10 great Danish films

From the country that gave us Dreyer, von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn, here are 10 essential films to mark the release of the warped new Danish comedy Men and Chicken.

Sarah Lutton

Men and Chicken (2015)

Men and Chicken (2015)

Anders Thomas Jensen’s twisted comedy Men and Chicken, about two brothers whose search for their real father takes them to the strange island of Ork, is the latest proof of the ongoing vitality of Danish cinema – an industry which stretches back to the dawn of the medium.

The first film screening in Denmark took place in June 1896, just six months after the Lumière brothers’ first public film screening in Paris. The appetite for film was strong in Denmark, and the first Danish-produced film came in 1897 with Kørsel med Grønlandske Hunde (Driving with Greenland Dogs) by Peter Elfelt. In 1906, cinema entrepreneur Ole Olsen founded Denmark’s first (and one of the world’s first) film production studios, Nordisk Films Kompagni (which still operates today as Nordisk Film).

From the early days of cinema, Danish films were popular on the international market, as were Danish actors and filmmakers. The actor Asta Nielsen became Europe’s first great female film star, and directors such as Benjamin Christensen found success both at home and abroad; Christensen’s 1922 Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages is considered one of the most innovative works of its time.

Copenhagen-born auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer (whose filmmaking career spanned 1919-64) is ranked as one of the world’s greatest film directors. His films The Passion of Joan of Arc (made in France in 1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955) are widely acknowledged as some of the most influential films ever made. His legacy is still tangible today, most notably in the work of his countryman Lars von Trier.

Danish filmmaking culture is broad, with a rich tradition across many genres, including family films (Palle Alone in the World, 1949), classic drama (Tree of Knowledge, 1981) and thrillers (Nightwatch, 1994). The country’s filmmakers and actors have also often found success beyond their national borders, including directors and actors such as Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Connie Nielsen, Mads Mikkelsen and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.

The history and success of Danish filmmaking owes much to a spirit of freedom and collaboration, which has been facilitated and supported by significant public funding of film education and production. The National Film School of Denmark was established in 1966 and offers programmes in scriptwriting and film, TV and animation direction. Many of Denmark’s most significant filmmakers were trained at the Filmskole, including Bille August, Lars von Trier, Lone Scherfig, Susanne Bier and Thomas Vinterberg. The Danish Film Institute, Denmark’s generously funded national film agency was founded in 1972, and continues today to play an invaluable role in film production, preservation and promotion.

Master of the House (1925)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer

Master of the House (1925)

Dreyer’s most famous Danish film of the silent era, Master of the House tells the story of demanding and tyrannical husband Viktor Frandsen and his ever-attentive wife Ida. Worn down by tending to Viktor’s ever escalating needs, Ida is despatched to her mother’s home to recuperate. Viktor’s old nanny Mads takes over household duties, and – much to his initial chagrin – begins to teach Viktor how to be gracious and accommodating.

Following on from the emotional sensitivity he explored in the homoerotic (German-produced) drama Michael (1924), Dreyer uses the construction and constraints of the chamber play to focus attention on psychological observation. But although Dreyer’s work in general may not be noted for its humour, this film offers a witty take on gender relations as well as offering astute social satire of contemporary mores. It was a great commercial success in France, which resulted in Dreyer being invited to make one of his most iconic films, The Passion of Joan of Arc, there in 1928.

Ordet (1955)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer

Ordet (1955)

Considered by many to be Dreyer’s masterpiece, Ordet is a tale of religious prejudice and simple faith. It focuses on a devout Christian farmer and his three sons, Mikkel, Johannes and Anders: one faithless; one driven mad by theological enquiry; and one whose happiness is hindered by bigotry. Much of the intimate story is staged within beautifully constructed, spacious interior sets, giving space for thought and contemplation. The power and stillness of this interior drama is intermittently punctuated with sequences set in the wild natural scenery of West Jutland, which effectively prompt an awakening from slumber (religious or otherwise).

A quietly moving and devastatingly powerful film, Ordet was lauded internationally by audiences and critics alike, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and the Golden Globe for best foreign film alongside numerous other awards.

