A new phase for Danish cinema

ACADEMY AWARDS. With the success of Susanne Bier's "In a Better World", culminating in Sunday's Oscar triumph, modern Danish cinema shows sign of steering a new international course, says film critic Kim Skotte.

Danish cinema, so it seems, still owes part of its international reputation to the Dogme heyday of the 90s. But fact is that 13 years separate us from Thomas Vinterberg's pivotal work "The Celebration", the Dogme brethren have long since parted, and a disparate mixture of talents and trends has formed the scene for the past decade.

"International in an immodest way, Bier seems quite at ease in the world of grand emotion."

What is, then, a more befitting lense to view current Danish cinema? Kim Skotte, longstanding film critic at the Danish daily Politiken, sees Susanne Bier's "In a Better World" as the first serious manifestation of a new phase in modern Danish cinema, one marked by an international outlook distinguishing it from earlier decades. 

Danish film history

Want to know more about Dreyer, Dogme and new documentaries?

Our Danish Film History presents more than a century's worth of Danish cinema. The work guides you from the silent era to the new millennium, mapping out genres, tendencies and film political landmarks – be it the Golden Age at the turn of the century, the great master Dreyer, the first sound films, film noirs of the 40s, the release of pornography, the early beginnings of the Danish Film Institute, Dogme in its heyday and the success of documentaries in recent years.

Scandinavian forefathers

"When Danish cinema won the Oscars for the first time in 1988 and 1989 in the Best Foreign Language category, it did so as proponent of a Nordic film culture. Bille August's 'Pelle the Conqueror' and Gabriel Axel's 'Babette's Feast' were, seen from an American point of view, homeland films from good old Museum Nordica. Historical films and literary adaptations showing Americans the old world as it was at the time when their Scandinavian forefathers packed their bags and travelled westward towards new horizons."

Then followed the second phase, which was "European" rather than "Nordic", Skotte points out.

"Inspiration came from the new wave in French cinema when Dogme 95, with more than a hint of symbolism, was launched in Paris. Dogme was too radical and too artistically exclusive to court the Oscars. Not so when it came to the festivals in Cannes and Berlin. With Thomas Vinterberg's 'The Celebration' as main attraction and Lars von Trier as chief ideologue, the Dogme movement carved out a new role for Danish cinema on the international film scene as innovator and incubator. Now Danish cinema was one with Lars von Trier, Cannes and euro-lowbudget."

Finally we arrive at the third phase, embodied to the full by Bier's "In a Better World".

Geared for an American audience

"'In a Better World' is a Danish film, but measured by its sense for dramaturgical effectiveness it is outwardly international and, with its basic theme of revenge versus forgiveness, clearly geared for an American audience."

"Contrary to Bille August, who first obtained an international and American career after 'Pelle the Conqueror', Susanne Bier is already on track. (...) Susanne Bier will, to a greater extent than August, be able to set her own agenda."

"When one says about a film that it is 'international', it often means that it is considered effective and anonymous. Danish 'In a Better World' is anything but faceless. International in an immodest way, Bier seems quite at ease in the world of grand emotion."

Funding diversity

But, says Skotte, this does not imply that Danish films should one-sidedly focus on producing internationally viable melodramas.

"The lesson from this small film nation with a disproportionately high success rate should be, in fact, that the public funding of artistic diversity is indeed a strength. Low budget should not be a dogma in itself, but an important part of the spectrum. On the other hand it pays off to pull out all the stops once in a while."

"An Oscar to 'In a Better World' shows that it's wise policy to go all out for a limited amount of films (...) and that it has to be the right projects that get the biggest push."

Quotes from Danish daily Politiken 1 March 2011.