Desert Island List: Danish Cinema



        A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Danish filmmaker Adam Neutzsky-Wulff, writer and director of The Stranger Within. He had a great deal to say about the Hollywood films which influenced him, in addition to his Scandinavian roots as a filmmaker. This got me thinking about the Danish films to which I find myself personally attached, and a fitting opportunity for examining the history of this specific Scandinavian national cinema.


Prior to the advent of sound, country of origin was all but insignificant to a film’s international success. The introduction of dialogue into film, however, had the significance of God’s intervention on the Tower of Babel, forever altering the universality of the medium. Some countries spend all resources attempting to duplicate Hollywood success, whereas the Danish film industry has instead spent decades defining their own national cinema in a way that is self sufficient. For this reason, Danish filmmakers often have less incentive to work within the confines of the Hollywood system.


The first film exhibition in Denmark took place in June 1896 at the Town Hall Square in Copenhagen. Not long after, it was photographer Peter Elfelt who made the first Danish film. Elfelt produced around 200 documentary films on life in Demark between 1896 and 1912, establishing realism in Danish cinema from the beginning.

In 1906 a cinema owner named Ole Olsen founded the first Danish production company, Nordisk Films Kompagni. By 1910 there were ten Danish companies established, including Arhus Fotorama company, which produced Den hvide Slavehandel (1910, The White Slave Trade), the first multi-reel Danish film. By 1911, Nordisk Film was first of the major European companies to devote itself entirely to making full-length feature films, which were sold in several hundred copies abroad.


By 1913 Denmark began losing its foothold when other foreign film companies also began to make full-length feature films, but the market was hurt even further by war. The devastation caused by World War I in Europe provided the opportunity for the United States to become the leading film nation in the world, causing Danish exports to dwindle further.  Surprisingly, although World War II brought German occupation, this actually provided fairly favorable environment for Denmark to begin experimenting with darker films, and from 1940-45 Danish narratives matured a great deal.


In the 1930s Theodor Christensen proposed the idea of founding a film school in Denmark. Christensen was the first teacher employed when the Danish Film School was founded in 1966.  It was established upon the realization that “film was not just a business or an entertainment medium, but an art form that could have cultural and social significance and be worthy of study.”  The school soon became an important driving force and an alarmingly large percentage of filmmakers, producers, and other key figures attended, including Lars von Trier and Dogme mates Thomas Vinterberg and Kristian Levring, as well as second-wave Dogme directors, Lone Scherfig, Ake Sandgren, Ole Madsen, Susanne Bier and Dogme Minister, Jesper Jargil.


The next big step in Danish cinema came with the government’s decision to step in and become involved. On May 5 of 1964 the “film law” was passed to “encourage the production of films that had artistic or literary merit,” providing new funds through a ticket tax.  Unfortunately the ticket tax proceeds weren’t always spent to make art films and it wasn’t until 1972 that a new Film Law was passed and the Danish Film Institute was established to allocate funds for production directly from State coffers. The money only need be returned if the film saw a profit, but due to the fact that artistic and creative cinema was encouraged in the consultant system, few films brought a return. In 1989 the Film Law was amended inserting a 50/50 agreement which was “geared more towards films that had a fair possibility of attracting a sizable public,” and may have been due to the success of the two Oscar-winning Danish films Babette’s Feast (1987) and Pelle the Conquerer (1987).

Babette's Feast (1987)

As New Danish Cinema was just taking off “in Ole Christian Madsen’s pre-Dogma films and Ole Bornedal's thriller Natteragten (The Night Watch, 1995) which in many ways started this trend in New Danish Cinema, von Trier initiated his plan for Dogme 95. This movement captured much of the spirit of simplistic filmmaking which had taken a hold on New Danish Cinema, including a realism marked by an improvised narrative based on character-psychology.


