The Inheritance (Arven) begins at the end. We see Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen), heir and president of the Borch-Møller steel mill, arrive in Stockholm. He is wealthy, well-heeled, confident—a captain of industry. But he is also reserved, overcome by an overriding fatalism that, in turn, masks a towering spiritual malaise. Throughout the film, the camera rarely turns away from Christoffer, and in Thomsen’s brilliantly minimalist performance we see the dissolution of a weak man, a man beset by circumstances and unable to muster the self-possession necessary to control his own destiny.
It is to Thomsen’s credit that despite Christoffer’s blank façade, we do not perceive him as a cipher, but a persistent enigma - his personality registers not as an absence but as a reticence. Christoffer appears briefly in happier times, married to Maria (Lisa Werlinder) and owner of a successful restaurant. But everything changes for him when his father is found dead—a suicide—and he is called home to assume his rightful place as head of the family business. Tension builds as his wife resists the change in circumstances, unwilling to abandon her career as a successful actress and repulsed by the machinations of the Borch-Møller family.
In an interview for the DVD, writer-director Per Fly characterizes the film’s driving themes with a quote from Denmark’s Queen Ingrid: “You have to learn to want what you have to do.” That this sentiment seems grim today reflects changing cultural mores. The question is, what does Christoffer have to do? We see what he needn’t do: he does not have to submit to the will of his imperious mother (Ghita Nørby) over every other member of his family. He doesn’t have to alienate his wife or emasculate his brother-in-law Ulrik (Lars Brygmann). Neither does he have to become a puppet for his mother, shepherding Borch-Møller steel through harrowing layoffs and a hazardous merger. But by film’s end, his transformation is complete.
Considering the grim, almost mechanical precision of every nuance of Thomsen’s performance, it was surprising to learn that much of the film was developed through improvisation, with details dependent on the casting. Nikolaj Kaas was originally slated to play Christoffer, but dropped out because of a conflict with another film. Thomsen’s arrival apparently changed the entire focus. Fly explains:
The difference between Ulrich Thomsen and Nikolaj Kaas in this instance, is that it is easy to see Ulrich as the strong man. It is easy to see him as a person who becomes hard in the end… In the version with Nikolaj, it was more about hurting a young person. Now I couldn’t imagine the film without Ulrich.
Whatever Fly’s conception of the character before filming began, they were changed the moment Thomsen began interacting with Fly and the other members of the cast—his particular mindset and performance influenced not only the screenwriting process (his character’s dialogue), but also the film’s shape. Christoffer is its heart, and his relationship with his family dictates every other facet of the film.
One of these facets is the factory’s demise. Unsurprisingly (given the state of the international steel trade), the real steel mill seen during the factory scenes was going through rocky circumstances similar to those at the fictional Borch-Møller plant. Frederiksvørk Steel almost refused to allow filming because the plot was too close to reality: facing tough international competition in the cutthroat steel industry, the small plant was forced to implement traumatic layoffs and consider a painful merger. Fly remembers,
It was really unpleasant because the ramifications were so great. We spoke to the workers [at Frederiksvørk Steel] and used them as extras. They suddenly found themselves in the situation that the mill was closing and had stopped payments. If they didn’t find a buyer quickly—exactly like in my film—then the mill would close. On the day we shot the scene where the workers get the slip in our film, using the mill’s employees as extras, they were meeting later to be told that the company had stopped payments. It was very weird.
With this in mind, The Inheritance might seem an anti-capitalist treatise, a tragic tale of a good man brought low through his complicity to the brutal logic of capitalism. Certainly, at movie’s end, Christoffer has become a corporate shark, nearly sociopathic. He’s lost his family, his self respect, and even, in a shocking act of violence, his dignity. Christoffer’s choice to yield to his mother’s will and ignore his wife, to accept his inheritance, leads him to ruin. He chooses to believe the specious rumors surrounding his brother-in-law, most likely concocted by his mother to oust Ulrik from a position of power within the company. Perhaps he believes the rumors, perhaps not. It’s to Thomsen’s credit that we are left guessing until the very end. It is not merely that Christoffer’s actions are ambiguous, but that we believe his thoughts to be equally adrift.
Christoffer is a rudderless ship at the mercy of the strongest current. Queen Ingrid’s words are therefore neither fully ironic nor clearly aphoristic: the meaning of The Inheritance hinges on what the audience believes Christoffer has to do. Although at the film’s end he is morally bankrupt and deeply unhappy, he fights hard to save his father’s business—ultimately, whether or not he succeeds is besides the point. Is capitalism inherently corrupt, compromising all who come into contact with it? Is it worth it to sacrifice one’s own happiness, and the happiness of others, for money, or even to help those who depend on you? The Inheritance does not provide easy answers.