It was an experiment in itself when the Danish film director Rumle Hammerich became head of drama at DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, in 1994: tapping a film director to head TV production.
"Borgen is about someone who gains political power but has to cede power at home. The story of women juggling work and family is familiar across the Western world." Ingolf Gabold, DR
Something had to be done. Danish TV drama was stuck in a rut of stilted, high-culture teleplays. Hammerich's answer to the stagnation was "Operation Morning Breeze" – a plan to modernise Danish TV drama. Taking inspiration from the US, TV drama would now be taken seriously precisely as TV drama, not filmed theatre.
But, is it even possible to structure your way to national artistic and popular success in the area of TV drama?
It sure looks like it. Titles like "The Kingdom", "Taxi", "Unit One", "The Eagle", "Better Times", "The Killing" and "Borgen" have left Danish streets deserted on Sunday nights at 8. The current record was set by the tenth episode of "Better Times" (Danish title "Krøniken"). It was viewed by 2.7 million people, almost half of the population.
Meanwhile, these series have also put Denmark on the world map. Since 2002, DR's productions have won several Emmy Awards and two Prix Italia for best drama series. "Borgen" and "The Killing" have both won a BAFTA, and even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has been spotted wearing a knitted Sarah Lund sweater.
The main element in Hammerich’s original plan – which was later developed by Ingolf Gabold, until recently the undisputed leader of DR Drama – was combining entertaining, American-style storytelling with Scandinavian depth.
Viewers are happy to take their vitamins when they are wrapped in thrills, says Gabold who was head of drama at DR from 1999 to April 2012. He dubs the concept "the double story." That is, a drama series should always have two layers. The first layer is a "good story," consisting of a well-crafted plot, characters we can identify with, a fascinating arena, good acting, etc. Then comes another story, which is socio-ethical or socio-psychological in nature.
"As a public service station, we demand 'added value,'" Gabold says. He points to "The Killing II" as his proudest achievement: a thrilling crime plot involving a series of murders and political intrigue, over which lies a societal debate about democracy, anti-terror laws and Denmark's participation in the war in Afghanistan.
"You all of a sudden realise that the overarching story isn't just about whodunit but also about a much more political question: How much of our democracy are we willing to sacrifice, by way of anti-terror legislation and surveillance, in order to preserve it?"
Gabold considers this extra dimension to be the main reason for the international success of DR's drama series. "It's what sets us apart from a commercial TV station's demand for drama. Internationally, I think we're really on to something with this double storytelling. The immediate story or plot isn't enough. The overlying story, which goes across national borders, is what makes it. "Borgen", for example, is about someone who gains political power but has to cede power at home. The story of women juggling work and family is familiar across the Western world. The fascination is in the local – the prime minister rides a bicycle, Danish is spoken – but the identification is in the global."
Lack of money led to Dogme 95
"Operation Morning Breeze" is named after Dr. Moesgaard's campaign to promote cooperation in the department of neurosurgery in Lars von Trier's breakthrough mini-series "The Kingdom". No coincidence, obviously. The series was a huge, unexpected hit in 1994 and kicked off the current golden age of Danish drama series. Back then, TV series were largely frowned upon by the Danish film industry. But Zentropa was in a tight spot financially and as they waited for the money to make "Breaking the Waves", von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen came up with the idea of producing a TV series with DR. Simply to get a salary. Their plan was to produce the series quickly and on the cheap.
"'The Kingdom' was a production that was just supposed to make us a little money. But as it turns out, being broke makes you creative," Aalbæk says. "Because we didn't have time to do anything else but come up with some cheap production methods, the series got a pretty fresh approach. The lights were fluorescent tubes screwed into the ceiling by the local carpenter and we used a handheld camera so we could shoot faster. By not bothering with aesthetics, 'The Kingdom' is a precursor to Dogme95."
To his mind, "The Kingdom" liberated von Trier artistically, especially as a director of actors.
"Lars' first films were very storyboarded. He wasn't particularly interested in the actors. He saw them as game pieces that had to move exactly as he had planned months before. "The Kingdom" opened his eyes to directing actors, and I'll have you know, "Breaking the Waves" was a lot better for it."
As Aalbæk sees it, "The Kingdom" was also important in raising the status of TV series in the Danish film industry, which soon afterwards started working very closely with the TV industry.
"At the time, the Danish film industry was too hoity-toity to do TV series. But when Lars von Trier could do it successfully, suddenly it was okay. I like to think that 'The Kingdom' paved the way for the later successful union of the TV and film industries in Denmark."
An important element of the DR's modernisation strategy in the '90s was to produce TV drama in a cinematic style, with dynamic visuals and storytelling. DR started recruiting people from the film industry and inviting film directors, cinematographers, editors, etc., into the TV studio. Directors like Anders Refn, Ole Christian Madsen, Annette K. Olesen, Lone Scherfig, Ole Bornedal, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Henrik Ruben Genz, Per Fly, Katrine Windfeld and Niels Arden Oplev all accepted the invitation and have worked in TV ever since, alongside their film careers.
"It's a pretty unique thing to have film directors and DPs working in both media with the greatest of ease," Aalbæk says. As he sees it, the two industries can considerably enrich each other. For instance, doing episodes of a TV series can give young directors valuable experience.
"Once a director has done 10 episodes of 'Borgen', I can assure you he is a lot more confident in the driver's seat when he goes out and makes a feature," Aalbæk says.
The same goes for a lot of Danish actors. Anders W. Berthelsen, Trine Dyrholm, Sofie Gråbøl, Mads Mikkelsen and Peter Gantzler, among the most notable actors in the Dogme films, all got their big breakthrough on TV. Veteran directors, too, benefit from working in TV, because they get to try out new forms and partnerships. Case in point: Lone Scherfig directed Anders W. Berthelsen and Peter Gantzler in the TV series "Taxi" and continued her collaboration with them in her Silver Bear-winning Dogme film "Italian for Beginners".
This story originally appeared in the May issue of the Danish Film Institute's festival magazine, FILM#75 .
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