In March of 1995, Lars von Trier issued a press release followed by an impassioned publicity stunt at a symposium held in Paris to mark the Centennial of cinema. While on a discussion panel, von Trier stated that film in the last ten years had been “rubbish”. He also claimed to have the answer and tossed a stack of red flyers out over the edge of the stage into the audience. They contained the manifesto and the Vow of Chastity for Dogme 95, which he then proceeded to read aloud.  This was the beginning of Dogme, which carried many of the same ideals already in practice in New Danish Cinema, but von Trier was able to market it in a way which seemed to credit recent Danish success with the movement he had not yet begun.

Lars von Trier

Often in interviews von Trier and Aalbaek Jensen have claimed that Dogme 95 was written off, scorned and attacked from the get-go in Denmark, but this was the product of their desire to portray themselves as rebels who achieved success in spite of everything. In truth, von Trier has always been given a fair amount of special treatment. Attendance to the Danish Film School alone helped von Trier because of the graduates who go on to work as consultants for the Danish Film Institute, the primary source of funding for films in Denmark.


There are discrepancies in the Dogme Manifesto and the Vow of Chastity, including a contradiction in the claims of freedom brought with the manifesto even though the focus on rules seems more about restrictions. Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn didn’t bother to write rules down, and he never even attended the school which is often seen as the only route to a career in film in Denmark. Refn’s Pusher trilogy made him an international success, the first of which was made during the initial wave of Dogme films.

Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn

Refn isn’t the only director in Denmark who has taken his own route. Director Ole Bornedal, who’s Night Watch (1994) virtually launched the New Danish Cinema movement, also never attend the Danish Film School. Bornedal also rarely managed to get support for his films through the consultant system either, instead having to take what he could from the 50/50 arrangement.  “I’ll take lecherousness over chastity,” Bornedal stated of Dogme 95 after battling von Trier’s the Kingdom for movie of the year, “I would rather fuck than live in celibacy…. I’ll take Dogme seriously the day I sit in a cinema and get floored by a great film—until then I consider it to be a concept, and one can always spend time on concepts if one can’t manage anything else.”


These battles in the Danish film world have helped define the national cinema, which has remained dominated by social realism and documentary filmmaking. There are many films I have yet to see, because of the limited exportation and availability. Among those I have seen, these five stand apart as the films I could watch repeatedly and find their value appreciating with each viewing. I will keep my descriptions to a minimum, having allowed myself to get carried away in the history of this particular national cinema, instead focusing on my personal attraction to each piece.


5. Klown (2010)


        This film is like a Scandinavian Bad Santa with canoes; total inappropriate behavior made even more hilarious when a pre-pubescent boy becomes an accomplice to the debauchery. Danish cinema tends to be known for its drama, but you wouldn’t know it by this apt venture into awkward humor. “Klown” is a television program which the film is based on, though no previous knowledge of these characters or the series is necessary to enjoy this cringe-worthy comedy classic. It pushes the boundaries of good taste in ways that Hollywood cinema would never be so bold, but also has a strong reliance on the awkward humor of many disastrous misunderstandings and mishaps, primarily of a sexual nature.


4. Love is All You Need (2012)


        Written by Anders Thomas Jensen (Adam’s Apples) and directed by Susanne Bier (Brothers, In a Better World), Love is All You Need is a perfect Danish romantic comedy. Although the structure may follow that of a Hollywood romance, it is paired with the signature Danish realism matched with melodrama in such a way that allows an uncertainty in the end result which is normally missing in this genre. Bier is also able to pull remarkably nuanced performances from leads Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm, making it impossible not to fall in love with them as they fall for each other.


3. Flame and Citron (2008)


        Directed by Ole Christian Madsen (writer of The Celebration), Flame and Citron is a World War II biopic thriller which almost plays like a gangster film at points. With a budget over $10 million, this is one of the biggest blockbusters made in Denmark. The plot follows famous resistance fighters with the nicknames The Flame and Citron (Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen) as they sabotage and assassinate the occupying Nazi forces. The scale of this film is remarkably impressive, but that never diminishes the realism and accuracy to details.


