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Tuesday
Jul232013

Der var engang en fest

An essay ("There was once a celebration") about this famous Danish film.  You can read the original here.

Is The Celebration based on a true story?  What follows is the unusual tale of one of Danish cinema’s greatest successes.

“I’ve written two speeches, father.  One is green, and one is yellow.  And you can choose which one it will be.”

“I pick green,” the father answers.

“Green is an interesting choice.  It’s a sort of truth speech.  And I have chosen to call it ‘When father took a bath.’”

So begins the drama in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration.

Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) taps his glasses, stands up, and gives a speech on the occasion of his father’s sixtieth birthday.  After so many years of concealment and lies, the truth about his father’s sex abuse will now be disclosed; Christian’s twin sister just committed suicide, and the guests will now know why.  A celebration dripping with scandal which pulls the rug out from under the festivities – such is the brilliant concept behind The Celebration.  The comfort of home comes face-to-face with discomfort, and the invitees become tongue-tied spectators to a showdown in which the prodigal son, like a latter-day Hamlet, challenges his almighty father.

A celebration, a speech, incest – from where then was this idea taken?   Why did it assume this particular form?  What is the truth about the story behind the film?

For many years there were rumors that The Celebration was based on a real event, even if Vinterberg was always tight-lipped about it when asked.  Now, five years after The Celebration’s world premiere and prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, the unusual story can be told, a story which offers some insight into the creative process and the fragile relationship between fantasy and reality.  At the same time it raises questions about art and a journalist’s responsibility with regard to the truth.

Jekyll and Hide

We recur to March 28, 1996.  Radio host Kjeld Koplev had settled himself down in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s studio.  Koplev’s Switchboard, a weekly talk show on channel 1, was about to go on the air.  A thirty-four-year-old man was sitting across from Koplev.  He was the anonymous guest of the day, and he was noticeably nervous.

Koplev’s first question: “Allan, on your father’s sixtieth birthday, you got up and gave a speech.  What did you say in your speech?”

Allan: “I told him a little about my childhood, what he had done to me during my childhood, and what he had taken from me.  Because now everyone else had given speeches for him, so I wanted to give one, too.  You see, he hadn’t always been a perfect angel.”

Koplev uses a particular dramatic model, the “testimonial,” as the guiding force in his conversations.  “A successful episode of the Switchboard,” the radio journalist said recently, “begins with an opening that gets listeners to hang around; this establishes, so to speak, the theatrical space.  Over the course of the next two hours the pieces are laid in place, and dramatic progress is initiated.” 

That day Koplev struck upon a particularly alluring opening: birthday speeches.  In the two hours that ensued, he got Allan to narrate the speech’s horrific back story: at two, in the early 1960s, Allan and his twin sister Pernille moved with their mother from Copenhagen to a small, provincial town in Southern Jutland.  Their mother’s new husband worked as a chef in a hotel which the couple would subsequently take over and manage with great success.  Allan’s stepfather was very well-respected, indeed.  He moved in the town’s finest circles and spoiled the twins with material goods.  The eyes of their schoolmates lingered especially on the twins’ expensive clothes.

Yet the idyllic surface cloaked neglect, abuse, and unbelievable psychopathic behavior.  Just like Jekyll and Hyde, his stepfather would transform himself from a charming hotel owner who would see to the comfort of his guests, to a ruthless sex criminal who would abuse the twins on the sofa in the hotel office.  During these attacks, Allan would see his stepfather as “the silent dark man from the forest”; he had “empty, stinging eyes,” and during the very act would say, “hush, hush, hush – what you would normally say when you turn down a radio.”  The stepfather would only regain his normal facial expression after the matter had been concluded; it was then that he would slip back effortlessly into the role of smiling hotelier.

On numerous occasions his mother would literally catch her husband with his pants down, but do nothing.  The attacks began when Allan and Pernille were about five years old and would go on for years.  As adults Alan and Pernille would both move back to Copenhagen and study to become nurses, but Pernille retreated more and more into herself.  She would become psychotic and end up taking her own life.  But when the family attempted to play down her suicide, something took a hold of Allan.  On his father’s sixtieth birthday in front of seventy-eight guests, he would get his revenge.

