Cool Copenhagen

People filmed in a room in an apartment in a house on a street in a city. The city, Copenhagen, is the subject of a unique film portrait by Max Kestner, one of Denmark's most outstanding young directors.

DrømmeiKoebenhavn

The usual thing would be to describe the modern city as a tirelessly pulsating organism buzzing with life and activity. High-rises and techno tunes. While Max Kestne's Copenhagen is certainly buzzing with life and energy, "Dreams in Copenhagen" is a much more composite, subtle and poetic portrait of a city than we are used to seeing.

"Many others have lived in the apartment you live in now, however deeply you consider it your home. You can belong to the city with every ounce of your body, but the city is only yours on loan."

There are any number of cities beneath the city. Cities of horse-drawn carriages, cobblestones, cow barns and wells. Powdered wigs, prelates and foul gutters. All long gone. But if you listen closely, you still sense a city built from old voices and faded pictures.

Many others have lived in the apartment you live in now, however deeply you consider it your home. You can belong to the city with every ounce of your body, but the city is only yours on loan.

"Dreams in Copenhagen" is a film about a city, its architecture and the people who live their lives in it, an anti-bombastic urban symphony where today's cool Copenhagen meets yesterday's entrepreneurial spirit and working-class culture, bound together by an atmospheric score by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

My city

"I was born and raised in Copenhagen," Kestner says. "I have a love affair with the city. Copenhagen's size is pretty perfect. It's big enough that you can remain anonymous, but small enough that you can take it all in at once. And there's huge difference from one borough to the next."

"Like a lot of other people, I feel Copenhagen is my city more than anyone else's. You get such a close relationship to a city you have lived in for years. Your memories are tied to its streets. That's where you kissed your first girl. That's where you restlessly wandered the streets when she left you again. Your memories are tied to the city and accumulate over time," Kestner says.

"There are sounds and notes and blackbirds chirping when you walk home through the city at five in the morning," he says. "Some streets make me happy, other streets make me sad. One street people find ugly, but I love. Why is that? Why does the city affect me so? That was my premise for making this film."

Not a tourist film

Clearly, Max Kestner did not spend the last five years working on a tourist film – the Little Mermaid or Tivoli's marching band are nowhere to be seen. Nor is it a history lesson. Copenhagen is captured in the now. Yet it's not a polemical anti-idyll of raw social realism, pushing a political agenda of street riots, with or without Muhammad cartoons.

A couple of Copenhagen's most heatedly debated problems get only passing mention, though the film does briefly touch on the ongoing debate on the future of Freetown Christiania and who will define it – still a political hot potato after a decade of a conservative government that inherently cringes at the thought of an autonomous mess like Christiania, for 38 years now a hippie capital in the heart of Copenhagen and one of the city's biggest tourist draws.

A few years ago, when the police evicted the squatters from the Youth House on Jagtvej 69, Copenhagen erupted with unheard-of violence. Were the squatters way off base or was their outrage partly justified, as their clashes with police turned the streets of Nørrebro into a battleground? Kestner doesn't take sides. In fact, he doesn't mention the conflict with a single word. But simply has the camera pan across the empty lot where the Youth House once stood, now just a gaping hole between numbers 67 and 71, an improvised parking lot covered in graffiti and littered with trash.

Such hints at the nation's capital as a political arena and battleground are rare in Kestner's film. "Dreams in Copenhagen" looks at the city through the director's eyes, revealing Copenhagen in all its poetic diversity. A city of everyday people. Buses and kindergartens, hugs and kisses. Store fronts, avenues, faces, bodies behind windows. How the light changes with the hours of the day.

Planning and accident

The urban space enfolds you in a story that's greater than your own.

"The past is a huge presence when you portray a city," he says. "But we made a point not to make it out like everything was better in the old days. Though many of the memories about the city are personal, this is not a nostalgic film. The movement is always forward."

Kestner points to the many architects who appear in the film – architects in their studios, discussing and planning the landscape of tomorrow.

"It was always a film about architecture," he says, "but only in a certain sense. I always knew I wasn't smart enough to tell architects anything about architecture, so the film isn't full of critical themes about architecture.

