Since the mid-1980s, the quality of Danish cinema has remained remarkably consistent. International interest in Danish film has rarely weakened during this period, peaking in the mid to late 1990s with the birth of the Dogme 95 movement.
"Anders Thomas Jensen plays very effectively with our own atavistic, childish need for a happy ending, our willingness to be seduced by outsiders, and what could be called our instinctive pleasure in his characters' initial contempt for propriety."
The end of the Dogme movement did not signal the end of this period. In fact, it's been followed by possibly more significant achievements, including the first two installments of Lars von Trier's US trilogy, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher" series, Thomas Vinterberg's underrated parable "Dear Wendy" (2005), Anders Thomas Jensen's black comedies, and Susanne Bier's singular string of films beginning with "Open Hearts" (2002, one of the last official Dogme films).
The list could easily go on much, much longer.
This period has been remarkable because it's not linked to a specific type of film or style. It accommodates both neophytes and veterans, and includes both commercial and primarily critical successes, convention and innovation. The variety of Danish film production over the course of this period is wildly divergent, encompassing everything from gangster trilogies to domestic melodramas, romantic comedies and absurdist, sometimes anachronistic parables.
The varied nature of the work may seem guaranteed to inspire intellectual vertigo, but in fact there are central overriding motifs or concerns which link many of the films.
In terms of tone, many of the filmmakers share a decidedly sinister, dark sense of humour. Thematically, there's a deeply engrained distrust of socialization and its agents. Recent Danish cinema is littered with self-serving doctors and delinquent or vile parents. The officious martinet, the ruleobsessed lackey, is also a preferred target, but teachers are probably the favoured bête noir.
Few escape rancorous, even scurrilous condemnation. In Ole Bornedal's hysterical "The Substitute" (2007), the new replacement teacher is a chicken-devouring alien from a planet overrun by war, who is determined to capture a class of Grade 6 students in order to study humanity's capacity for empathy (this may in fact be the gentlest portrait of educators in recent years – at least it's a fantasy).
The animated feature for young adults, "Terkel in Trouble" (2004), a very popular children's record based on a story by stand-up comedian Anders Matthesen, focuses on a teenager menaced by his incredibly popular new teacher, who turns out to be a serial killer. The film is narrated by the teacher he's replaced, a faded hippie who's on sabbatical – and is more than slightly miffed that his students aren't devastated by his departure.
The faded hippie teacher whose rhetoric is either self-serving or utterly flatulent is a dominant figure. It's especially prominent in Jacob Thuesen's corrosively funny portrait of the artist as a young man, "The Early Years" (2007), based on Lars von Trier's reminiscences from his film school days. The film follows von Trier's alter-ego, Erik, a sensitive suburban kid obsessed with trees and nature who is mistakenly admitted into a state film school. There he's beset by egomaniac professors convinced of their own genius and even more eccentric students, equally convinced of their gifts. The only skills they can teach Erik, besides the limits of his naïveté, are how to be manipulative and ruthless.
Abdication of responsibility is a common occurrence in these films, especially by parents. It plays a seminal role in Nicolas Winding Refn's epochal "Pusher" series, particularly the trilogy's middle entry, "With Blood on my Hands" (2004). There we find out that the bungling hood Tonny, who has seemingly spent much of his brief life eking out an existence in the lower echelons of the underworld – and suffered for it – is actually the estranged son of one of the most powerful crime lords in the city.
Parents probably get the roughest ride in PeterSchønau Fog's brilliant debut "The Art of Crying", one of the most successful domestic releases this past year. Based on a memoir by writer Erling Jepsen, the film examines a horrifically dysfunctional family. The profoundly disturbed father is a manipulative, yet somehow pathetic creep, fond of baroque emotional displays, usually at night, and always designed to curry favour and manipulate those around him.
His breakdowns obscure the fact that he's sexually abusing both his teenage daughter and his pre-teen son. Shot from the perspective of the young boy, who – at least at the beginning of the film – has no concept of what's taking place, the film is a comedy of extreme discomfort. It's harrowing one minute, uncomfortably absurd and funny the next.
