||The following interview was conducted in January, 2007.
Danish animator Anders Morgenthaler is widely known in his home country as the creator of the children’s television shows KatjaKaj & BenteBent and The Nelly Nut Show. He has a comic strip, WULFFMORGENTHALER (in collaboration with Mikael Wulff) running daily in the Danish national newspaper Politiken, set to become an animated series on MTV, and is the author of several children’s books.
Morgenthaler’s feature film debut, Princess, an amalgamation of animation and live action, is far from kids’ stuff. A striking, hyper-violent urban drama set amidst the seedy world of porno filmmaking, Princess tells of one man’s bloody revenge against the pornographers who exploited his sister. Yet the film’s central figure is a child, daughter of the titular porn star, the abused, neglected Mia. Through her, Morgenthaler scrutinises Danish society’s relaxed attitude towards pornography and the effect this is having upon young children.
Congratulations on your feature debut, it’s a very bold, provocative movie. What drew you to this particular theme?
ANDERS MORGENTHALER: I am very fond of sex. I think that for instance, if a man wants to fuck a pony then he should be allowed to fuck a pony. But I don’t think the image of a man fucking a pony should educate young people about sex. I can see that society is getting so sexualised and so pornographic that pornography has become the way of educating the younger generation, and I don’t think that is right.
In recent times, largely in reaction against the rise of religious fundamentalism, the cultural mainstream has resisted being too judgemental about pornography. Nobody wants to be branded a fascist. Were you worried about being misperceived this way?
A.M: I know exactly what you mean about fundamentalism. I’m so glad people here didn’t get this fundamentalist thing from my movie, because they got it all wrong in Denmark. They wanted to put me in the corner saying, ‘He’s a religious freak’, you know? You guys fucking get it. They got it here. They got in Cannes. In Denmark, all the critics wanted me to be part of a conservative, violence loving, religious thing and I kept saying ‘You’ve got it all wrong.’ Actually, I think the whole point of the movie is that violence is the worst kind of reaction to this. The worst thing you can do. It destroys all the characters.
Why do you think the Danish critics reacted this way?
A.M: You see, in Denmark I am famous for some animated comedy shows featuring a fascist hippo who goes around with a baseball bat, killing things. So one thing was that they had to take me seriously. Cannes did that for me. Denmark is a country where porn has been freely available since the Sixties and Seventies. Therefore a lot of people are really proud that we have this relaxed attitude to pornography. I couldn’t care less about that. I think that pornography is a meat machine, you know? I am as turned on as everyone else seeing someone fuck onscreen. That is a natural reaction to seeing somebody copulating. When I see porn, I can enjoy some of it, the aesthetics, good pictures of girls, but at some point I always think why does she do this? What made her start doing this? Once you start thinking like that, then you tend not to see the eroticism in porn. I like films that express eroticism in a very refined way, which is not degrading or exploiting the person doing it. I’ve seen lots of films where I get a hard-on because they do trick shots, play with the viewer’s mind so you don’t know if she’s doing a blow-job or not or whatever, you know like an artful way of showing sex? At some point I would like to make a movie that is a lot about sex. For example, I really want to catch see that movie Shortbus.
Movies from the Sixties and Seventies did feature very explicit sex scenes like Ai no corrida or Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life.
A.M: What was that movie he did where they’re all sex slaves? And they’re eating shit?
A.M: I have that one, but I am never going to watch it.
Do you draw the line at shit eating?
A.M: (laughs) Yeah! I am never going to watch that scene!
Well, aside from Salo, explicit movies from the early Seventies were part of the sexual revolution, treating sex as an important subject, but pornography…
A.M: Is a one-way street, just masturbation.
Which is the opposite of revolution.
A.M: I totally agree. Sex is a social encounter with somebody. So if you narrow that down only to meat to meat… I have no problem with sex, but I am scared of the degrading of people, that fourteen year old girls in Denmark think they should fuck with two guys on the first date. I’m scared that they’re getting infection in their vaginas, because they’re having anal sex on a first date. Things like that are popping up in surveys and they’re scaring me.
Is it an issue Danish society wants to address?
A.M: No, they don’t. The thing is, I am a cultural radical. I am a liberal person and if I sat down with all my friends or peers… we could never agree on anything, but the religious people, the fundamentalists… they can agree. They have the ability to reach an agreement. They are capable of putting up a set of rules they can live by. If you’re a liberal, you can’t put up a set of rules. So then we leave the porn industry to educate our kids and that is totally wrong. I think we should say, okay, we have a free sexual environment. We have to ensure our kids, from very early on, understand what they see in the media. They have to understand the context behind images they see on the internet. That is a very controversial standpoint. Parents and educators have to teach children sexual responsibility. Ten year old boys see all kinds of things on the internet. We have to accept this is happening. I don’t believe in banning things. People say ‘We should ban these things!’ Fuck off! It’s not going to happen. The last time we had that was in the Middle Ages with the witch hunts.
What do you think it would take to get people to sit down and have a serious debate?
A.M: It would take an educational programme to teach our kids about the media. Here in the 21st century we need a programme in school, placed at the top of the curriculum. We should teach them to understand the meaning behind these images, to understand what it really means when you see a clip of a girl being fucked by three men. You should educate them that this is a fantasy and also explain the people doing these things have had some experience in their lives that has, maybe, scarred them. These people don’t enjoy it. They do it for money. You should teach kids about it instead of hiding it away. From the time they become sexually aware. That is very early, like twelve. Unfortunately, no one can agree on this. I won’t give up. I will keep arguing. The latest surveys claim Danish children see one to three hours of porn every day. That is really, really freaky. Young girls are also starting to work in porn. The internet is the influence. That is the thing we have to control, but we have to find a way of understanding it first, right?
But, as an artist, how comfortable would you be about compromising some of those freedoms? If you start censoring porn, aren’t you running the risk that your own medium could be next?
A.M: Actually, I think that Britain is a country with some of the strictest censorship laws, and it’s not working well for you guys. It’s working like crap. I read an article about the exploitation movies that were banned in the UK…
The Video Nasties from the Eighties?
A.M: Yes! They ended up being some of the most widely seen videos in the UK. So that obviously doesn’t help anybody, you know? I don’t believe in banning, I don’t believe in censorship.
I wanted to ask about the Danish animation industry. Here in the UK, adult animation is something that has only been taken seriously within the last several years or so. Is adult animation appreciated in Denmark?
A.M: Not at all. Princess was only seen by ten thousand people, because it came out in the summer. Everybody had heard about this movie. It had huge potential, but it doesn’t have a following. When it came down to staying out in the sun or seeing a movie, they all chose to stay out in the sun. We don’t have a following for animation in Denmark. It is still like animation is only for kids. That is true all over Europe and in the United States, but I just spent a month in Japan. They have so many levels of animation! Tons of comics. Tons of erotic comics. It’s a very sexualised nation!
It might interest you to know, there was a survey done several years ago comparing sales of violent and erotic comics in Japan to the level of rape and violent crime taking place. The amount of sex crimes, violence and child abuse taking place in Japan is very, very low in comparison to the West.
A.M: That’s actually one of my points! I have no problem with comic books being outrageously pornographic or really, really out there on the boundaries. They have a lot of young girls having sex. I find it intimidating, but still it’s fantasy. It’s on paper. No one is being hurt. Japan is a very, very sexualised country. Really sexualised! They are fucking everything over there! I’ve heard that 95% of the male population sleep with prostitutes because it’s a whole other set of beliefs. It comes down to their religious beliefs. They don’t believe in one God…
Shintoism. They believe everything has a spirit.
A.M: Because of that, they tend not to put human beings up on a pedestal above everything else. They level everything. They think everything can have a high place, you know? I have trouble thinking if this is a good or bad thing for them. I think women have some trouble over there. They are working hard and giving birth while their men are going off to see hookers. So in that way, Japan doesn’t have it all good. Maybe those things are bound together. To have artistic freedom you have to put up with these kind of social restrictions. Here in the West, we have people who are obsessed with banning things and maybe we should learn to accept that because it keeps a certain balance, as long as they don’t control everything.
Some people have described Princess as Danish anime.
A.M: Anime? Yeah, initially I was opposed to describing the film that way, but then how do you describe it, because if you say adult animation that immediately makes everyone think of porn. Eventually, I agreed to describe it as anime because I felt we used a lot of the same techniques. We used low budget techniques, which is the foremost thing they do in anime. They’re really good at pushing their technique to the limit, so it becomes very beautiful on a limited budget with limited technology. So I can agree on the technique because I wanted Princess to be a very beautiful looking movie. My team and I had to use the whole book of tricks. Japanese animation is very good at that, at spreading out the quality evenly. Some European animation has this problem where some scenes are very beautiful and some look like crap. That gives the viewer a very shaky ride watching it. If you provide a consistent level of quality throughout your film then people will start to value the emotional content rather than complain about the technical shortcomings.
You mix animation with live action inserts shot on digital video.
A.M: I did a movie in film school (Note: Araki - The Killing of a Japanese Photographer; 2003) where I had a fantasy level or whatever comprised of animation and I edited that around live action footage. What struck me was that nobody cared about the technique. They cared about the story, about the feelings. I decided I wanted to explore this technique further. I thought maybe this could be the solution to the problem I had with animation being too distant. It is seldom that I get fully into animated movies, besides Miyazaki’s movies. When you look at a human face, you decode unconsciously millions of fragments of memory. I think what is happening in Princess is if you cut between a human face and a drawn face, unconsciously you start applying all this vested emotion from the human face to the animated face. You stop seeing a cartoon and start seeing a human being. There is very little information contained in the drawing. It is the viewer who is applying it because they have just seen a human face.
That ties in with what you were saying about Shintoism. Animation is all about bringing inanimate drawings to life, endowing them with a living spirit.
A.M: Oh, that’s a nice one! You have to write that one down in your article! That’s good, man, that’s really good!
Were you influenced at all by Ralph Bakshi’s movies? Films like Hey, Good Looking!, Heavy Traffic or Fritz the Cat that mix live action and animation and deal frankly with sex?
A.M: No, actually I have never seen Bakshi’s movies. I’ve seen some of Fritz the Cat, but not all of it. I have to watch that again. I remember it being very funny.
What are some of your influences?
A.M: I’m mostly influenced by live action movies like Scorsese. My new movie is a live action.
Are you shooting that later this year?
A.M: No, I’ve shot it. I shot it this summer, right after Cannes. I wanted to make a movie about someone caught in the middle of a typhoon. You know how in the middle of the typhoon, the eye of the storm, it’s calm. No pressure, like a tiny space between two rocks, but there is pressure all around you. It’s about a policeman who arrives at a house with his kid. The policeman has kidnapped his son because he stands to lose him in a custody battle and he wants to have one last wonderful summer with his kid. Unfortunately, surrounded by all this pressure he suffers a breakdown and begins to relive his past. He lived in this house when he was a kid. When people who aren’t criminals commit criminal acts they always go back to some place they know. It’s a psychological thing. He starts reliving his past, starts seeing ghosts. It is like a horror movie in some ways.
So it is completely live action?
A.M: Totally live action, no animation at all except the title sequence which features a child’s drawing book that plays a role in the story. After that, I am in pre-production on an animated movie called Abu and the Worm. I need to do something not for adults. I need to do a kids’ movie and clear my head. I need to go to a place where there is only fun. Hopefully, I can get some peace.