If there is a single narrative that emerges from the shadows of Denmark’s modest but significant cinematic history, it would be its ability to foster an ongoing conversation regarding the relationship between art and culture. You can see this conversation present on either side of the Occupation, in the early establishment of a “golden age” of Danish film, and the later emergence of a “vow of chasity”, a movement meant to protect and inform the value of art as that which informs culture, rather than culture informing the art.
Most of this conversation comes from Denmark’s socialist systems, flowing from the nature of state funding and the subsequent push and pull of private investment. This is a common narrative one finds in cinema throughout the Nordic Countries, although you find a greater consistency in Denmark, with its state funding arriving with slightly less controversy than it does in France, and it’s ability to find and recover a national identity in Danish film less burdened by international growth than a place like Norway, for example.
A Golden Age and the Building Blocks of a National Identity
To describe Danish Cinema one can reference a few of the earlier films and the development of the Nordisk Film Company, the single most significant development in their history, but one could only do that with the recognition that an “established” cinematic identity didn’t really emerge until the 1990’s.
That is not to say that these early years should be glossed over, and there is a bit of irony to be found in the fact that these years are still considered Denmark’s “golden age”. A “golden age” simply refers to, at its most basic definition, a period when significant or important things happened. This could describe the rise of successful Directors, the birth of an influential movement, economic success, technical innovation. Golden Ages tend to point to those moments, those artists, those innovations, that set a Country and their films apart and give it definition.
Who and What is Denmark and Danish Culture
So what set Denmark apart? It could be the rise of Asta Nielsen, the first female movie star in Europe, and considered the first international movie star. Nielsen, a force in the silent film era, was a dreamer- she went on to establish her own film studio in Germany, where she would make 70 of the 74 films she starred in; she was an innovator- she helped shape and usher in a commitment to realism and naturalistic and artistic integrity in an era defined by a more produced style; she was boundary pushing- she imbued her films with a recognizable eroticism that gave voice to female empowerment, a fact that interestingly kept her out of sight of Americans in her international growth and appeal; she was ambitious- for someone who was given to quiet and isolation, she was not content to simply make films that would not be seen, going on to pave the way for future international ambitions; and she made art with conviction- not only did she pour her life and soul into her films, she made her films with an eye for what excited and bothered her in culture at large. There is much documentation about her abandonment of her studio in Germany in the face of the Nazi regime, and the efforts she made to funnel her money into helping assist Jews whom were facing oppression. As one quote from M.S. Fonseca says, “Asta Nielsen” means the power to speak of pathos, to see pain, and to find the middle path between Baudelaire’s flower of evil and the sick rose of which Blake sang”, a descriptive that feels both apt and prophetic.
Or maybe it’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the single most recognizable title of Denmark’s golden age. To quote the ever insightful Ebert,
“You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti. In a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti in Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) is to look into eyes that will never leave you.”
Ebert goes on to describe the films innovate design and structure in a period where German Expressionism and French Avante Garde were the major forces of the cinematic world in Europe at large.
“He wanted it all in one piece (with movable walls for the cameras), and he began with towers at four corners, linked with concrete walls so thick they could support the actors and equipment. Inside the enclosure were chapels, houses and the ecclesiastical court, built according to a weird geometry that put windows and doors out of plumb with one another and created discordant visual harmonies.”
Ebert points out that Falconetti only made one film, but “it may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
It would be rare, if impossible, to find a “greatest of all time list” that doesn’t recognize this film’s influential force and dynamic presence. What might be undercut or undersold is the way in which this film embodied the spirit of Denmark’s cinematic and cultural ethos, bringing the ever important and necessary conversation between art and culture to the surface in a unique way.
The Nordisk Film Company and Danish Cultural Identity
Or perhaps it is simply the Nordisk Film Company that gives definition to Denmark’s golden age. Danish film has a modest start (in 1897), with the first feature length film arriving in 1903 (The Execution) and the first movie theater opening in 1904 (going on to establish a chain of theaters all over the Country), but it is really the establishing of the film company by a man named Ole Olsen in 1906, a company that remains the central guiding force of Danish film still today, that the Danish film industry really starts to emerge. There is a connection between these theater chains the film company, given that Olsen, an amusement park operator, was behind the opening of the Biograf Theater in Copenhagen, an endeavor that would inspire him to establish the company. And what was his motivation? To develop Danish films that could establish his theater as a signature of Danish culture, and to help spread Danish film and culture around the world.
