The responsibility to tell a good story

It’s one of the most defining moments in Danish history, a drama that has everything. Many filmmakers have dreamed of putting it on screen, but as Nikolaj Arcel found out, telling the story of mad King Christian VII, his young English wife and the German doctor Struensee is not simple. Per Juul Carlsen spoke with the director of "A Royal Affair", in competition in Berlin.

A-royal-affair

"A Royal Affair" Photo: Jiri Hanzl

"We were pickled in awe," Nikolaj Arcel admits and for a moment looks like he is slipping back into the condition he was in three-four years ago.

"All historical films blend dates and events and leave certain characters out. The alternative is a dry film where nothing special happens, but who wants to see that?"

"I sit here today, calm and collected, because I’m happy about the result and I’m proud of the journey we made. But back when we started out, all we had was this insane awe." Now, three years or so after Arcel and Heisterberg shucked off the paralysing reverence for their subject, they are bringing us "A Royal Affair", a lavish period drama that revolves around King Christian VII, by all indications a schizophrenic, his English queen Caroline Mathilda and the king’s personal physician, Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German who became the unofficial regent of Denmark from 1770 to 1772. The drama is carried by a strong cast, with Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee, the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the queen, and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, a young actor making his screen debut, as the king. The film is set in striking natural scenery evoking Denmark before agriculture rearranged the country, with digitally altered shots of Copenhagen without billboards and cars.

A princess and a mad king

The awe felt by the filmmakers came with good reason. After all, Arcel and his co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg are putting their touch on one of the most defining moments in Danish history. Like Harald Bluetooth’s converting the Danes to Christianity in 948, Denmark’s humiliating loss to the Prussians in 1864 and the national team’s out-of-the-blue triumph at the 1992 European Football Championship, the Struensee affair is an event that shaped the Danish nation. While it may be a matter of discussion exactly how the event has affected the Danish mentality, it is inarguably one Danish history’s greatest stories.

The awe felt by the filmmakers came with good reason. After all, Arcel and his co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg are putting their touch on one of the most defining moments in Danish history. Like Harald Bluetooth’s converting the Danes to Christianity in 948, Denmark’s humiliating loss to the Prussians in 1864 and the national team’s out-of-the-blue triumph at the 1992 European Football Championship, the Struensee affair is an event that shaped the Danish nation. While it may be a matter of discussion exactly how the event has affected the Danish mentality, it is inarguably one Danish history’s greatest stories.

"We spent eight-nine months freaking out and not getting anywhere, going, ‘Oh, no, wait a minute, what was that, seventeen-hundred-something?’ It was awful, until we had the confidence to let go and say, ‘Good, we have all these different things now. We have read seven books about Christian VII and they all say different things, but we think he was like this, so we’ll take this and that and this."

"This is such a great story, one of the best there is," Arcel says. "The build-up is like a fairytale. You have a deeply enlightened 15-year-old princess who plays music and reads books and is then married off to a mad king. The conflict begins right there. Then, lo and behold, the king gets a new best friend and the queen falls in love with him. The affair that grows out of this is not just a love affair, it also involves the friendship between the king and his doctor which leads to political change and subsequent turmoil across the country. You almost couldn’t ask for a better story if you are looking for drama."

History on film

To most Danes, the story of a German who steals the king’s young wife, fathers a child with her and even usurps power over Denmark could have an unpleasant ring. But Struensee is hardly a villain. He was a man of the Enlightenment, a proponent of the winds of change that were blowing across Europe inspired by Voltaire and Rousseau.

To most Danes, the story of a German who steals the king’s young wife, fathers a child with her and even usurps power over Denmark could have an unpleasant ring. But Struensee is hardly a villain. He was a man of the Enlightenment, a proponent of the winds of change that were blowing across Europe inspired by Voltaire and Rousseau.

When Struensee arrived in Denmark, in 1769, the country was still stuck in the Middle Ages. The notion of educating and liberating the populace was pure science fiction. Struensee changed all that when Christian VII allowed him to reign, but he moved too quickly. When orphanages and freedom of speech were introduced, conservative forces took down Struensee. He was beheaded and broken on the wheel, his mangled remains displayed in a Copenhagen park as a warning to others. Caroline Mathilda was banished and died three years later, at 24.

