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.
"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."
"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-and