A Common Film Culture? – Denmark and Germany in the Silent Film Era, 1910-1930

Publicity photo of Asta Nielsen and Urban Gad on set in Berlin. Archive: Danish Film Institute.
Project description, abbreviated March 2019

Everyone knows Asta Nielsen, the great Danish diva of the silent film era. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that only four of the 70 films she made from 1910 to 1932 were Danish productions; the rest were German. Almost no one knows the Danish director Viggo Larsen, although he was behind no fewer than 167 films from 1910 to 1942, all of them produced in Germany. And who is familiar with the name Frederik Fuglsang, who was the director of photography on 80 German films from 1916 to 1938? Or Axel Graatkjær, who operated the camera on 69 German productions from 1913 to 1929? Nielsen, Larsen, Fuglsang, Graatkjær, Holger Madsen and at least 30 other Danish-born film professionals – among them such well-known names as Carl Theodor Dreyer, Max Hansen, Benjamin Christensen, Olaf Fønss and Urban Gad – were indisputably important in the establishment and formation of German film, though the role they played has still only been sporadically described.

The story of how Danish and German film cross-pollinated one another from 1910 through World War I and up to the advent of sound films around 1930 has yet to be collected and systematically explored and described. We can note that Danish-born film professionals figured prominently in the circle of figures that defined early German film, contributing to numerous and film-historically important German productions, and that other actors besides Die Asta were stars in German-speaking Europe. One was Olaf Fønss, on whom the Danish Film Institute (DFI) has an extensive special collection bursting with fan mail. The Fønss Collection is only one among a number of rich special collections at the DFI on well-known and still-unknown film people who were active in German film. Likewise, German archives have holdings documenting the period, to be supplemented by insight gleaned from extant trade journals from Denmark and Germany. Our application preparations have revealed that rich source materials exist, and that traffic also went in the opposite direction: numerous German film professionals, especially screenwriters, left their mark on Danish film. The exchange between Denmark and Germany was also used exploited later on. In an effort to promote German films in Denmark during the Occupation, the German film company UFA touted the proud past Danish-German collaboration to persuade reluctant Danes that German films were an acceptable diversion.

In our collective Danish-German project, we seek to uncover the relations between the Danish and the German film industries from 1910 to 1930, when first the advent of sound film and later Hitler’s rise to power radically changed the conditions for the German film industry and international exchange. The period covers the decades when Danish film rose to international prominence and declined again, exactly at the same time that German film broke through with pioneering works, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and the expressionist films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, which, some film historians have argued, employed techniques derived from Danish film. The main question the project asks is this: How did the cultural exchange between two of Europe’s most important film nations play out from 1910 to 1930? This question breaks from the dominant tradition in film historiography of operating within a narrow national perspective, since the project’s focus, theory and method are intrinsically transnational. While the existing scholarship on Danish and German film does include attempts at illuminating the interaction transnationally, they have almost exclusively been focused on business and personal histories regarding the roles and actions of the big studios and stars. This project makes a contribution to film and cultural history by a systematic empirical investigation of a far greater number of films, persons and companies whose orientation was international, in some cases even global, long before anyone was talking about globalization. Incorporating analysis of aesthetics and style history to examine the transnational exchange, the project seeks to trace the routes taken by artistic inspiration and influence, and how this exchange was viewed and described in trade journals and the daily press.

The project is carried out in a three-year partnership between the DFI, the Deutsches Filminstitut (DIF) in Frankfurt and the two biggest universities in Denmark and Germany: the University of Copenhagen and the University of Cologne. The DFI is hosting the project, which is headed by Lars-Martin Sørensen. 

Project results

We plan to

  • co-write a research-based book in Danish aimed at a broad readership;
  • publish a number of articles in international academic journals, in English, German and Danish; 
  • augment the DFI’s Filmdatabase with new information produced by the project, and exchange both existing and new project data with the Filmdatabase’s German counterpart, Filmportal.de, which is operated by the DIF,1 
  • disseminate the project’s main results via the global network of Scandinavian Study centres and institutes, and in Danish and German online publications, including the release of a 90-125-page “single” in the DFI’s online journal Kosmorama, in German, English and Danish. Popular dissemination of the research results will be of use in the education sector.

The research team 

The research is carried out by a core group of seven researchers: 

  • Lars-Martin Sørensen, DFI Head of Research, has conducted in-depth study of Danish-German film relations in the 1930s and ’40s; 
  • Stephan Michael Schröder, Professor of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Cologne, is a scholar of cultural studies theory, Danish-German relations and Danish silent film; 
  • Casper Tybjerg, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, is an expert in the history of silent films, in particular the films of Carl Th. Dreyer; 
  • Helle Kannik Haastrup, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, is an expert in celebrity studies;
  • Isak Thorsen, Part-Time Lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, wrote his dissertation on the organizational history of Nordisk Film in the silent film era;
  • Lisbeth Richter Larsen, Research Assistant, is editor of the DFI’s Filmdatabase and Carl Th. Dreyer website, and has published articles on Danish silent film;
  • Jannie Astrup, Ph.D. Fellow, wrote her thesis on the Palladium film company, whose Fy & Bi comedies were hugely successful in Germany.

