Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt Analysis: Truth, Lies, and False Memory

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Thomas Vinterberg The Hunt Analysis Jagten

Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) and Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) in the background

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten) follows the story of the kinder garden teacher Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen) who is wrongly accused of abusing a little girl. The Hunt, which was nominated for Best Foreign Picture Oscar, deals with truth, lies, and the way they shape reality perception. The movie’s deceptively simple plot examines  the psychological phenomenon false memory, often attributed to the work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. She describes false memory as the distorted and fictionalized recollection of facts and events that did not happen the way the person “remembers” them. Loftus tested the phenomenon in a series of experiments and concluded:

Many people believe memory works like a recording device. Memory works more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.

Loftus mentions cases of child molesting and false testimonials that accuse innocent people because of false memory. Such cases sparked the idea for The Hunt, and as Thomas Vinterberg said at the official Cannes press conference (video below), he researched extensively real-life cases of false memory of child abuse. The director said a psychologist he knew mentioned the idea to him, but at first Vinterberg was not interested. Aside from false memory, The Hunt is also closely related to the phenomenon confabulation, explained by Ian Leslie in his book “Born Liars” as a memory disorder that produces fictions and lies without the conscious attempt to lie or deceive.

The Hunt Film Analysis

Lies and their social acceptance as truth is one of the film’s central themes. In an early scene seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Theo (played by Thomas Bo Larsen) asks Lucas about his ex-wife. Lucas responds unconvicingly that everything is all right, and Theo says, “I can tell when you’re lying.”

But later when Theo’s daughter Klara falsely accuses Lucas of sexually abusing her, Theo wrongly assumes Lucas is lying to him when he says he is innocent. The boundary between truth and lies thus becomes blurred and Theo cannot reliably distinguish between the two.

Thomas Vinterberg The Hunt analysis

In another seemingly unimportant scene, Klara’s brother and a friend of his show Klara a picture of a penis and joke about it in front of her. This event could have been the basis for Klara’s lie later. As Ian Leslie points out in “Born Liars, confabulation is most often based on real events that are distorted and fictionalized without the conscious attempt to deceive. In confabulation, the person is lying without realizing—they believe it actually happened. (A side note: although the use of “they” for singular is officially wrong according to prescriptive linguists, the school of descriptive linguists, in which filmslie.com is enrolled, prefers it to the clumsy “his or her” which is utterly un-literary and absurd.) At first Klara seems aware she has made up the story, but later she becomes more and more convinced it happened because of the influence of her parents and the community.

Seeing the consequences of her lie, Klara tells her mother she made up the story and that Lucas is innocent. But her mother explains to her that Klara’s brain is trying to suppress the memory of Lucas abusing her. Faced with both versions of the story, the mother chooses to believe to the false one. In a similar way, the town’s community collectively accepts the lie as truth. Thus, in his attempt to explain the truth, Lucas becomes a liar—he is saying the opposite of what the community has collectively accepted as true.

Thomas Vinterberg The Hunt Analysis JagtenThe collective construction of reality is a concept by John Searle in his book “The Social Construction of Reality.” Searle argues that a significant portion of the facts of reality exist only because of social convention and the collective agreement to accept them as such:

There are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages.

Searle’s idea refers to man-made conventions and accepted norms that pass as reality simply because of human “contract.” In the case of money, for example, it has value only because of the social agreement that it does. A slip of paper with a number on it does not have an objective or universal value of $5 or $50—society and human conventions have ascribed such a value to it.

The concept of the social construct of reality is directly related to the plot of the Hunt—in a sense the community has collectively “constructed” Lucas as a child molester. As one of the people at the kinder garden says, “I don’t think that anyone here is any longer in doubt about what Lucas has done.”

The Hunt examines the truth-value of lies and the fragile nature of memory and truth. A lie receives the status of truth because of its collective social acceptance.  Because of the influence of the community around her, Klara can no longer tell if she lied or told the truth. The community repeats and reaffirms the lie until it receives the status of truth. Thus the line between truth and lies becomes a subjective matter of social acceptance. Or to recall Friedrich Nietzsche in “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense”:

Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are.