Unsound alarm

A touching and fascinating radio program – and one you wouldn’t soon forget.  Thomas Vinterberg heard about the program and was taken with Allan’s courage and righteous wrath.  Vinterberg turned to his friend and manuscript guru Mogens Rukov while the latter was the midst of a peaceful midday meal in his kitchen.  “I’m tired of stories of homosexuals, incest, and pedophilia,” was Rukov’s blunt response.  But then he added: “I can remember family reunions from my own childhood.  I can remember the family.  Let’s do a story on a family business.  Then we can work incest into the family and the business.”

They agreed that the film should adhere to a normal course of events at a Danish family celebration: from the guests arriving, to lunch, to the guests’ departure the next morning.  This was a natural story, and the scandal which threw a spanner in the works was Christian’s speech and the series of speeches in its wake.  Rukov drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, yet Vinterberg’s most importance reference was Coppola’s Godfather.  Allan’s account, however, supplied the film’s basic elements: the hotel, the speech, the twin sister’s suicide, the patriarch (Henning Moritzen), the wild, unruly sister (Paprika Steen), the afterthought (Thomas Bo Larsen), as well as many telling details such as the black sofa in the office.

Yet there was one significant difference between the actual event and the film: Allan’s speech closed and demolished the party; Christian’s speech, however, was merely the opening volley in a harrowing and grotesque drama.  Where Allan’s speech ended was where Vinterberg’s film truly began. 

One part of the dramatization made the film studio’s attorneys sound the alarm.  The connection between The Celebration and Allan’s story was so obvious that Allan’s stepfather could press charges and, in a worst case scenario, even halt the filming itself.  The stepfather’s alleged crimes had never been brought before a judge, and out of fear of a lawsuit the film studio opted to cast the film as pure fiction.

“The events, people, and companies depicted in this film are fictitious.  Any similarity to people, alive or dead, or factual events, is purely coincidental,” began the film’s end credits, with not a word about Koplev’s Switchboard.

And whenever curious journalists persisted, Vinterberg’s answer remained: “My lawyers have placed limits on what I can say.”

Chilly feet 

Even I’m involved.  In 1999 I gave a talk on The Celebration and played part of a recording of Kjeld Koplev’s interview with Allan.  A media sources teacher stood up.  He found it amazing that there were seventy-eight guests, as well as all the cooking and service staff, and even a musician; that all of them experienced the worst party of their lives; that this party became the most talked-about Danish film of all time; and that not one of them had ever made a public pronouncement on the incident.  The teacher then put forth the theory that Vinterberg had trained and planted “Allan” in Koplev’s Switchboard as a type of media stunt, or simply one facet of the film’s robust mise-en-scène.

The theory sounded farfetched; nevertheless, after the talk I sat down and listened carefully to the radio program once more through.  I stopped the recording and noted the chronology of events in Allan’s life, and slowly his story began to crumble.  The number of deaths in Allan’s family were suspiciously high: in less than one year, his girlfriend, twin sister, and mother had all died.  He also confused the ages of his stepsiblings, had to make something up to explain an eleventh year at a boarding school, and was completely wrong about the date of the birthday speech.  I contacted Koplev, who said that, at the time, no one had verified Allan’s background or identity.  He admitted that he himself harbored some doubts about the story.  “At the beginning of the broadcast, Allan said that he and his sister were identical twins.  Yet as a trained nurse, he ought to have known that identical twins are always of the same gender,” emphasized Koplev, who learned that Allan died shortly after the radio program.         

We agreed to investigate the case, but after several weeks Koplev got cold feet.  He was afraid of discrediting his program or weakening the credibility of other journalistic programs DBC had in the works about incest.  Nor did Tulle Koefoed – head of the Copenhagen Support Center against Incest, and the person who allegedly placed Koplev in contact with Allan – wish to help.

Allan unearthed

I began a robust, but ultimately fruitless investigation, obliging me in an article in the Weekendavisen of May 5-11, 2000, to concede that all clues had led to a dead end.  The article yielded several inquiries.  An elderly woman from Southern Jutland was fully persuaded that she had read Allan’s story in a novel or other literary work, but, despite a devoted search, the book could not be found.  Only two years later, when P1’s Lisbeth Jessen was in the midst of creating a radio montage of the puzzling tale, did something finally happen.    

