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Danish director Gustav Möller in Berlin: "I wrote it for Sidse”

Gustav Möller, Sidse Babett Knudsen / PHOTO: Petra Kleis

Danish director Gustav Möller in Berlin: "I wrote it for Sidse”

Gustav Möller, Sidse Babett Knudsen / PHOTO: Petra Kleis

Gustav Möller knew from the start who he wanted to star in his new film Sons, nominated in this year’s main competition at the Berlinale.

Gustav Möller is one of the fast-rising young talents in Nordic cinema. The Swedish-born director’s debut feature, crime thriller The Guilty, had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Festival, and was sold all over the world by TrustNordisk. It became the Danish Oscar candidate and later spawned a 2021 English-language remake for Netflix directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jake Gyllenhaal - and which Möller executive produced.

This week, Möller’s new film Sons (Vogter) became the first Danish-language film to play in Berlin’s main competition since 2016. The film is a Danish-Swedish co-production.

The other productions with Nordic talents and investments aboard in the competition are My Favourite Cake (Keyke mahboobe man) by Swedish-Iranian director Maryam Moghaddam and Iranian Behtash Sanaeeha, which is a co-production between Iran, Germany, Sweden and France, and Shambhala by the Nepalese director Min Bahadur Bham, which is a co-production between Nepal, France, Norway, Hong Kong, China, Turkey, Taiwan, USA and Qatar.

Sons, sold by Les Films du Losange, it is likely to surface at several other international festivals before its Danish release, which is set for 12 September 2024.

The film is a dark psychological thriller about a female prison guard (played by Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) who has a personal connection to one of the new inmates. In order to get closer to him, she asks for a transfer to “Centre Zero”, the wing for the most difficult and violent prisoners.

The director-writer and his co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen went to great lengths to ensure the prison scenes were as authentic as possible.

“We spent a long time researching the subject even before we had the idea for the film,” Möller says of their obsession with the penal world. “We were interested in these themes and this arena. We didn’t have a story, but just went out and visited a couple of Danish prisons. We spoke to inmates, prison officers and priests.”

Once they decided to make the main protagonist a prison warder, they met with a real life prison officer called Martin, who became their consultant. He took them to the prison where he worked, and went through the script page by page to make sure it was “as realistic as possible”.

Sons was filmed in an old nineteenth century prison in Copenhagen that had shut down in 2018 - but whose facilities were still intact.

The main character Eva was conceived as “a woman who has lost something and goes to prison voluntarily to find it.” She’s a complex and repressed figure who doesn’t easily reveal her true feelings.

And, no, there was never any doubt that Knudsen would play the lead.

“As director, I can create the framework of a person, but it is her job to make it feel real. She brought a lot. A lot of the shooting was exploring these emotions and this character. She [Knudsen] really knocked it out of the park with this part.”

Möller explains that he “wrote the part for her [Knudsen]. When I got the idea for the film and the character of Eva, she was the only one I had in mind. I approached her very early, before we had a script, and she came on board.”

Ask the director why he was so determined to work with Knudsen, and he pauses for a moment. “Sometimes you close your eyes and you see somebody,” he eventually suggests on what made her the right fit. “If I were to analyse it a bit more, I’d say that apart from being a fantastic actress, she’s capable of portraying many emotions at the same time. It’s never one-dimensional with her. There are always conflicting feelings, and she has a depth in her. I thought it very important that this should be a layered character, but also for the audience to project their own emotions into the character.”

Möller describes Sons as being a film “about a woman imprisoned by grief”, but adds that Sidse is “so vibrant and full of life and has so much energy. I thought there was something interesting in contrasting her natural personality with the very conflicting personality of the character…there is life and vitality in her even though she is in such an imprisoned state.”

It was easy to cast Knudsen as Eva. What was much more of a challenge was to find a young man to play the violent tattoo-covered delinquent, Mikkel, with whom Eva becomes so obsessed.

“It was a tough decision. I wanted someone who would be intimidating and authentic in this arena,” Möller reflects on the challenge of finding an actor who could “blend in” with the film’s extras, many of whom were ex-prison inmates. Sebastian Bull (seen in drama series like Pulse (Puls) and The Lawyer (Advokaten)) had the required “presence and raw talent”.

Sons was produced by Lina Flint for Nordisk Film, with support from Nordisk Film & TV Fond. Flint also worked on the director’s hit The Guilty. Möller was at the Danish Film School with her, and pays fulsome tribute to her.

“She’s a creative producer in the true sense of the word. She understands the creative processes the director, the writer and the whole crew go through. Her strength is that she is very much an artist as well.”

At early screenings, viewers have commented on the extreme realism of the prison scenes. “Most of us are lucky enough never to have to spend time in that closed environment, but this also makes it very fascinating not only to see an exciting story, but also the everyday routines. It was fascinating to me when I did the research, and I also wanted to put that in the film,” the director explains why he paid such exhaustive attention to even the smallest details of prison life.

Official trailer:

For more information on Sons: CLICK HERE.
For more information on My Favourite Cake: CLICK HERE.
For more information on Shambhala: CLICK HERE.