2. Submarino (2010)


        Directed by Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), this dark human melodrama is about two brothers on a downward spiral in their middle age. All of their problems seem to come from an undisclosed incident from their childhood, though we can see from flashbacks that none of their youth was filled with anything close to carefree existence. It is no surprise that each brother struggles with substance abuse and depression. Nick (Jakob Cedergren) is a convict recently released from prison, and his brother (Peter Plaugborg) is struggling to raise his young son alone while maintaining a drug addiction. This premise sounds dreadfully bleak, but it is handled in such a way that is realistic while also hopeful. It is a beautiful film, one which breaks my heart every time I watch it.


1. The Pusher Trilogy (1996-2005)


Each of the Pusher films feature actors who were, or in some cases still are, working gangsters in Copenhagen.  Professional car thieves were brought in for advice during the filming of the large car theft in Pusher II, and the prostitutes used in many of the somewhat graphic sexual scenes were working prostitutes or actresses from pornographic films. As well as using criminals as actors, the locations used are nearly all what they appear to be in the films. The beginning of Pusher II opens with a sequence in prison, and Refn remarks that while they were shooting a fight scene in the prison yard “because the film crew was so small, a lot of the inmates couldn’t see the crew. They thought it was a real fight, so they were shouting out the window, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’” Scenes taking place in brothels were shot in actual brothels which were as filthy as it was portrayed on film. Even the dialogue is kept as realistic as possible within the films, filled with lingo used by real drug dealers on the street.


Despite the low budget and doubts of Refn’s family and friends, Pusher was a great success and would eventually become a trilogy of unique gangster films. The first film is about the downfall of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a low level drug dealer in Copenhagen. Just as Frank is putting together a big deal, he is busted, fortunately able to escape the charges when he dumps the drugs in the river. This leads Milo (Zlatko Buric), the high level gangster whose drugs were lost, to come asking Frank for the money. The remainder of the film is a desperate scramble as Frank tries everything to save himself. Pusher was such a success that it inspired both a British and a Bollywood remake.


Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, remains on the streets of Copenhagen with many of the same gangsters from the original, including the menacing Milo. This time the gangster of focus is Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), “last seen beaten to a pulp by his friend Frank after snitching him to the police” in Pusher. Tonny is also the son of a powerful gangster, only known as ‘Duke’(Leif Sylvester). Tonny is a continual disappointment to his father so when he becomes involved in a drug deal that ends badly, there is more than money at stake. Pusher II may have the most shocking ending when the film “culminates in a concisely handled act of Oedipal revenge followed by an ambivalent prospect of redemption.”[1] The final image is of Tonny’s bald and scarred head aside his baby son’s bald head sitting on a bus as the passing light flickers on the tattoo on Tonny’s head which says ‘Respect’, which is ironic for every other scene in the film when Tonny can’t seem to get respect from anyone. This is the most hopeful image in the entire trilogy but Refn has stated in interviews “Of course we know that after half an hour he’s going to get arrested, because he probably tries to hold up a gas station with the baby.  Still we can’t help feeling that Tonny is starting to grow up, even if it’s too late.”[2]


 The third film in the trilogy, Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death, has Milo as the gangster of focus. Although he is a feared character in the first two films, we join him in his seemingly calmer later years. The entire film takes place in one day as Milo attempts to quit his drug habit, prepare a birthday party for his daughter, and fix a drug deal which has turned bad as they always seem to in these films. Milo ends up in debt to a brutal new Albanian gang. This final film in the trilogy shows us an aging gangster, who despite all of his work throughout the day must return to a shabby suburban home. “Milo’s life and its questionable rewards are evoked in a closing shot of leaves blowing around his empty swimming pool.”[3] These somber endings are a key element of the trilogy, just as the drug deal is. We are not even allowed the satisfaction of seeing their demise, but instead are left with a far starker and more realistic image of a criminal near his end.

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[1] Romney, Jonathan. “Natural Selection.” Sight and Sound 16.3 (2006): 34-36.
[2] Ibid.

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