What the Nordisk Film Company also played a significant role in was the visionary push for longer run times and greater feature length film. Coming from this business and cultural background, but also employing and holding a value for the arts, this mixture of concern flowed out into competition, which gave rise to a film called The White Slave Trade, a film that was a revolutionary 40 minutes in length (the data explains that as being three reels long when the maximum at the time was one reel), which then gave rise, in the spirit of not so friendly competition of course, to the Nordisk Film company stealing the film and beating them to the punch. That’s what happens when you have established economic clout mixed with an eye for the evolving art form.
History describes this as a gamble. No one honestly could have known that audiences would respond to films of this length, but as history shows, it’s in taking the risk that you find innovation. While the Film Company would face a brief period of bankruptcy and eventually be reestablished through the strength of state funding, what makes it such a significant part of a Danish film industry that is marked by the emergence of policies and taxation and socialist idealism was and is its embodiment of this conversation between art and culture. The greatest challenge Denmark faced, and continues to face outside of its brief period of Occupation, is the threat of being swallowed up by international growth and international powers. It faced it at the time with Germany, France and Italy pushing in from a myriad of different directions, and it continues to face it today in a more fractured European environment that has isolated these Nordic markets and made it tough to establish a true sense of cultural identity with economic concerns tending to force a consistent and recognizable imbalance in the ongoing conversation regarding the relationship between art and culture. Once upon a time,
“despite the small size of its native market and its relatively limited resources, Denmark reigned supreme for several years (1909-14) as Europe’s most prosperous film center. Its films rivaled those of Hollywood, for popularity on the screens of Paris, London, Berlin and New York (Efraim Katz, Film Encyclopedia).”
Much of this came by way of the silent era, which could translate across cultures without the barrier of language, yet, as time moved forward “sound made it difficult for Danish films to be exported because of the language barrier”. and Denmark’s industry faced the increasing challenge of having the means of making Danish film without the economic gains of an international presence. What sets Denmark apart though is that through all of this their strong social policies, aided by the strength of the Nordisk Film Company, has kept the value of art and artistic integrity at the forefront of their socialist values, allowing it to function in a more modest fashion without getting swallowed up by the economic machine. This characteristic helps to continue to distinguish Denmark as a model, even amongst its small circle of Nordic Countries.
Across Europe there exists a fascinating discussion surrounding the power, pitfalls and successes that comes from state funding, taxation and policies that value and consider art as a necessary social function. In Denmark we see this surface in 1913 with the emergence of state “control” through policy. While this flirts with censorship, which is par for the course, the greater concern was for establishing an early, successive and functional system of taxation, one that would grow and evolve through the years into a consistent and assumed part of Danish culture.
Social Policies, Social Reform and The Conversation Between Art and Culture
The other dynamic in play here for Denmark was a directive that looked to establish forms of “licensing” that could act as a long term investment for artists and the Danish arts. One source defined this as a “type of artistic pension.” Recognizing the value of upholding the conversation between art and culture in a meaningful way, Denmark emerged from its Golden Age, which would be interrupted and stalled by the Occupation, with this system firmly in place, a system that would survive occupation and eventually give way to the establishment of the Danish Film Institute, which re-imagined the conversation of art and culture from the lens of the onslaught of television, the economic burden television placed on the film industry, and a reinvigorated investment in film as a public and architecturally dependent art form that remained integral to cultural reform and cultural identity. Once again, you can see the value of this conversation about the relationship between art and culture guiding the Danish concern, and “the Danish Film Institute was founded in 1972 to provide state subsidies for selected Danish movie projects. In 1989, it broadened the definition of films it would support, a development that laid the foundation for a revival of Danish film.”
As is true with any form of oppression, struggle and Occupation, these kinds of experiences tend to give shape to the kind of art that emerges and the kind of stories that we find with a particular cultural narrative. This was true for German Occupation, which ultimately shaped and affected Denmark by helping to shape a distinguishing and distinctive style informed by the darkness of this era. Challenge and struggle give way to more serious films, and a more intense focus on exploring Danish identity through a new wave of filmmaking following the Occupation. It gave greater purpose to the established laws, taxations and policies implemented to help foster Danish voices and Danish art, allowing it to ultimately gain greater reward in the form of the raising up of filmmakers and the protection of Danish film.
“Between 1940 and 1945, the German occupation of Denmark during World War II pushed the film industry toward more serious subject matter. The darker tone during these years paralleled the rise of film noir in Hollywood.”