Jessen managed to track down Allan in a provincial town in Southern Jutland to which he had moved after his appearance on Koplev’s Switchboard.  Allan had AIDS and had been sick for many years.  He had never seen The Celebration, nor had the thought ever crossed his mind that the film could have anything to do with his own personal history.  Jessen arranged a meeting with Vinterberg.  “It is strange that such a tragedy can give another man wings.  But this is precisely what happened,” said Vinterberg.  He claimed to have told Allan of the great significance of his story to so many people.  “Your story made people ponder the secrets in their own families – secrets which, of course, are not necessarily of the same character.  Your tapping of your glass and standing up has had repercussions that have yet to fade.”

“Now the circle is closed,” said Allan, relieved.

Allan unburdened

But the story did not end here.  As it were, Jessen could not find a gravestone for Pernille; she was also amazed that Allan did not have a single picture of his beloved sister.  Jessen then spoke with Allan’s uncle, who could not at all recognize Allan’s story.  Finally Allan made a confession:  his twin sister had never existed, the hotel had never existed, the birthday speech had never been given, and Allan had never been a victim of incest.

I met with Allan a few days after Jessen’s radio montage.  He preferred to remain anonymous.  He was proud to have contributed to The Celebration, but embarrassed about having fooled so many people with his lies.  “This is where people need to learn that you can’t simply take everything for the gospel truth,” he said.  “Maybe the sluices to the media are too open.  After all, I have actually seen that you can go all the way to the end and just say, ‘ha-ha.’  So then how many stories are merely cut out of whole cloth?”

But Allan’s story is not cut out of whole cloth.  He really did have a very hard childhood.  He and his three stepsiblings lived in an old, decrepit house situated alongside a hotel; his parents worked on “booze cruises” and often came home drunk; he had a very bad relationship with his now-deceased stepfather; and, later in life, he was afflicted by great personal woe.  His male partner died from AIDS in 1995, and shortly after Koplev’s Switchboard, Allan was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic for, as he termed it, “shrieking bats in the belfry.” 

“I don’t know whether the fantasy in my head grew in power because I had been feeling so sick,” said Allan.  “I truly believe that this was simply the expression of all the negatives, all the worries, all the bad things in my life.  I was also inspired by my experiences in the health care field, but a lot of the story – the speech, for example – was cut out of whole cloth.  I can remember thinking at the end of the radio show: ‘Let me get out of this.  The time can’t go fast enough.’  I thought they would strip all the microphones from me and thump me in the head.”  Despite his obvious talent for storytelling, Allan never felt tempted to become a screenwriter.  “You can produce a hit only once in life,” he grinned. 

We’re not in the truth industry

The mystery surrounding The Celebration has been solved.

This was no media stunt; this was no conspiracy or wily attempt at self-promotion; this was simply a long series of coincidences which led, in the end, to the greatest film in the history of Danish cinema.  And many persons participated in the film’s fantastic story.  Allan delivered the substance; Koplev, with his style of interviewing and sense for the dramatic, got Allan to step into character as a storyteller; meanwhile, Rukov and Vinterberg shifted, on the one hand, the focus from incest to the family get-together and the suppression of secrets, and, on the other hand, created a nerve-wracking dramatic plot.    

That The Celebration is based on a fabrication does not lessen it in any way.  An artist may enjoy lying; indeed, the fantastic can be necessary to relate a general or more profound truth.  “We are not in the truth industry,” said Rukov.  “We are in the storytelling industry.  Every so often we come across something that is truer than the truth.  Every so often we see something in the world which follows the rules of storytelling.”

The journalistic world, however, has a different behavioral code.  Here we expect a truth based on facts.  We expect that the stories presented to us correspond to reality.  A program like Koplev’s Switchboard hinges upon whether we can put our trust in the people appearing on the program.  Of course, you can’t always guard against hucksters.  But if Koplev had done his research, Allan would have never come to the studio.  

On the other hand, there would also never have been The Celebration.

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