A Sunday in Hell (1977)

Director Jørgen Leth

A Sunday in Hell (1977)

An epic account of the classic 1976 bicycle race, the Paris-Roubaix, A Sunday in Hell, like much of Jørgen Leth’s work is deeply personal. The day-long race, known as the ‘Hell of the North’, follows a notoriously difficult route, partly running along the all-but-disused cobbled streets of northern France. The race is characterised by a disproportionate number of injuries and non-completions, and is often disrupted by protesters.

Leth, in one of his most natural environments (he also has a TV career as cycle race commentator), finds a harsh poetry in the mechanics of preparation, movement of man and machine, and the battle between competitor and landscape. Using a spectacular number of cameras and range of filming techniques, he captures the sights, and, equally importantly, the sounds both at close range and from an omniscient distance. There is an aesthetic beauty to what is shown, but this is certainly no romantic vision. For Leth, cycling offers a perfect ritual expression of human victory but of course also defeat.

Pelle the Conqueror (1987)

Director Bille August

Pelle The Conqueror (1987)

Lauded by audiences and critics alike, this multi-award-winning film gave Denmark its second Oscar for best foreign language film in a row (following Babette’s Feast the previous year), also garnering a best actor nomination for Max von Sydow.

A Danish-Swedish co-production, Pelle the Conqueror is the story of Swedish emigrants, late middle-aged Lasse Karlsson (von Sydow) and his young son Pelle, who travel to the Danish island of Bornholm to find work and a new life after the death of Pelle’s mother. Set in the latter part of the 19th century, the story paints a dark portrait of unwelcoming and exploitative Danes, but, although laced with depictions of the harshness of life in a new country, the heart of the film is of hope against adversity. Von Sydow’s performance is extraordinary, almost effortlessly evoking a character humbled by life’s disappointments and yet sustained by his love for his son. The film also features small early roles for Sofie Gråbøl and Thure Lindhardt, who were later to become famous faces in Danish TV crime dramas The Killing and The Bridge respectively.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Director Lars von Trier

Breaking the Waves (1996)

  • Spoiler warning This section gives away a plot turn

This is the first part of Lars von Trier’s so-called ‘Golden Heart’ trilogy (followed by The Idiots in 1998 and Dancer in the Dark in 2000), and the film that catapulted the controversial Danish provocateur to worldwide attention.

Breaking the Waves is the story of simple-minded and resolutely faithful ingénue Bess (Emily Watson, in her first film role), living in a remote strict Calvinist community in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1970s. Bess consolidates the scorn of her community by marrying oil-rig worker Jan (Stellan Skarsgåd), an atheist and a foreigner. Jan’s perceived ‘carnality’ belies a loving sensitivity, and once married he and Bess enjoy an intense physical relationship. But a dramatic accident on the rig leaves Jan immobilised from the neck down. Now unable to have sex with Bess, Jan suggests he may find fulfilment in other ways and asks her to sleep with other men and tell him about it. Bess is conflicted. Should she honour the vows she made in front of God to obey her husband? Perhaps this questionable sacrifice would bring a miracle?

Ever provocative, von Trier’s jump cuts, discontinuous sound, direct address to the camera and sliding focus make an uncomfortable story even more potent.

The Pusher trilogy (1996-2005)

Director Nicolas Winding Refn

Pusher (1996)

Pusher (1996)

The Pusher trilogy is a highpoint in the history of the Danish crime thriller, and a testament to the talents and vision of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Each episode – Pusher (1996), With Blood on My Hands: Pusher II (2004), and I’m the Angel of Death: Pusher III (2005) – is a dazzling standalone piece: three almost hermetic narratives revelling in a shared dark milieu of the Copenhagen underworld, with certain characters crossing from one instalment to another.

The original Pusher brought the extraordinary talents of Kim Bodnia to wider attention, with regular Anders Thomas Jensen collaborator Mads Mikkelsen in a supporting role. Mikkelsen took central stage in Pusher II, his good looks somewhat masked (as in his roles for Jensen) by his gangland styling. Pusher III saw Zlatko Buric’s Serbian drug lord Milo, a minor character in both of the previous films, bring the story to a visceral and incredibly bloody end. The films are eloquently made, characterised by Winding Refn’s smooth, searching camerawork and intimate, unflinching depiction of criminal culture. His unique vision and sensibility would gain worldwide acclaim with the sublime Drive in 2011. 

