‘Druk’ in Danish, means to binge drink. It means to imbibe, to consume alcohol beyond a reasonable amount, to indulge in the pleasure of intoxication. At a first glance, Thomas Vinterberg’s 2020 film Druk (Another Round) looks to be about just this. It centres around a high school graduation ceremony. An important moment for students coming of age, but one that in Denmark is tainted with an advocacy for consumption. Whether the participants are descendants of large bellied, Valhalla embracing Norse-folk or not, there is a suggestion that this behaviour can stray into unhealthy territory. When a headmistress addresses her staff about a recent incident, there are nods of agreement as well as rolled eyes. Perhaps she is right, or perhaps this is part and parcel of this important ceremony for young Danes.
History teacher Martin (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is all too familiar with this ceremony. In fact, his students will be preparing for it in the coming year. But this is not their main concern right now. They are worried that a bad grade in his class will bring their average down. They hold him accountable and confront him about his indifferent attitude to teaching. He is either too proud or embarrassed to engage, but he quietly and solemnly listens to their feedback.
Two of Martin’s oldest friends also teach at his school, their other friend is a children’s football coach. Occasionally, to blow off steam and escape the mundanity of their lives, they have dinner together. For Peter’s 40th Birthday Martin has chosen to abstain from drinking. As his friends indulge their favourite vices, they tease Martin about how sensible his decision is. Except for Peter, who can do nothing to ignore the dark cloud above Martin’s head.
Peter tells the theory of a Danish philosopher; that man is born with a bac (blood alcohol content) level that is too low. He advocates for a measured and regulated intoxication, to perform to his full capabilities.
This theory is laughed off and Martin remains distant. Earlier that night he asked his wife if he has become boring, her response; ‘You’re not the same as when we met’ before rushing out to her regular night shift. His friends continue to indulge, hyperbolising the deliciousness of their craft beer and champagne.
When a waiter pours four elegant glasses of vodka ‘fine enough to put a smile on the Czar’s face’ Martin can’t help but allow himself a tipple to ease his burden. Soon he is guzzling red wine at haste and becoming emotional. His friends ask him what’s wrong and he breaks down, he is depressed. He hasn’t felt himself in years, he has problems at home, and in his classroom, he has lost his ability to inspire. ‘You used to be so full of life Martin, I remember your jazz ballet.’ They Joke. Thankfully, what he does have is close friends. Also, he is not the only one who carries a cloud around him. They drink their sorrows away together, long into the night.
The next morning, Martin drags himself to work. In the school toilets he drinks vodka to take the edge off his hangover. He enters his classroom and addresses the issues bought up by his students. He conducts the best class he has taught in years, the bell rings as his students are cheering with endorsement.
His fellow teachers soon catch on and decide they must all follow Martin’s lead. They agree to all use alcohol to improve their teaching. They lay down some ground rules, so that the experiment is official. They will drink only in working hours, ‘like Hemingway’ one says, and to maintain a bac of no higher than 0.05. The fate of their chosen hero is not questioned, yet.
All four friends proceed with the experiment. Football, music, history, and philosophy lessons are dramatically improved with a steady flow of alcohol. ‘Just don’t drink from my water’ the coach tells his team. Beautiful choruses are heard from the music class, the philosophy teacher is finally exploring something worth writing about, even the football coach sees his weakest player score a vital goal. As for martin, the curriculum is only the tip of the iceberg, his students are learning valuable life lessons from the annals of history. Most importantly they are prepared not only for their exams but for their lives after.
Of course, it is only a matter of time until the experiment deteriorates. Despite the initial euphoria, there was always going to be a price to pay. After the group step their drinking up to beyond 0.05 bac, the experiment strays dangerously close to dependency. Martin is confronted by his family, he has been visibly drunk for weeks, and he is not alone. The group agree it affecting their lives too. Except for Tommy, the football coach. He doesn’t have a family to hone him in, he doesn’t have a reason to stop drinking. His fate, like Hemingway, was somewhat inevitable.
This tragedy allows the film to be more than just about drinking. There were always bound to be casualties from the experiment. Following Tommy’s funeral, the three remaining friends find themselves together in a restaurant. They are reluctant to drink. They are filled with melancholy of a different kind now. Martin receives a text from his wife, ‘I miss you’. He has come a long way since Peter’s 40th. As they soak up what has happened, a vehicle passes carrying a crowd of partying graduates, it’s their students. They walk out onto the street to observe the celebrations, the students are delighted to see who has joined them and before they know it they are being passed champagne and celebrating together. They have all earned the right.
For Martin, Druk is a success story, he has turned around his fortunes and taken control of his life. He has re-established his role in society and as a mentor for his students, he has prepared them for life. In the closing scenes, Martin performs his jazz ballet while swigging champagne. In a gleeful wave of euphoria, he dances to his own delight, before launching himself off into the harbour.
Besides the obvious advocacy for alcohol, Druk is about much more than the Dionysian approach to living it opens and closes with. Clearly there is a liberation from the staleness of life, that is ignited by alcohol, but this is only the vehicle these disillusioned men use to access this behaviour. The underlying message here is about the importance of staying young. The need to engage with your inner child. The need to stay frivolous and joyous, the need to have fun.
This is not just important to regain one’s own lust for life. These men are teachers. Their students are approaching graduation, a time when they need mentors most. Druk is about adulthood in two senses, one for kids becoming adults and for adults re-empowering their roles in society. These are broken men, that have a role to play in the coming of age of young Danes. Not so long ago, these men were coming of age themselves.
Vinterberg’s story was originally a play, taking inspiration from a theory that defining moments in world history were fuelled by a dependency on alcohol. The director’s daughter, who had her own experiences of Danish drinking culture, pushed Vinterberg to make it into a movie. She was even lined up to play Martin’s daughter, but four days into filming she was tragically killed in a car accident. After deciding to press on with production, Vinterberg re-wrote the film with a more life-affirming message “It should not just be about drinking. It was about being awakened to life”.
I wasn’t expecting that much from Druk. I thought it would be a fun ride, maybe a few laughs, some scenes of frivolous drinking. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.