The Danes are particularly skilled at this sub-genre, as anyone who has seen the Anders Thomas Jensen films mentioned above can attest to. Frequently, one is caught in utterly untenable moral situations, where one's sympathies lie at least partially with characters who are repulsive or worse.
Empathy is, of course, a tricky subject as evinced by Paprika Steen's two features as director: the stark and relentless drama "Aftermath" (2002) and the deranged black comedy "With your Permission" (2007). In both films, Steen explores the limits of our capacity for empathy as her initially sympathetic principals behave more and more erratically.
This angst about the family is evident in more straightforward ways in the dramas of Susanne Bier and Ole Christian Madsen, where seemingly secure middle class marriages fall apart.
"Flickering Lights". Photo: Rolf Konow
ANDERS THOMAS JENSEN: A SLAP IN THE FACE TO POLITICAL CORECTNESS
Frequently, recent Danish films have specifically targeted the more repressive, bourgeois elements of Danish life and, indeed modern life in general. The filmmakers who've charted the key positions have been Anders Thomas Jensen, Lone Scherfig and, not surprisingly, Lars von Trier.
Anders Thomas Jensen's three sinister comedies as writer-director mock the whole notion of socialization as fraudulent or at the very least ludicrously arbitrary. In each film, decidedly fringe characters – psychotics, hoodlums and serial killers – find themselves almost magically reintegrated into society.
In his debut, "Flickering Lights" (1999), a quartet of loutish, rather brutal hoodlums escape from a more powerful and vicious thug and wind up hiding in an abandoned restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Shortly afterwards, they find themselves running a seemingly successful, very quaint restaurant. In the follow-up, "The Green Butchers" (2003), two sad sack butchers – Bjarne, a suicidally lonely pothead, and Svend, a sweaty martinet who's been so bullied his entire life that he has no notion of how to interact with anyone – accidentally kill an electrician and dispose of his body by dumping it in their meat supply. Soon enough, their shop becomes the most successful business in town and they become local celebrities – while the killing continues.
Jensen's most recent, " Adam's Apples" (2005), pushes this arc to more outrageous extremes by focusing on a half-way house/church in rural Denmark which hosts a spectacularly deranged group of reprobates – among them a rotund alcoholic sex offender who claims to have been a former tennis pro and a crazed man of Middle eastern descent who blames oil companies, especially Norwegian ones, for all of the world's woes. These guys, however, aren't the craziest people in the house.
That honour is reserved for Ivan, the pastor who runs the place -- a man so determined to look on the bright side of things that he simply ignores any unpleasant fact in front of him (when he receives bad news he can't ignore, he bleeds from his ears and collapses in a heap). Enter the new tenant: a hardened neo-Nazi named Adam who almost immediately vows to make the priest accept reality. By the end, the pastor wins out and Adam turns into a clone of Ivan, wearing an identical sweater and humming off-key to Abba tunes.
In Jensen's films, propriety/normalization, if not always easily acquired, often comes with something as simple as a change of scenery. Surface reality (or propriety, the social image of reality) rules unopposed. Past actions, even the basics of character, are swept aside. Sanity, rationality and clear-sightedness just aren't valued in the social structures Jensen parodies. Much of this seems motivated by a critique of political correctness and contemporary liberalism, and its inability to address or comprehend evil adequately – or even to acknowledge an individual's personal history.
Jensen reverses the traditional trajectory of black comedy, which normally depends on a late reversal revealing the true nature of what we've been laughing at. Instead, even the most marginal or even reprehensible characters are happily integrated, though this is, in its own way, rather scary.
He plays very effectively with our own atavistic, childish need for a happy ending, our willingness to be seduced by outsiders, and what could be called our instinctive pleasure in his characters' initial contempt for propriety. Bjarne, for example, responds to the most minor irritation by hauling off and smacking people (the film incidentally was a huge hit in Denmark and did very well when it screened in Toronto, sparking a standing ovation in the middle of the afternoon).
"Italian for Beginners". Photo: Lars Høgsted
LONE SCHERFIG: SOCIETY'S OUTSIDERS
One discovers a related concern half-buried within Lone Scherfig's seemingly gentler romantic comedies, "Italian for Beginners" (2000) and "Just Like Home" (2007).