"But, like a lot of people, I am interested in city planning. We should take good care of the city, but we also need to develop it. And that's a challenge. So the film needed some architects, though not so many that it got out of hand. I wanted the film to respect that urban architecture is also made by the hotdog vendor on the corner, by how we use the city. Whether we bike or drive, for instance, has a massive impact on the city's appearance," Kestner says.

"Architects plan the city, but a lot of things can't be planned. It's kind of like John Lennon's famous line that life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. People are what happen to the city and architects' designs. People living their lives changes all their fancy plans. Life lived is full of quirks and accidents."

Voyeuristic poetry

"We wanted to do a multi-plot story, though the plot could never dominate. The main thing had to be that the individual scenes were attractive," the director says. He never made it a secret that his documentaries contain a powerful element of staging. Real life is hard to plan when you're making a documentary. Having faith in the power of accidents, even positing accidents as a principle, paradoxically, is a really strong argument for minimising the influence of accidents on the storytelling process. But it's a fine line.

"We didn't just want facades, but people and facades. People, streets and windows," Kestner says, indicating the whimsical voyeuristic poetry that's such an important part of "Dreams in Copenhagen". Catching a glimpse of someone in a window, we immediately begin to imagine what his or her life is like. But such stray plot lines are fugitive, unless we view the individual people as strokes of light and shade in a composite portrait of the city's face.

"From the outset the film was intended to be a portrait focusing on architecture in brick-and­mortar Copenhagen. Documentary portraits are plentiful, because we are intrinsically interested in other people, but also because the method is so convenient. If you just keep observing a person long enough, you will eventually have enough scenes for a portrait. The same is true for a city. The kaleidoscopic method is a good fit for documentaries."

Ground rules

To define how the film would depict the many people in the city, Kestner laid down certain ground rules. People couldn't have chronological stories. They could appear more than once in the film. They could be established as characters. Their lives could touch and intersect, but they should never develop into continuing stories with any kind of suspense. How did their jobs or their love affairs work out? There's no room for that.

In terms of the photography, Kestner made a basic decision never to show a person without also including the city in the frame.

"If we were in an interior, we had to shoot against the window to show the city outside," he says. "If we did an outside shot looking in a window, we had to show the wall of the building around the window. A person couldn't just be someone with a problem or a situation. A person here is seen to be in a room in an apartment in a building on a street in a city."

There were other, more radical, decisions as well. "We had to decide where to put the focus or sharpness," Kestner says. The film is shot in 35 mm. "We decided to put the focus not on the people but on the city. That is, people can come into focus, if they are standing by the front of a building, on a balcony or close to a window. Buildings are always in sharp focus. People are out of focus a lot of the time. This is to hold on to the fact that it's a portrait of a city. Sure, we could have chosen to put people in focus – that's certainly the convention – but we decided to take a risk in this case."

It's a gamble that helps lay a historical grid over the film's portrait of the city, highlighting the idea that the city is a constant, while people come and go – are born, grow up and die, actors in a fleeting shadow play on the ancient stage of the city. One day everyone eventually takes his or her last walk in the city. Other shadows will follow. Happy kids, busy grownups, stooped-over old people will pass by workers' tenements from the 1930s, patrician mansions from the 1700s and the still soulless new buildings in Copenhagen's spanking new districts, where architects and construction workers stride, conducting procedures in hardhats and with eagle eye amid construction noise and dust. Prestigious construction projects in raw concrete and daring, swooping lines one day, too, will be patinaed with people's joys, sorrows, daily routines and, of course, their Copenhagen dreams.

Max Kestner foto Erik Molberg Hansen

Max Kestner

Born 1969. Graduated in documentary from the National Film School of Denmark, 1997. Lecturer at the National Film School of Denmark. Worked for DR TV, where he made "Partiet / The Party" (2000) and "Supergeil" (1997-1998). "Rejsen på ophavet / Max by Chance" (2004) was chosen for First Appearance at IDFA Amsterdam and received a GulDok for Best Short Documentary at CPH:DOX, 2004. "His Verden i Danmark / The World in Denmark" (2007) received a Danish Robert for Best Short Film. 2009: "Drømme I København / Dreams in Copenhagen", an anti-bombastic urban symphony, selected for CPH:DOX competition for Best Documentary.

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