By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Nestled in the comfy and cosy Twin Peaks room of Prague’s Kino Svetozor, I recently sat down for a chat with Danish director Henrik Ruben Sands (Terribly Happy, The Killing) who informed me that despite liking the David Lynch series, he hasn’t been that keen on the director’s later stuff which is all a bit chaotic, especially when comparing to his own work which is much more regimented and visually orientated. The director is a graphic designer turned filmmaker after all.
You can certainly feel that design influence in his latest film Word of God (Gud taler ud), a one-of-a-kind dramedy on the absurdity of family, based on the best-selling autobiography of Danish author Jens Blendstrup and his family led by his strict father Uffe aka ‘God’.
Check out the full interview below and catch Word of God in Czech cinemas from 1 February as well as at this year’s Scandi Film Festival.
Mr Genz, welcome back to the Czech Republic. Is it good to be back in Prague?
Yeah, in a way it’s always good to be back. I’ve filmed here quite a bit now so I feel at home. In a weird way, I think there’s a relationship building between me and this place. Also, my great great grandfather actually came from the Czech Republic, from Bohemia.
I’m glad to hear that. So your new film Word of God is an intense family comedy and drama of sorts. Now would you say that this is a good portrayal of Danish families in the ’80s?
Yes and no. Yes, because it reminds me of my own childhood even though it’s based on Jens Blendstrup’s childhood. I’m not able to generalise of course but the roles of fathers and the family structure was a lot like that in the ’80s. It’s changed so much. Men have become more female in their approach to children. They take care of them and even remember birthdays. At that time, they didn’t know anything that was going on.
How did you identify with Blendstrup’s original book? Was there a particular character that you related to?
It’s actually funny because Jens is the third son in his family and it’s the same with me, so we were both in the same position. He’s the only character who is protected in a way. The two elder brothers are harmed much more. Jens kind of flew under the radar of his father Uffe who is ‘God’. He’s the one that’s just observing what is going on and trying to define his own reality. I think that’s why he ends up as an artist. His intuition is kind of sharpened.
Now you’ve worked with Søren Malling before on the series The Killing. What was it like to work together again?
Well, I needed a character because Uffe the god figure needed to make the audience uncomfortable, and Søren had that effect on me.
He makes you uncomfortable?
Yes! He’s brilliant of course. I like him very much and I actually told him that I picked him because I never knew when he was going to explode and hit me or laugh at me or even embrace me or kiss me. I didn’t know what would happen because he’s so unpredictable. That’s the feeling I needed for this god type figure. Exactly like my dad. We could have the best day in the world but it could suddenly turn to hell with no explanation.
Well he certainly made me uncomfortable in the film. It’s a great cast and Marcus Gert who plays Jens, this was actually his first role, right?
Yes, he’s a cool guy. Not sure if it all ever really hit him. I’d seen about 500 boys for the part and was about to pick the best one, and then Marcus came in late. I knew he was right for the part immediately but I don’t actually know who sent him or where he came from (laughs).
Maybe he was sent by ‘God’, so to speak.
He came from outside of town somewhere. It was like he wasn’t really aware of what we were doing. ‘Oh it’s a film… OK’ (laughs). Then he went back to school like it was no big deal. He was great. They were a good family. You could feel that immediately.
How difficult was it to transform Jens’ autobiography ‘God Speaks Out’ into this film?
The book actually spans over twenty years and starts when Jens is 4. It’s also separated short stories. Some are only half-page anecdotes. There was no narrative or plot and it would be impossible to include all those different ages of Jens in the film, so we condensed the story into a year – a small part of the book where illness and miracles are involved. Then we added some of the other anecdotes to that. The wedding. The roof scene.
I thought that roof scene was particularly powerful.
Yes, that’s weird because it’s so similar to what I myself have experienced as well. I remember having that same experience on the roof with my brother and my dad dictating and telling us what to do. I don’t know why but there must be some kind of thing going on there with the father and three son thing. It’s so explosive.
Now you were originally a graphic designer so would you say that has also influenced your filmmaking?
Yes, absolutely. My films are all very clean. Everything in the frame is there for a reason. I’m not a fan of handheld cameras. I have to keep it all defined and the actors have to accept that. You have to stay in my frame!
What do you want audiences to take away from watching this film?
I just want them to reflect about their own life. There’ll be recognisable parts for everyone in this film. The comedy element sometimes confuses people though. I suppose it’s more culturally correct to not have the comedy but I think that with this kind of comedy you can make people relax and laugh, and then talk about the weird and dangerous stuff.
I thought it was a lot like real life actually.
Some people said ‘oh that’s so unrealistic’ but you never see a normal family. Normality is just absurd. Go into any family home and sit there for a few hours and absurdity will appear right in front of you. There’s no normality in life. We just think there is.
I think Czech audiences are really going to like it. They like a good black comedy.
Well there’s a real vibe of cynicism to the film that I think will fit well to Eastern Europe (laughs).
Feature photo: Film Europe