Scherfig's focus though is not on those who've been subsumed but those who've been left out. In the former film, her subjects are as marginalized as
Jensen's – either by temperament or circumstance. The principals are either ungovernable (the quarrelsome restaurant manager, Finn); devastatingly
awkward (clutzy Olympia and hotel clerk Jørgen Mortensen) or simply desperately lonely (Karen, the hairdresser and Andreas the new pastor who has recently lost his wife).
The social setting is far too proper and repressive to adequately accommodate them. Their parents are dead or vindictive. And even though things end happily for most of them, there's a downbeat tone to the conclusion, in part because the neediest character, Olympia, is seemingly left alone at the end.
In the latter film, the situation has actually deteriorated because the lid has been removed. A small town's social order collapses when a pompous pseudo-intellectual reveals that he saw a naked man running down the streets early that morning, evidence, he claims, of social discontent. Depression, angst and panic spread like wildfire, a blaze exacerbated by concerned citizens who've started a help line, which only provides the previously happily repressed citizens with an outlet for their various complaints leading to more complaints and more widespread angst and so on and so on. Here even the pillars of the community are slipping down. The social fabric is so tentative that minor disruptions are enough to tear it up, at least momentarily – these films are romantic comedies after all.
"Manderlay". Photo: Astrid Wirth
LARS VON TRIER: SELF-SERVING HEROES
Von Trier's own films don't so much address the costs and limitations of socialization (though that's present in several films) so much as the impossibility of action or rebellion.
Most of von Trier's protagonists attempt to redress wrongs, from the crusading doctor who ventures into the forbidden lands to battle the plague against his superiors' orders in "Epidemic" (1987) to the avant-garde theatre troupe cum anarchists who pretend to be mentally challenged in "The Idiots" (1998) to Grace, the heroine of his US trilogy. Invariably, though, they act in egregious bad faith, crippled either by egomania, stupidity, madness, or all of the above.
"Epidemic's" heroic doctor actually spreads the plague to the supposedly infected areas. Stoffer, the leader of "The Idiots", who rails vehemently and constantly against the bourgeois neighbourhood where they choose to play out their charade, is a privileged son of the upper class, sadistic (who routinely and publicly savages members he doesn't feel are holding their own) and probably unbalanced. The only member of the troupe who actually dares to carry out Stoffer's litmus test for true conviction, by "spassing out" at home or at work is a late-comer, a hanger-on, who turns out to be truly unhinged by a tragedy. Her issues are far more real and immediate than the abstractions which drive the "real" members of the troupe. Artists and activists are generally conflated in vonTrier's work, particularly in "The Idiots" (the troupe is referred to as a commune.)
The Grace of "Manderlay" (2004), the second installment of the planned US trilogy, claims that she's there to aid the backward denizens of a gated community in the deep South, still stuck in pre-Civil War period. But when the citizens begin making their own decisions without her, she responds with extravagant gestures designed more to call attention to herself than genuinely to aid anyone.
Moreover, her decisions are decidedly illinformed. Her decision to cut down the nearby forests in order to build houses for the inhabitants of the plantation result in the destruction of the wind barrier which protected the farm's crops, destroying the community's only livelihood.
In von Trier's films, societies are closed systems, incapable of accepting or incorporating outside elements. Introduction of new ideas or different concepts invariably result in disaster, but it's also true that the societies or rather cultures depicted are on their last legs.
Why Canadians and Torontonians respond to these films (Jensen, Scherfig, von Trier and Bier have rabid fans in Toronto) probably has as much to do with the middle power status and sensibility of both countries. Like Denmark, Canada isn't exactly a steadfast believer in its right to do whatever the hell it likes, like more powerful, bellicose states. Neither country seems to believe it's what Hegel might call a world historical state.
This position makes black comedy in particular the most compatible form, and it also makes sympathy with the marginalized, and awareness of the drawbacks and limitations of larger more monolithic structures, more likely. In a world (and an art form) increasingly obsessed with the bottom line, that emphasis on the discontented, the irrational, the irredeemable, is what makes recent Danish cinema essential and bracing viewing.