To a greater degree than we could ever hope to imagine, our attitudes are the product of our parents and the security that this initial human relationship provides. It is they who teach us love, responsibility, sacrifice, care, thoughtfulness, politeness, kindness, charity, honesty. And if we don’t or cannot for whatever reason learn from them, we should be so lucky to have an older sibling or other relative to inculcate those values before our habits become fossilized. Whatever path we choose, knowing right from wrong begins with the actions and the words of those who gave us life. Yes, these are platitudinous generalizations of someone eternally grateful to have had the love and care that every child craves. But my good fortune does not blind me to its absence in the lives of others, as well as the attitudes that are resultant from such deficiencies. Which brings us to this simple but rather exquisite film.
The premise involves Christoffer (Mads Mikkelsen), a Dane in his late thirties, and his wife, coeval, and compatriot Maja (Stine Stengade) as they travel to the Czech capital to arrange for the burial of Christoffer’s father. The journey is particularly brutal given the fact that his Father suddenly abandoned him (age eleven or so) and his mother, and never really bothered to come up with an explanation. This circumstance bears down upon Christoffer like a leaden cross. His life back home is marked by stringent routine and completely devoid of any spontaneity. Moreover, being frugal in tax-plagued Denmark, he cannot justify spending any more time or money than necessary (and both will be needed in copious quantities) to lay his Father to rest, and yet realizes that he should at least learn something about his life here in Prague. Matters are not helped by the infighting and bickering that he has to endure with Maja, who seems absorbed in her cell phone at the oddest of times. Christoffer takes solace in the fact that his own son, at home but constantly visible by webcam, will never have to travel thousands of miles to bury a father he wouldn’t recognize on one of Copenhagen’s gorgeous cobblestone streets. A ghastly trip made more stressful by an overwhelming feeling of multifaceted failure, true enough, but also a time for Christoffer’s maniacally organized life to receive a much-needed kick in the caboose.
The first such shockwave is embodied by the Czech gentleman who greets them at their arrival. He is, he tells them in rather hilarious but generally correct English, the Father’s lawyer and executor. The man’s eccentric behavior is a tip-off, as is his obvious affection for his dearly departed friend, and a logical conclusion is drawn by members of the audience who have seen this trick before. In fact, the only person to whom this seems less than obvious is Christoffer himself. And since this is his story and we are obliged to see things only with his eyes (he is never omitted from any scene), we must believe what he believes and work with the data that he chooses to process. Taking care of the usual formalities, says the attorney coyly, is the right thing to do, and we will see that it is done. But he says so with such unabashed antipathy to the whole endeavor that one wonders what obstacle he has placed or is planning to place in its way.
With the cogs now merrily in motion it comes time, as it does in all first-rate character studies, for the cogs to learn more about one another. Maja, it turns out, has been unhappy for some time, in no small part because of that omnipresent vice on the part of husbands worldwide, emotional distance slipping ineffably into indifference. The lawyer, on the other hand, unpleased with how the extradition of the deceased is developing, announces that the body is lost and Christoffer will have to stay in Prague should he wish to receive it. Our protagonist understandably wants to get away from everyone that he has known hitherto in his life, if only for a short while, and do an inventory of what is really important to him. Soon he talks up a young Czech who can’t really speak English but did know his father. Was she his father’s lover, he gets her to understand, and her reaction speaks volumes about Christoffer’s fortress of mental blocks. But then, in the comfort of a stranger who cannot speak his language, Christoffer bears his soul (the same technique is used with less devastating of an effect in this great film) and says the best and saddest line of his entire journey:
When a boy of eleven is abandoned by his father, he looks in the mailbox every day for a letter to explain why. And when he doesn’t get that letter, he blames himself. He wants to know why. Why was he not worth caring about?
Christoffer cannot really get an answer to his question, if one exists, but another clever cinematic technique allows him to hear his Father’s voice one last time. And then all those decisions seem a bit easier.