Festen (1998)

Director Thomas Vinterberg

Festen (1998)

This was the first film produced according to the rules of the Dogme 95 manifesto, whose regulations encouraged simple production values and a focus on strong storytelling and actors’ performances. In Festen these restrictions (considered by some as a ‘style’ of filmmaking) are a perfect fit, since it is both the nature of the story and also the use of handheld camera that helps give this film its unnerving immediacy.

Helge, a patriarch and respected businessman is celebrating his 60th birthday with family and friends. Helge’s disparate adult children, Christian, Michael and Helene, converge at the party venue: the very hotel where their sister Linda recently committed suicide. The choice of venue and celebrations so close in time to a family tragedy immediately point to the rotten heart at the centre of this family. What does it take to puncture this middle-class veneer of respectability? Pushed to the brink, oldest son Christian unleashes a cataclysmic series of revelations as a sickening farce of manners plays out in this brave and moving film.

Festen debuted in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 alongside Lars von Trier’s Dogme #2 The Idiots to great acclaim. 

Open Hearts (2002)

Director Susanne Bier

Open Hearts (2002)

Newly engaged young couple Cæcilie and Joachim and happily married Niels and Marie’s lives are brought together by a shocking accident. The emotional fall out is understandably extreme, as each tries to negotiate a pathway through the post-traumatic vicissitudes of anger, guilt and confusion to a point of self-realisation and, perhaps, hope.

This was the first of Susanne Bier’s collaborations with Anders Thomas Jensen (they have worked together on six films to date, including the Oscar-winning 2010 drama In a Better World), and his sensitive and acutely observed script underpins the strength and rawness of the film. Shot according to the strictures of Dogme 95, this is Bier’s masterpiece of emotional intensity, eliciting outstanding and heartbreaking performances from its leads, including some of Denmark’s finest acting talent: Sonja Richter, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen and Paprika Steen.

Applause (2009)

Director Martin Zandvliet

Applause (2009)

This accomplished and elegantly played debut feature announced writer-director Martin Zandvliet as a refreshing new voice in Danish cinema. Underpinned by a terrific performance from the ever-marvellous Paprika Steen, Applause offers an intelligent and inspiring take on the devastating nature of addiction and the long road back to normality. Steen plays actress Thea Barfoed, who is making a spectacular return to the stage after a spell in rehab. By charm as much as manipulation, she manages to get access to the two young sons she voluntarily gave up to her ex-husband for custody.

Thea is both monstrous and yet highly sympathetic. Her honesty and tenacity in facing her manifold challenges are impressive. Whether it be regaining her sons’ trust, renegotiating her relationship with her ex or delivering a series of challenging theatrical performances – all are undertaken without the aid of alcohol, her drug of choice.

The filmmakers cited John Cassavetes and Bob Fosse as influences. There is a similar rawness and sensitivity in the portrayal of character and performance (both on stage and off) in this refreshingly subtle and restrained take on a potentially dramatic story.

The Act of Killing (2012)

Director Joshua Oppenheimer

The Act of Killing (2012)

Directed by Denmark-based, American-born Joshua Oppenheimer, this documentary paints a troubling portrait, in a most unconventional manner, of a nation unwilling (and possibly unable) to come to terms with its violent past.

Focusing on Anwar Congo and a small group of his friends who were promoted from small-time gangsters to death squad leaders in the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, a horrific period that saw more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, artists and intellectuals killed. Anwar and his friends, living with impunity in Indonesia, agree to tell the story of the killings. But it’s not a confessional. Their idea of being in a movie is not to provide documentary testimony. They want to make the kind of scenes they loved from their days selling cinema tickets on the black market: gangster films, westerns and musicals. They will write the scripts, play themselves, and play their victims.

The Act of Killing was a highly controversial film, which was both lauded for its daring ingenuity and criticised for its ahistoricism and lack of context. Whatever your take on what the film does or doesn’t do, the breathtaking impudence is something quite extraordinary to witness. And, at the very least, Oppenheimer contests that his film brought attention to the fact that many of the killers are still in charge of much of the country today.

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