In addition to the core group, a number of external scholars are affiliated with the project – experts who have researched and published on migration in the film industry, and on silent film. These external scholars will mainly contribute an ongoing critical assessment of the results produced by the core group, and will be invited to workshops along the way. They will also be encouraged to compare the Danish-German exchange to other international perspectives, including the Scandinavian one.

Research perspectives

The research targets the following perspectives, which we have divided among us according to our respective areas of expertise, with the aim of covering as much ground as possible and attaining the greatest possible coherence among the subprojects:

  • Schröder’s subproject analyses the common film culture based primarily on a study of German sources. One subproject focusses on the marketing of Danish films in Germany, especially contemporary German discourses on ’Northernness’, a second subproject investigates the existence of Danish networks in Germany, primarily in Berlin.
  • Haastrup’s subproject examines the period’s emerging celebrity culture, with an aesthetic, cross-media focus on the film star Asta Nielsen.
  • Richter Larsen’s subproject takes a personal-history approach, and touches on Haastrup’s, by studying the extremely productive director Urban Gad and the underlying reasons why he never attained star status. What role did Gad – a director, film theorist and, like his wife, Asta Nielsen, a pioneer of German film – play in German film and in Nielsen’s rise to stardom?
  • Thorsen’s subproject takes an organizational-history approach, elucidating the dominant role played by Nordisk Film in Germany before World War, and the studio’s reaction when it was nationalized and taken over by UFA of Germany in 1917.
  • Astrup’s subproject takes a business-history approach, mapping Palladium’s role and position as the second of the two most important Danish film companies operating in Germany, and its success with the Fy & Bi films. How did Palladium position itself internationally, and in particular in the German market, with their two stars at the front of their marketing?
  • Tybjerg’s style- and technology-historical subproject will primarily analyze whether German film productions show discernable aesthetic features that can be attributed to Danish film people and/or the influence of Danish film?
  • Sørensen’s subproject focusses on how censorship influenced the common film culture and is critical-historical, mapping how the exchange has been described and used in contemporaneous and later Danish and German trade journals.

Research process and source material

We are aiming the project’s first year primarily at collecting, registering and systematizing empirical material, since large gaps exist in the available knowledge on the subject. Hence, our budget includes research assistants in both countries to gather source material according to the research team’s instructions. The assistants will mainly handle labour-intensive tasks, such as reading, copying and registering relevant articles from trade journals. More specialized searches of Danish and German text and film archives will be performed by the researchers themselves. 

We mapped the relevant source material during the work of preparing the project application. As mentioned, major sections of the material exist as special collections and clippings in the DFI archives. Among them are special collections on Asta Nielsen, Carl Th. Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen, Olaf Fønss, Urban Gad and Axel Graatkjær; an extensive corporate collection from the Nordisk Films Kompagni; and taped interviews with Robert Dinesen, Axel Graatkjær, Viggo Larsen, Alfred Lind and Asta Nielsen. The clipping archive holds material on all the persons relevant to the project, along with film programmes and clippings about a number of German films released in Denmark. Finally, the DFI houses periodicals of the time, among them FILMEN (1912-19), which tracks the careers of Danish film people and has been put online in partnership with the European Film Gateway.2 . The Royal Danish Library and the Danish National Archives also house relevant collections, primarily archives from film-regulatory bodies and private manuscript collections, which will be examined.

In Germany, Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin; the Dusseldorf, Potsdam, Frankfurt and Munich Film Museums: the Federal Archives; and the Federal Foreign Office house collections of particular relevance. We are in touch with these institutions, and have visited some. Deutsche Kinemathek Berlin and Filmmuseum Düsseldorf, in particular, have promising archival holdings of clipping collections, letters, film programmes and trade journals.

The collected material will be entered into a shared database with a set of metadata allowing researchers everywhere to access empirical data generated by the project. Lisbeth Richter Larsen (DFI) is overseeing data exchange between the Filmdatabase and Filmportal.de (DIF). For reasons of both research and dissemination, we are prioritizing this task, and our budget includes a student assistant to perform it at the DIF. It was Richter Larsen’s work with the Danish database that originally revealed the eye-catching number of Danes working in the German film industry. Integrating the two filmographies may contribute additional names and contexts beyond the ones that have already been registered. Serving as bases of search for scholars and general audiences alike, the two filmographies can also be used to disseminate project results in Denmark and Germany.

In addition to ongoing communication via e-mail and Skype, three annual workshops will be held for the project’s participants. First, the gathering of source material and the theoretical-methodological framework will be discussed and evaluated. Then, the results and presentation of subprojects will be the main subjects of the meetings. Throughout the process, we will stay in close touch with the external scholars affiliated with the project, who, in turn and collectively, will participate in the core group’s workshops and an international conference to be held upon completion of the project.


1. See, e.g., https://www.dfi.dk/viden-om-film/filmdatabasen og https://www.filmportal.de/ 
2. https://www.dfi.dk/viden-om-film/filmhistorie/tidsskriftet-filmen