Those are the facts, but their edges are obviously fuzzy. How mad was Christian VII? How much did Caroline Mathilda and Struensee love each other? How hungry for power was Struensee? A filmmaker is wise to tread with caution. Cinema is such a powerful medium that films about historical events tend to become truths in our common consciousness. Of course D-Day looked just like Saving Private Ryan – Spielberg’s images are that lifelike. And New York gangsters in the 1930s and ’40s looked just like they did in The Godfather – Coppola’s version was that compelling. Even so, Arcel, now that he is well over his initial awe, is hardly worried at the thought of his version of one of the best Danish stories winding up as part of the national heritage.

"Everything we have read indicates that these people were more or less the way we describe them. We may have made them a little more infatuated, a little more passionate, a little more mad. All historical films blend dates and events and leave certain characters out. The alternative is a dry film where nothing special happens, but who wants to see that?"

Whatever spins your crank

Arcel, 39, and his long-time co-writer, Rasmus Heisterberg, know this better than most Danish filmmakers. Since Arcel debuted as a director in 2004 with "King’s Game", the duo has led the charge of a new generation of Danish filmmakers who say no to European art films with handheld cameras and spotty lighting and yes to slick, tightly composed genre films in the Hollywood tradition. This is a gross simplification, of course, though it applies pretty accurately to all three of Arcel’s broadly entertaining films, the political thriller "King’s Game", the children’s fantasy film "Island of Lost Souls" (2007) and the guy comedy "Truth about Men" (2010). In that light it makes sense for Arcel to mention Milos Forman’s "Amadeus" which tells the story of the composer Antonio Salieri’s envy of Mozart, the genius savant.

Arcel, 39, and his long-time co-writer, Rasmus Heisterberg, know this better than most Danish filmmakers. Since Arcel debuted as a director in 2004 with "King’s Game", the duo has led the charge of a new generation of Danish filmmakers who say no to European art films with handheld cameras and spotty lighting and yes to slick, tightly composed genre films in the Hollywood tradition. This is a gross simplification, of course, though it applies pretty accurately to all three of Arcel’s broadly entertaining films, the political thriller "King’s Game", the children’s fantasy film "Island of Lost Souls" (2007) and the guy comedy "Truth about Men" (2010). In that light it makes sense for Arcel to mention Milos Forman’s "Amadeus" which tells the story of the composer Antonio Salieri’s envy of Mozart, the genius savant.

"When I watch that film, I feel like it really happened, though I know it’s a complete lie from start to finish. Mozart and Salieri didn’t have that kind of a relationship. But that doesn’t matter to me. It’s just a playwright who was inspired by real events. You should tell the story that spins your crank. You have a responsibility not to lie and outright change something that was really important. You have a moral responsibility, but you have an even bigger responsibility to tell a good story."

"Obviously, there are victims, says Arcel. "But we also toned down the realities to make them credible," he adds. “We know that the dowager queen, Juliane Marie, who helped bring down Struensee, was a pretty tough customer. She brought a small spyglass to watch Struensee’s execution, but that was too hardcore a detail for our film.

"I am openly and honestly fascinated by these people. My only dogma was that I wanted to do a big, epic love story. We modernised the characters, made their emotions and their mindsets modern, to make it easier to relate to the story. Call us romantics. We are. It’s a romantic film. We believe in love. I hope this is how it happened. I hope it wasn’t just a cynical power game and that Struensee and Caroline Mathilda didn’t make a baby just because they were bored."

As a result, posterity will not just see King Christian VII as a raving lunatic who wallowed with prostitutes in the Copenhagen nightlife but as a brilliant, sensitive mind who longed to be accepted. Queen Caroline Mathilda will no longer be just a silly goose, the way she has often been depicted, but a cultured intellectual. And Struensee will no longer be just a power-hungry German, as he has conveniently been presented.

Above all, posterity will remember Caroline Mathilda as the bright beauty embodied by Alicia Vikander, while Struensee will live on as the visionary hunk portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen. That’s film, not history.

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