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BERLINALE 2022 Berlinale Special

Peter Flinth • Director of Against the Ice

“I was interested in figuring out what drives an explorer. What makes you want to continue?”

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- BERLINALE 2022: In his Netflix title, the Danish director proves you can get claustrophobic even in north-east Greenland

Peter Flinth • Director of Against the Ice

After the ill-fated Denmark Expedition of 1908, captain Ejnar Mikkelsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his mechanic Iversen (Joe Cole) set out to Greenland, as portrayed in Peter Flinth’s Against the Ice [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Peter Flinth
film profile
]
. But establishing the Danish claim to the icy land proves to be the least of their problems. We talked to Flinth about his Berlinale Special Gala-screened movie.

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Cineuropa: You have these wide-open spaces in the film, and yet half of it feels claustrophobic. Was this contrast interesting to you?
Peter Flinth:
When I read the story, I went: “Wow. How do you react to being trapped in such a vast landscape?” This was the turning point, putting them in this pressure cooker. When I was doing my research, I took a trip up along the north-eastern coast of Greenland with a navy ship, and we had a sledge patrol going into this hut. It was built out of a shipwreck over 100 years ago, and it’s still there! The contrast between having all the space you need and then being trapped so close together – that was certainly the dynamic of the movie.

It almost creates a comedic effect. They communicate so much better when facing all of these difficulties than when they are just stuck there, waiting.
It’s like it is with family gatherings – everything is fine if it’s a picnic, but once you are in a small summer house, it’s a different matter. I think many can relate to this situation: they had a snowstorm outside,whereas we had COVID-19. What I was really interested in, though, was figuring out what drives an explorer. What makes you want to continue? The geopolitical aspect of the story was that at that time, there weren’t that many unexplored places left. The Americans were trying to claim it, so he said: “I will do this. I will risk everything to map out this uncharted land.” As this character says in the movie, you never think you won’t make it. Mikkelsen believes he needs to do it – do it his way – and then he realises he needs to rely on companionship.

Or on an accidental companion, one could say.
We have all been forced to work with a person who’s different from the people you normally work with. Still, you have to find a way. You learn that they have their own ideas and that maybe it’s good to listen. It’s all based on a real story, written by that captain. He talks about this postcard with young women on it – that’s all they had. They were coming up with innocent stories, describing each girl, and then they fell for the same one. It was like a betrayal! But they needed to get over it.

You mentioned innocence – in other films about men stuck together, like The Lighthouse, the result is much ruder and crazier.
I liked that – they are very good people. They became friends for life; there was a decency about them and mutual respect. You can read this between the lines because the mechanic kept a diary, too. They were very private and professional, although the captain kept his status as the leader. Poor Iversen had to cook and make tea. Later, he wrote: “Oh. Finally, I don’t have to cook.” But they weren’t cutting each other up.

It feels like a bit of a dream project for Nikolaj, who also co-produced it and wrote the script [with Joe Derrick]. How did that come about?
We have known each other for a very long time – we met when I was at film school and made our first film together. Later, I was an AD on his feature debut. Many years ago, I came across this story about two explorers, and when he read it, he said: “This is the movie we will make together.” Luckily, the people at Netflix liked it and introduced us to Baltasar Kormákur. He has so much experience with expedition movies. Also, if you want to do something with snow, go to Iceland – they know how it should look. We brought the actors along, to have them surrounded by all this ice and snow. It was demanding, production-wise, but at least the Icelandic crew was used to the weather.

The only female character appears here as a fantasy, a dream; she doesn’t feel human. Were you worried about that?
We tried to go into Ejnar’s mind. In the book, he is very private. The way he describes this woman from the postcard is very vague. But speaking to his family, we realised that he had met someone before the trip, and she thought it was a bad idea to go there [laughs]. We thought: “How can we enhance the fact that he is so affected by this relationship? How can he bring her there?” It has been a discussion of ours, yes, but the lack of female presence adds to this tension.

I laughed out loud when at one point they realise someone was in the hut when they were away and they forgot to leave a note.
After that happened, Iversen stopped writing in his diary for weeks. The captain just wrote: “It was a bitter day.” It was a tragic situation, but it was important to have warmth and humour here, too. Otherwise, it would have been a tough story to follow. You needed something to smile about – even when they go crazy.

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