Kristian Levring looks like one of the characters in his new film The Salvation (2014) – a distinct face, long dark hair, you could imagine him taking out someone with a rusty Victorian sniper. But the Danish director, who lives in North London, is more the intellectual than the aggro marksman, a former Dogme 95 signatory with a cineaste’s mind and a political brain. That political edge comes out because his revenge western has a dynamic, multicultural element, led as it is by Mads Mikkelsen’s Jon, a Dane who moves to America to start a new life – like many of his generation in the late 1800s. “The western is a weird thing for a European to do,” he explains, “even though there have been good European directors. When you read about the West, the frontier was inhabited by Europeans, by immigrants.”
“In 1860 50% of people living on the frontier didn’t even speak English. I found that was my way into this story.” After Jon’s wife and son (Nanna Øland Fabricius and Toke Lars Bjarke), who have recently arrived in the States, are brutally murdered in the film’s blistering opening scene, he takes it upon himself to wreak revenge on the killers and their band of mercenaries, led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s brilliant, wicked Delarue. Mikkelsen (Danish) is joined by fellow Europeans in the cast Eva Green, and even Eric Cantona (both French) in a cameo role, so does Levring think Europeans more violent than their American gun-wielding counterparts? “I’m a European, I’d feel awkward with a gun,” Levring suggests. “But it’s an interesting thing when you give actors boots, guns leather belts.” “An actor said to me, ‘I start to understand the American gun laws’. There’s something in it.”
It is perhaps suggested the film had a political undercurrent pointing out racism as igniting violence in both cultures. But Levring tells me his aim was not to present a simpler, mythical tale. “Europe is a place with very old cultures, which is based on nationalities. While America is a young country based on many nationalities. I never think you can use America as an example of this type of racism. It’s a culture based on immigrants. When a Dane went to America, the moment they arrived they became Americans. There was no way back. You are one of them.” In the dog-eat-dog world of The Salvation, however, moments such as the violent opening bring with them an unavoidable streak of racism.
Levring had loved westerns since he was a kid in Denmark when he only had one television channel, discovering cinema through The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). “Wonderful films”, he tells me. “The western is a fable. It’s a moral tale, or perhaps in my case, an amoral tale. That’s what’s so wonderful. Everything is enhanced. There’s a simplicity to it. I think my film is very much about the price of revenge and killing. I’m not sure revenge is always what you get when you ask for it.” But after so long in darker, difficult films such as The King is Alive (2000), the fourth film of the Dogme movement he signed up to with his friend Lars von Trier, why did the director turn back to his childhood? “Coming back to this kind of simplicity was a lot of fun. It’s a whole different approach. It was very difficult to shoot, but the whole thing was fun to come up with. I had very much wanted to make a mythical classical western.”
Why did such a lover of genre films subscribe to Dogme’s self-described vow of chastity? “The fun thing about all that is that every genre has rules. Dogme was all about not being genre, but by having rules, it became a genre. A western breaks every rule of Dogme. But to do a Dogme film was not easy!” We ask Levring why he and Lars von Trier turned their back on the movement: “We never rejected Dogme. It was always the idea not to do more. The principle was – and that was very much Lars’ thing – that Dogme should be the cure, because you’ve had 30 years of bad [filmmaking] habits and now have to cure yourself. Then we agreed that we’d go through the cure. And later we agreed when we’re 70 years old, we’ll take another cure, do another Dogme film. If we’re alive.”
The Salvation is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 24 August, courtesy of Warner Bros. You can read our review here.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl