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Director Magnus Von Horn Steps Up To The Cannes Competition With ‘The Girl With The Needle’: “It Was A Story That Provoked Me Very Deeply” — Ones To Watch

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In 2020, Magnus von Horn was excited to find that his film Sweat had been accepted into the Official Selection at Cannes, a big step up from his debut, The Here After, which made Directors’ Fortnight in 2015. The pandemic put an end to that, but his disappointment was short-lived; this year, his dark atmospheric follow-up, The Girl With the Needle, sees him joining the big league. “This is huge to me,” he beams. “The main competition!”

Set in Denmark during World War I, the film stars Vic Carmen Sonne as Karoline, a young seamstress whose soldier husband is missing in action. Through a series of mishaps, Karolin falls pregnant, loses her job, and meets a mysterious woman named Dagmar (Trine Dyrholm) who runs both a candy store and an adoption agency.

Now based in Poland, where he graduated from Łódź Film School in 2013, Von Horn has always pursued a career in film. “I’ve made films since as long as I can remember. I tried many different things in art — painting, poetry, and photography — but filmmaking somehow clicked with me. I don’t know exactly why, but I do know that when I look back on the films I did as a teenager, they’re more or less exactly the same as the films I’m making now, thematically. There are certain kinds of stories that attract me, often with a darkness that I think I can express in filmmaking.”

Here he discusses The Girl With the Needle

DEADLINE: How did this film come about?

MAGNUS VON HORN: I’m Swedish, and now I’m Polish as well, since I just got a citizenship there. I moved to Poland for film school, and I stayed. I have a wife and family there. I was approached by producer Malene Blenkov with this project, which came from an idea by the co-writer, Line Langebek Knudsen. It was just an idea at the beginning, and I was asked to jump on board, and we ended up developing it for a very long time. That’s how it began and that’s how Denmark came into the picture. Which I liked. It’s nice to direct in languages that are not my own. It creates a certain distance, maybe even a kind of ignorance, that gives you a freedom you don’t have if you’re working in your native language.

DEADLINE: What was the inspiration?

VON HORN: The starting point was a true story, of one of the most horrendous and controversial crimes in Danish history. I don’t want to spoil things by explaining exactly what that was, but it was a story that provoked me very deeply. At first, I couldn’t see a way to tell that story, in a way that wasn’t just exploiting the matter, or in a way that would be meaningful. That’s very much when the idea of the main character came in, and her journey through poverty, looking for a better life in post-World War I Copenhagen. I began to think, How much do we want a better life? And what price are we prepared to pay for that?” A lot of these themes came up that interested me. But during the development of the film, since it took such a long time, I also had also personal experience of my own that I found were reflected in this story, which became a lot about what we do with unwanted [children], in a way. It’s very personal to me, but I’m happy to speak about it.

DEADLINE: What happened?

VON HORN: My wife was pregnant with a terminally ill foetus and we went through an abortion. This was something that deeply affected me and also this project.

DEADLINE: Why?

VON HORN: What we went through sent us on a an emotional journey beyond politics. I felt regret and doubt even if I knew we had done the right thing. I find this conflict reflected in the story of Karoline, who gives away a child she doesn’t want — and yet there is also something in her that regrets that decision. I have always been pro-choice, I support abortion. But we live in Poland, and in 2020 the right-wing government introduced some of the strictest abortion laws in the world and especially in Europe. The abortion we had would have been impossible today and my wife would have been forced to carry a child that would have no chance of surviving. That’s torture. If there is no legal support for women in such difficult situations, alternatives are created in the shadows of society. This is one of the main topics of the film.

DEADLINE: What was behind the decision to shoot in black and white?

VON HORN: I always find it difficult to believe in period films, when we’re supposed to be watching a story that took place 100 years ago. So, it was a way to recreate this world, a way to feel like we’re doing a little bit of time travel. That was a big challenge. We were inspired by photography from that time, and also a little later, which is always black and white and has become stuck in our heads. It would different, I think, if this was a film about a Renaissance painter or something like that. That world I see in color, because it comes to us through paintings, but this world I see in black and white because it’s always been presented to us that way, and I’ve always seen it that way.

And I also think it’s completely a way for us to push the fairy tale aspect of the film. It’s not a world that is entirely based on facts. It’s not exactly what Copenhagen in that time looked like. We shot the whole film in Poland, in areas that we felt were visually interesting, that represented a style and a look that we wanted the film to have.

DEADLINE: How did you find Vic Carmen Sonne, who plays Karoline?

VON HORN: I met Karoline maybe two years before we started production. I have a fear of never finding my main actress, and I found her very quickly. She felt she was right for this part and, after the casting process was over, I felt completely the same. She has a visual effect on me that just makes me believe she comes from that time. I can put her in front of the camera, in those settings, and she works perfectly. She was also very helpful later. Because Vic was on the project very early, Vic introduced me to other Danish actors and actresses — who are in the film — and other creative people, too. It was my first time making a film in Denmark, and I’d never worked in that society of filmmakers before.

DEADLINE: It’s a very different role for Trine Dyrholm. How did you get her involved?

VON HORN: Well, I’d always wanted to work with her, and I was just so happy the moment she said yes. I’d approached when the script wasn’t really ready, and she said, “No, it’s too early.” So, I kept developing it, and I returned to her [with a new draft] and asked her again. This time, she agreed. The first time we met, we were having lunch, and we were talking about the script. I could see that she that she was curious about the character. She took up a toothpick and started frantically playing with a tooth. It was like she was giving me a little taste of what she could do with this character. She didn’t say as much, but I could feel it. I could feel she was giving me something, a little gift, and after that I could never imagine anyone else. She’s sort of fearless, in a way that is necessary. To go into darkness or be unsympathetic, she’s not scared of that.

DEADLINE: It’s interesting that we don’t really find out what her character’s motivations are…

VON HORN: We had multiple versions [of the script] that went more into, let’s say, the social aspects of the whole thing. They’re still there, in a way. But what this character does is not something I want to defend, on a certain level. I’m also not going to pretend, or try, to find the reasons for her behavior. For me, it was important that she’s a kind of a devil. And the devil has her reasons…

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