‘What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves?’ pleads Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert at the climax of Fritz Lang’s seminal masterpiece M (1931). As a serial killer who has been preying on children, Beckert is the reprehensible villain of the film until Lang deftly challenges audience sympathies when Beckert is set upon by an enraged mob and subjected to a mock trial. Pleading for his life, Beckert challenges the morality of the crowd who see fit to judge and condemn him, rather than allowing the police to do their job. A terrifying film about a child murderer ends with a savage condemnation of a society that lowers itself to Beckert’s level by taking the law into its own hands. Over eight decades later, Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt explores similar terrain except with the crucial difference that the protagonist, a primary school teacher named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been accused of sexually abusing a young girl, is innocent.
Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen (aka The Celebration) was about a man who interrupts his father’s 60th birthday party with the news that his father used to rape him and his twin sister when they were children. Festen was the first and best of the films in the Dogme 95 movement, which Vinterberg co-founded, and its stripped back ‘pure’ filmmaking techniques facilitated a complex and even darkly humorous exploration of the ruptures that occur when a trusted and respected member of the community is accused of a crime most people cannot bear thinking about. The Hunt is a far more refined film in terms of its visual aesthetics, but Vinterberg’s social critique remains unflinching. Instead of depicting the mob mentality of Festen where the accusations of abuse resulted in disbelief and hostility towards the accuser, in The Hunt the accused is hounded and not believed by the mob.
A narrative about a man falsely accused of child sexual abuse could have all too easily pandered to the paranoia and rhetoric of hysterical men’s rights groups that regard challenges to disproportionate male privilege as male persecution. Fortunately Vinterberg ensures The Hunt remains a progressive film by avoiding characterisations and plot developments that could be interpreted as anything other than a critique of mob behaviour. This is not a film where women are the enemy and men are the victims. Lucas is a single father, but his unseen ex-wife is portrayed as reasonable and wanting the best for their son; both Lucas and the film are respectful toward her. Both men and women are portrayed as rushing too easily into forming a negative opinion against Lucas, and both male and female characters are guilty of asking Lucas’s alleged victim leading questions designed to confirm their suspicions rather than arrive at the truth.
If there is any gender critique in The Hunt it is directed toward Lucas’s male friends who move from being drinking and hunting buddies to violent aggressors. While the film’s title clearly suggests the witch-hunt against Lucas, it also captures the values of the small town the film is set in, where becoming a man is defined by being old enough to get a hunting license and be entrusted with a gun. It is a masculine and predatory environment, and the ease with which the men of the town assume the worst in Lucas suggests a dark recognition of the potential for themselves to inflict horrific crimes against the innocent. The violence against Lucas is arguably a symbolic act to rid the community of its potential for evil, even though Lucas is not the problem.
Most significantly, The Hunt is not an attack on the legal system that deals with child abuse investigations. The theme of the police and courts failing the innocent and protecting the guilty is a popular one in mainstream cinema based on prevalent myths of judicial leniency. While the legal proceedings into Lucas’s accusations are never shown on screen and only talked about, The Hunt very calmly suggests that the system does work. The threat to Lucas is not a Kafkaesque nightmare of legal dead-ends, but the self-appointed accusers from the community. Like the mob in M acting without the authority of the law, the townspeople in The Hunt are the true threat to social order and stability.
The Hunt is a confronting and fascinating work of cinema. The decline in civility towards Lucas is chillingly plausible, revealing the uncomfortable truth that fears about child abuse are so pronounced that it is all too easy to condemn somebody before all the facts are in. Emotions easily cloud rational judgement and while it seems straightforward as an audience member to disapprove of Lucas’s former friends and colleagues, it is difficult to guess how we may behave in a similar situation when faced with such heightened emotions. Vinterberg has created a disturbing mirror to look into, revealing the collective fears and prejudices of a community that only required the suspicion of a crime for it to take a step closer to savagery.