
The eponymous Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) is a neo-Nazi, freshly released from prison, and required to serve a period of probation at a rural church overseen by priest Ivan (Mads Mikkelsen). As part of his rehabilitation Adam is asked to choose a personal goal which he must complete. He decides he would like to bake a cake using the apples of the tree that proudly stands on the church grounds. Although seemingly cooperative, Adam has little time for the priest and his ragtag band of followers; a former youth tennis champion who has overcome alcoholism and a Saudi Arabian man who made a habit of robbing only Statoil petrol stations in retaliation for perceived crimes the company committed against his Saudi Arabian family. Indeed Adam does his absolute best to disrupt and upset those around him. The problem is that Ivan is utterly impervious. He sees the positive in everything and whenever Adam tries to disturb the order of things he finds his action outranked by someone else seemingly behaving within accepted norms. His rebellious nature is, to great comic effect, normalised and diminished by the casual insanity of the others.
Luckily for us, Jensen doesn’t leave it at that. As good a joke as that might be the film could hardly hold on for its duration using it as the sole crutch. As events proceed we find something quite upsetting in Ivan’s optimism; indeed we find something pathological in it. It is with this development that the film, in its own inimitable way, begins to ask us about faith and its nature as Adam cruelly tries to break the priest. It has to be noted that Ivan’s ‘optimism’ is not harmless. When Sarah (Paprika Steen) arrives at the church seeking advice about whether or not to go ahead with her pregnancy (even though there is a high risk of the child being disabled) Ivan tells her that he and his wife faced the same dilemma and were rewarded with a healthy child in the end. The advice gives Sarah great encouragement in the short-run but she is understandably horrified when, the window of opportunity for abortion now closed, she finds out that Ivan’s child suffers from cerebral palsy and sits completely paralyzed in a wheelchair. All this without even mentioning that the recovered alcoholic still drinks himself into a stupor everyday whilst Statoil stations across the land still fear the wrath of Ivan’s other ward.
Though perhaps this verges on understatement, the church and its surrounding population seem full of surprises. As the bells ring out everyday their reverberations knock Adam’s picture of Adolf Hitler from the wall. It seems this place repels the ideologies of that particular man just as they repel the more obvious workings of religion. Ivan is not irreligious—he reads sermons from the pulpit to his flock—but he seems to step over much of the decorum and procedure that others in his position would feel it prudent to follow. In a sense it hardly matters because his aforementioned flock seems to consist only of those in his immediate care and an old man named Poul (Gyrd Løfquist) who, Adam is informed, wrestles daily with his memories of time spent in a concentration camp. If Adam’s own opinion of the concentration camps might be different from the average citizen’s then imagine his surprise when he finds out that Poul’s time in the camp was spent as a guard and not an inmate. It’s all the same to Ivan of course. There’s no sense in getting broken up by things that have already happened (well that wraps things up quicker than The Sorrow and the Pity).
Serving as a foil for the priest’s optimism we also visit Dr. Kolberg (Ole Thestrup) who treats the, honestly almost constant, injuries that befall those in Ivan’s care. In stark contrast to the clergyman’s disinterest in bad things the doctor takes a perverse glee in telling any and all about the miseries which he has encountered in his profession; filling Adam in on all the horrific events that have brought Ivan to his current state. Roughly speaking, if Ivan’s religion rejects confronting the truth then the doctor’s science hits the truth head-on (though it seemingly lacks any humanity). As a final element in this rather strange brew we also have Adam’s neo-Nazi colleagues monitoring his actions and wondering why he doesn’t just kill Ivan and come back to their group.
The end result of all these strange mechanics is a film about pragmatic faith. Adam’s Apples is certainly not a film to be cited among the perceived works of religious cinema. Suffice it to say that it possesses quite a few more laughs than Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc and quite a few more sceptical barbs than Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio. If religion is present it is a very bizarre representation of what most would understand by the term. Indeed its ideas concerning religion would be quite superficial if Ivan’s condition weren’t meant seriously. He deludes himself, he constructs complete fantasies to deny the negative elements around him, and in so doing he manages to carry on even as he stumps the doctor, a man of supposed learning and objectivity.
The film is religious, in some sense, but it is not a religion of God and faith but rather one of optimism; of possessing some sort of failsafe, artificial or otherwise, to carry us through inevitable adversity. While Ivan’s condition is not presented as the ideal there’s no denying that, in some sense, it works. If he’s not helping those around him immediately with their problems then perhaps, inadvertently, he is at least offering them some space in which to find their own resolve. Of course none of this works without the presence of Adam. He is malevolent, indeed at one point he even describes himself as “evil,” and he works to undermine and destroy all those around him. He is worn down just as he erodes those around him. The final result is some manner of compromise; optimism without delusion, resilience without martyrdom; a religion where pragmatism sits atop the throne.
This strange atmosphere, hedged between the religious and the secular, is well reflected in the film’s own visuals. The towering rural church sees very little traffic but, when Adam arrives, it is visited by all sorts of natural forces. Though telling in how it influences Adam, it could as easily be a well worn spine that causes the bible in his room to always flop open to the Book of Job whenever it falls. In the same way the crows that hoard around the apple tree and the maggots that later infest its harvest suggest a similar ambiguity. Be it a message from on high or simply the happenstance of the natural world it’s all adversity to be overcome. While Ivan might interpret it as Satan trying to prevent Adam from fulfilling his personal goal of baking that apple pie it’s clear no one else shares his viewpoint. After all, that’s not conducive to solving the problem at hand.
Although less well known than some of his contemporaries, Jensen handles this fine line between the Godly, the earthly and the bizarre with a good degree of competence. He’s mostly made his name as a writer, playing a part in some of the more successful Danish films of the last decade, particularly the excellent hard-edged drama Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts) and, also directed by Susanne Bier, Brødre (Brothers)1. His name shows up less frequently in the capacity of director and, even now, Adam’s Apples is the most recent project he has helmed. It perhaps shows cracks here and there as the music and special effects sometimes threaten to drown out the well built interrelations between the characters, but by and large he holds the rudder of this rather unusual craft true. No doubt the strength of his script plays a huge part in that particular feat of navigation.
If the ending seems a little forced then it also fits in well with the film’s grander designs. As stated above it’s not a religious film nor is it out to proclaim that life is beautiful. It seems simply to hold that perspective is everything and that sometimes downplaying the immediately self-evident nature of tragic events is a wise move. In the end perhaps not every element here gels quite right but then again how often do you find a film that combines Nazism, racism, pedophilia, mental and physical handicaps, high violence and the shooting of a cat to great comedic effect and binds them all together to arrive at a positive message? Even for those of us who have indulged in a lot of films it’s easy to see that not much else could possibly fit that bill. If at times it’s perverse, as it surely must be when a happy couple decide to move to Indonesia with their Down’s Syndrome afflicted child because “he’ll look just like the others there,” it is not to gloss over or excuse such behaviour or prejudices but to highlight them as inevitable foibles of man. It’s not politically correct or sensitive but it also carries them through and perhaps, in Indonesia, they’ll meet another Adam who might force them further down the path to self-betterment. So it is then that Adam’s Apples forms a new sort of religious document for the masses; one with lessons more realistic than the idealism of the church but also with more bite than the saccharine nonsense of the New Age.
1 The subject of a recent American remake directed by Jim Sheridan.