Another Round (2020)

Another Round is the title of a Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg. I reserved the film without knowing what it was about, but I noticed how much in demand it was, so I signed up. I did not realize it was subtitled, which may be part of the reason I watched it twice.

I found out later that Vinterberg, the writer/director, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director and the film won for Best International Film, as well as receiving many awards around the world. The rights to the film have been purchased by a production company involving Leonardo DiCaprio who will remake the film for English-speaking audiences, with DiCaprio in the lead role.

As I was watching it, I realized this was a film that could probably be told in many languages, the themes are somewhat universal. This was before I knew that it was going to be remade in English. The subject of the film is alcohol, but it is really about disconnection. The script follows a theory by Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderud that humans are born with a 0.05% blood alcohol level shortfall.

Four close, male friends who teach at a prep school in Denmark all seem to suffer from the same affliction – boredom with their lives. They seem to be of an age group between 30 and 50, educated males, two of which are married with kids, the other two bachelors. Each lacks interest or enthusiasm for teaching and engaging with students, rather sleepwalking through the days, and disconnected from their families at night. It is easy to classify this as a “mid-life crisis” film and leave it at that. The film never seemed that easy to categorize. As I said, it was more about disconnection, from their lives, but also from themselves. The two men that were married did not want to date 20 year old swimsuit models and drive sports cars.

Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Indiana Jones 5) plays Martin, a history teacher, is so indifferent to his students that their parents contact the school, so Martin is confronted by students and parents. He feels pressure from them, his sons who seem to have no relationship with him, and his wife Anika, who works the night shift seemingly to reduce contact with him. At a dinner to celebrate friend Nikolaj’s 40th birthday, Martin confesses to his three friends, how empty his live seems. He had dreams to get his PhD and become a researcher, but his family was young. so he put his energy there. He was known as a young man full of fire, and he and Anika seemed the example of a great relationship. Liquor flows freely during the evening, and a reluctant Martin, changes his mind and consumes a lot.

The discussion turns to Skårderud’s theory, when you achieve the 0.05%, a person is more relaxed, poised and utilizing more of your potential. Who has not considered the use of liquid courage to relax on a date, a family gathering, a philosophical discussion or a concert? In the film, a student was encouraged to take a drink before an oral exam because he froze and was unable to proceed. I wondered about that scene, whether that was stepping over the line; even though the student passed the exam, morally, I am not sure the end justifies the means here. I will come back to this example later.

The next day, after the birthday dinner, Martin brings a bottle of vodka to school. It’s clear when he starts his class that he’s had enough to have minor trouble pronouncing some words. Nikolaj drives him home and discovers that Martin is trying the 0.05% theory.

Martin catches fire, engaging with his students

The four friends convene and convince themselves to all test the theory. If Hemingway can write his best stories and Churchill can save Britain, both being big drinkers, it will work for them. They will give it some scientific value by writing an essay about their experiences. Each of them buys a breathalyzer to make sure they get to, and maintain, 0.05%.

Skipping ahead, the work and social lives of these four improves while pursuing this theory. Martin in particular, makes learning fun for his students, something he did not seem capable before. He convinces Anika to go on a family canoeing trip, where they make wild, passionate love one night, awaking his marriage.

Martin and Anika working on their relationship

But, the theory begins to crack. Tommy, the gym teacher, has been hiding bottles of liquor in the gym and someone discovers it, alerting the school to a problem. However, this is only a speed bump to the four, who decide since life is good at 0.05%, they rationalize it would be even better if they increased their blood alcohol level.

Martin shows up at school with a 0.12% level and is clearly feeling it. During class, he asks his students about their drinking. What becomes clear is the acceptance of drinking at a young age. At the beginning of the film, the students are involved in a drinking activity at school that spills over onto a train with drunken behavior. Facility are seen discussing the incident, but it is also clear the school allows the students to drink.

Nikolaj is impressed with Martin and ramps up his drinking to match, as do the two other friends. The crack in the theory becomes a widening fissure. Nikolaj wants to push the theory further, to the point of “ignition” as he calls it.

They drink and drink, to the point of barely able to function, at 0.188%. They visit a market where Nikolaj intends to purchase cod for dinner, but it is sold out, so they stagger down to dock and attempt to catch one. Bad idea. They continue drinking at a local bar.

After ramping up the blood alcohol level.

Nikolaj is so drunk he pees the bed and his angry wife takes the kids to her sister’s house. Martin wakes up on his front driveway by the neighbors, his head bleeding. Anika confronts him about his drinking, which his sons already know. It seems that everyone knows. Martin and Anika have it out, expressing their disappointment in the other. It is revealed that Anika has been seeing someone else, something I suspected early in the film. Martin angrily tells her to leave, which she does.

The drinking continues, but not to reach their potentials, rather to self-medicate. They end their experiment, but the damage has been done. The school is onto the use of alcohol, and Tommy shows up drunk, making a spectacled himself. Martin takes Tommy home to sleep if off, and it is apparent that Tommy’s drinking has turned into alcoholism. Tommy is dismissed from his teaching job. Their last scene together foreshadows that Tommy will take his own life, which he does.

Martin meets up with Anika to discuss plans for their son’s birthday. He wants to talk about their reconciling, but it’s too painful for her. He has come to the realization of how much time he’s wasted. She leaves in tears.

So, it would seem, based on the various damaged, that the experiment was a failure. Not so fast. Each man, in their own way, apparently made an impact on some of their students. The lives of the three remaining friends have changed for the better with their partners. Anika and Martin will reconcile. Nikolaj and his wife have moved past his drunkenness and bedwetting. Peter, the other friend, now has a girlfriend, another teacher. This is where the films falls down for me. This resolution seems contrived, or at the most positive, compressed for time.

The last scene shows the students celebrating their graduation. The three friends join them in the drinking and dancing, with Martin joyously diving into the ocean.

Up until the last 10 minutes of the film, this was an engrossing story, full of quirky, but largely realistic behavior. The ending, perhaps inspired by the tragic death of the director’s daughter just after filming began. Ironically, she was portraying Martin’s daughter, but after she died, the character was changed to another son. Vintenberg somehow completed the film while grieving for his daughter. He changed the ending to be a celebration of life, to end on a positive note. That is admirable, but the abrupt happy ending fits like the wrong puzzle piece.

One more point. The idea that life becomes better, that we become better versions of ourselves with alcohol is not new. The notion that your blood alcohol content is too low for “normal” functioning is an interesting spin. That these educated men, who are role models for teens, would attach themselves to pursuing this drinking experiment is somewhat unbelievable to me.

As I reflected on the film, I began thinking about the differences in American and European culture. A friend of mine was stationed in Europe during his Army service. He took a picture of a vending machine that had soft drinks, juice and beer. Another friend lived in France during the summers. He said how from the youngest age they had table wine and kids began to drink it with dinner in their teens.

The Danish do view the role of alcohol a bit different than American culture. Looking at a variety of studies, most European countries rank higher in consumption, particularly for young people.

  • From a recent Johns Hopkins University survey of 15 and 16 year olds, about 18% of American teens said they had been drunk in the past month, compared to nearly 50% of Danish teens.
  • Denmark ranked 36 in per capita consumption of alcohol compared to 45 for America, according to a World Health Organization study.
  • A University of Washington study placed Denmark second in the world in teen drinkers at 94%.

As a college student, I did the experiment myself. Prior to an exam in political science, I hoisted a few at a tavern down the street from where my exam was given. The beers melted my nerves, but not to the point where my thinking was impaired. I knew the material because I paid attention in class, took notes, read the material and studied for the exam. I received an A and got on the highest scores in the large class. I never did it again, this was a fluke occurrence that I should not have done in the first place.

Some films I watch for purely entertainment, while others, I study and dissect it for its meaning. it is a very well-acted film. The actors, especially Mikkelsen, are terrific as they stumble through unchartered territory and endure the collateral damage their experiment causes. Aside from the big holes in the script, Vinterberg does a fine job of moving the story and showing the actors engaged in the emotional and physical transformation.

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