What began as films bent on realism and darker tones emerged out of the Occupation with a desire to direct this towards a critique and examination of culture at large. This mirrored the growth of a greater diversity of genres and films as the Denmark film industry moved into the 60’s and towards the 70’s. Two films that capture this transition in its resistance are Bodil Ipsen and Lau Lauritzen Junior’s The Red Meadows (De røde Enge) and Johan Jacobsen’s The Invisible Army (Den usynlige Hær).
“Henceforth Danish cinema delved into a more realist direction, a critical humanitarian realism with a focus on everyday fate” and “cultural issues”.
The Danish New Wave (60’s) and the Danish Film Institute.
Once you dig into this cultural and socio-political shift, what emerges is a very clear awareness of Denmark’s ability to navigate this ongoing balance between culture and art as it marries to economic growth, concern, and independence. The Danish Film Institute stands as an example of holding this middle ground, operating in tandem with social policies while standing apart from politics. This does, however, happen with an ongoing, and perhaps necessary, tension in tow. Part of the issue with these more isolated cultures is that, without being a dominant player in the international market, the weight is re-positioned onto the culture itself rather than the economics. It forces the culture to articulate the value of art, and then to establish it as a part of their social and political reality. This is where the Danish Film Institute really made its presence know as a cultural touch point. While it becomes a point of contention and conversation in terms of where that line exists between state and independent control, what helped Denmark to retain its cultural identity “as” an ongoing conversation of the relationship between culture and art is this working tension. This narrowed the separation that existed between popular art (privately funded, economically viable projects) and cultured art (state funded, socially valued) in a Country with a relatively small population, which enabled a relatively small population to foster a strong cultural presence and voice. When you read of how Danish policies, which informed the film industry, developed and adapted, it really is quite astonishing how much of it ebbed and flowed as a response to this tension between art and culture. As one article put it, with this holding tension, “25% of an entire year’s worth of financial support would be allocated for this purpose”, from which “the film support definitively changed from an artistic backing to a cultural backing”.
And yet, it is the foundation of Denmark’s social policy and support that helped to keep this from being subsumed by the economic machine. It is from this tension that we find a new, reengerized focus and concern for the conversation between art and culture that has pushed and pulled Denmark along the way, finding in the 90’s a new wave and a new interest in the importance of film and art as an informing voice of culture. This is progressed by Denmark’s most visible voice, Lars Von Trier (Europa), and was defined by what history sees as a shift from reflection to “optimism” in this newfound “realism” that was shaped out of the Occupation. Who is Denmark, what makes and distinguishes Denmark as a culture, and what informs the people of Denmark, becomes the mission of the “Vow of Chasity”, as informed by The Dogma Manifesto, that “Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen” undertake. These questions sit in contrast to the economic machine they observe taking over the international game.
This was a new found commitment to artistic integrity and social awareness. One of the great film studies of Danish film history is Per Fly’s trilogy (The Bench, Inheritance, Manslaughter), which helped to distinguish three definable social classes existing within Denmark’s social fabric, being a great example of how the conversation between art and culture happens. Another key focus of this push for artistic creativity was the strong social value of investing in youth and up and coming artists. Policies and funding recognized that to raise up voices who could comment on and speak to culture’s ongoing formation on a social level requires an investment in art that can give voice to the youth of their country. One stat I read said that 25 percent of all film directed subsidies are designated to making youth and children’s film.
A Country Built on Quiet Influence and Cultural Integrity
A general thoroughline in all of the sources I read through below is that what makes Denmark so distinctive as a film culture is the perseverance of art as an integral part of culture, even in the face of cultural forces and cultural demands. As one commentator put it,
“The state controlled film industry might limit innovation, but it also maintains focus, intention and a high level of professionalism.”
What’s clear though is that this ongoing tension that exists between state control and independence can’t exist in necessary balance unless a Country is willing to carry it, particularly into the social and political challenges of the moment. What Denmark can show to a world that is largely not looking and watching Danish cinema, at least not to the degree of its social counterparts that surround them, is that it is possible to retain a value system that can inform a healthy conversation between art and culture without stifling it, dumbing it down for the sake of economic gain, or allowing it to disappear in the absence of greater economic opportunity. I think Denmark represents a grand middle road in this regard, one that can speak honestly and realistically to the ambitions of a culture that doesn’t need to chase after international presence in order to succeed. It can just be Danish, and let that be its quiet witness to the world at large, perhaps even inspiring other cultures who might be caught in the economic game on one side or another along the way.
Here is my list of Danish Films, a working watchlist for my film travels through Denmark in 2020:
David Bordwell: Essay on Danish Cinema, in Film #55, Denmark 2007
M.S. Fonseca, The International Dictionary of Films And Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses