Risk and Renewal in Danish Cinema

The centrality of melodrama has helped Danish cinema attain what is in effect a Cinema of Quality – perhaps the first full-blown one since the French tradition of the 1950s. Excellent performers, sophisticated directors, and well-carpentered scripts are the mainstay of recent Danish film. This is yet another unintended consequence of the Dogme manifesto, which called for a break with conformity.

In the comedy "Clash of Egos" (2006), the conceited Claus has just directed a very arty film. On its opening day it sells seven tickets. The producer worries that they can’t go on. "But it's a trilogy!" Claus protests. Thanks to a legal settlement, Tonny, a violence-prone father who just wants a movie for his kids to watch, takes a hand in Claus's next film. Tonny turns Claus' symbolic personal allegory into an American-style extravaganza called "Explosive Bomb", showcasing machine-gun fire and actors saying "Fuck" as often as possible.

Danish genre entries have set international standards for solid screenplays. With running times of 90-100 minutes, the films can snugly accommodate the three-act structure beloved of Hollywood.

Danish genre entries have set international standards for solid screenplays. With running times of 90-100 minutes, the films can snugly accommodate the three-act structure beloved of Hollywood.

"Clash of Egos" is built on the cliché that European filmmakers think too often of personal expression and too seldom of their audience. The movie proposes a middle way: Stick to what Danes do well, the gentle character-driven comedy. There is also a trace of the Danish suspicion of pretension: Claus, who puts himself above everyone, must be humiliated and eventually learns some


David Bordwell

Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, is the author of several books on film aesthetics and film history, including a book on Carl Th. Dreyer. He studies storytelling and visual style in the cinemas of Hong Kong, Japan, and the US. With his wife Kristin Thompson he has written two widely-used textbooks, ”˜Film Art: An Introduction’ and ”˜Film History: An Introduction’.


See also David Bordwell's blog www.davidbordwell.net, including his comments ”˜Another Pebble in Your Shoe’ (about the editing technique in Lars von Trier’s new film The Boss of it All), and ”˜The Best Danish Films I saw at the End of 2006’.

It would be wrong to read too much into this populist satire of both Hollywood and Danish film. Yet satire has a way of detecting when certain habits need to change. More than once in the history of art, parody has opened up new pathways; by mocking chivalric romance, "Don Quixote" helped initiate the European novel. We might, then, take "Clash of Egos" as revealing a sense that Danish cinema, despite a decade of triumphs, needs some renewal. That conclusion is borne out by other films of 2005 and 2006. Ten years after the Dogme manifesto, filmmakers seem to recognize that they may fall into a rut, however comfortable that rut may be. They're taking the chance to rethink things.

Genre, Cinema and the Well-carpentered Script

It would be easy to be complacent, for Danish films have had strong successes at home and overseas. In 2004, about one-quarter of cinema ticket sales went for local films and in 2005 the figure jumped to 32%. The twenty-one films released in 2006 drew a total of 3.1 million admissions, in a country of 5.4 million people. Many of the local successes, such as "Manslaughter" and "Adam's Apples",
sold briskly to other territories, and those with lower grosses at home, such as "Manderlay", "Dear Wendy", and "Dark Horse", still found overseas buyers. More generally, Danish filmmaking has helped propel Nordic filmmaking. "Dogma has had a great influence on Nordic cinema," notes Dieter Kosslick, indicating that it has "revolutionized" the regional industry (Variety, 15-21 August 2005). In 1996, Norwegian and Finnish films garnered less than 3 % of national admissions.

By 2004, in these and other Scandinavian countries, local films were capturing between ten and thirty percent of the market.
How long local prosperity can be maintained is uncertain, of course, but the Danes have a solid base. Not only have their performers become well-known stars, but they have a flourishing genre system. In 2005-2006, out of about fortyfive releases, there were thrillers, family dramas, children's films, animated films, psychological studies, and comedies of many sorts. The advantages go beyond diversity, however. Danish cinema benefi ts from a worldwide tendency to raise the production values of genre pictures.

Until quite recently, no one thought that a film from Europe or Asia could compete in production values with the US product. But now it can. For one thing, many of the currently popular genres, such as horror and urban crime thrillers, are relatively low in cost. These are more easily imitated than the musicals, historical spectacles, and costume pictures that Hollywood produced well into the 1960s and 1970s. Hong Kong helped blaze the way: its 1980s cop-and-crook movies included action scenes of a bravado that surpassed their American sources. Japan showed that the low-budget "The Ring" could create a horror franchise by treating a simple concept with rising tension, rather than an array of slaughter scenes. In addition, the plunging prices of sophisticated software have put digital effects within the reach of many fi lmmakers. For such reasons, a French exercise in computer animation (Arthur), a Russian horror film (Day Watch), and a Korean monster movie (The Host) can become both local and international hits. Today, many film industries can produce very polished products.

Thanks to the same factors, Denmark's genres have become competitive in look and feel with top international standards. Slick digital effects are on display in the children's fantasy "Skymaster" and in the adult animation "Princess", which blends bande-dessinée imagery with anime violence. The second and third installments of "Pusher" are as abrasive and visceral as any crime saga from Hong Kong. nother internationalizing factor owes something to American independent cinema. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, and their peers borrowed from the European modernist tradition. A new generation of European filmmakers has returned the favor by drawing inspiration from the US independents. For example, the "network narrative", which connects the lives of many people by chance, has roots in both America (Nashville) and Europe (films by Iosseliani, Kieslowski, Haneke). It became a more popular format for US indies after Altman's "Short Cuts", and while American independents were ringing variations on the format, we saw filmmakers all over the world reworking it as well: "Night Shapes", "Free Radicals", "Happenstance", "Les Passagers", "Once Upon a Time" in Triad Society, Hawaii, Oslo, and on and on. The most prominent Danish efforts I know are Susanne Bier's "The One and Only" and Lotte Svendsen's "What's Wrong with This Picture"?

Granted, sometimes a filmmaker can rely excessively on American indie models. Too many Danish fi lms introduce their characters with freeze-frames and character names scrawled on the screen, guided by a laconic voice-over. The druggy hallucinations of "Angels in Fast Motion" seem to recycle "Trainspotting", "Spun", and "Requiem for a Dream". But sometimes a new spin is put on some commonplaces. Tarantino's fingerprints can be found on Hella Joof’s "Fidibus" (Easy Skanking), but the film's surprisingly sweet romance and the Danish movie references (even to Dreyer!) are wholly local. The slacker drama "Dark Horse" begins along some well-worn grooves, but it detours unpredictably to reveal how a pillar of the establishment, a stern judge, becomes the biggest slacker of all.

Prag/Prague Photo: Alzbeta Jungrova

More importantly, Danish genre entries have set international standards for solid screenplays. With running times of 90-100 minutes, the films can snugly accommodate the three-act structure beloved of Hollywood. The leading figure in this trend is Anders Thomas Jensen. With more than thirty screenplays to his credit, he has become one of the finest script craftsmen in world filmmaking today.

Jensen has written exhilarating action comedies (In China They Eat Dogs), a Chabrolian thriller (Murk), and black comedies that recall the dottiness of Ealing Studios, though with a grimmer shade of grotesquerie. The Sweeney-Todd premise of "The Green Butchers" harks back to British guignol, and the maniacally optimistic priest in "Adam’s Apples" might in the 1950s have been played by Alec Guinness. (If, that is, we can imagine Alec Guinness surviving a gun blast to his eye.) The humor is broader in Jensen’s script for "Clash of Egos", but its premise has an Ealing-like whimsicality: What if an ordinary person were allowed to direct a movie?

Every Jensen comedy has a finely tuned structure, starting with a robust central situation that reveals characters through battles of wits and passages of ego-deflation. The tone swings between humor and the macabre, with abrupt flashes of emotion. Jensen is especially gifted at handling sentiment without creating the feel-good tackiness of Hollywood. Few directors could have resisted the chance to create an exchange of warm smiles and camaraderie at the end of "Adam’s Apples", when the Bee Gees are crooning, "How deep is your love?" It’s the tune that Ivan routinely switches on when driving, and it's served as a comic motif to define Adam’s rage at the priest's obstinate optimism. Now, with Adam installed as his assistant, Ivan cheerfully switches on the song again.

Jensen climaxes this comedy-drama with a superbly delayed reaction shot. As Ivan starts to sing along, Adam frowns slightly. He stares at the road ahead, then at nothing at all, then at Ivan. He turns almost completely from the camera. Only after thirty seconds does he start, as if against his will, to mouth the song's words. As he does, Jensen cuts the shot off. Adam's struggle to stay a hard guy is fully played out on his face, and we can merely glimpse the victory of mild fellowfeeling. As there was the Lubitsch touch and the Wilder touch, we can now speak of the Jensen touch - a twinge of pathos acknowledged quietly, relying on our sympathy for characters' bizarre frailties.

Sprængfarlig bombe/Clash of Egos. Photo: Ole Kragh-Jacobsen

The Consolations of Melodrama: A New Tradition of Quality

It's ironic that Danish cinema has gained so much of its strength by cultivating genres. "Genre movies are not acceptable," the Dogme Vow of Chastity declared. Presumably in accord with the tenet that barred "superficial action" involving murders and weapons, this prohibition presumed that the only genres were crime thrillers, war pictures, and the like. But when you ban "genre films," you may in effect fall back on another genre, a very pervasive one: melodrama.

I don't use the term disparagingly; melodrama can be as neutral a term as Western or musical. Melodramas characteristically focus on personal relationships between lovers and within families. The genre highlights the suffering triggered by impulsive action or powerful social forces. It dramatizes the clash of innocence and power, and it poses difficult moral choices. Characters are plunged into a swirl of misunderstanding and bad luck. They must keep secrets and mislead others, sometimes reluctantly. They must sometimes betray their loved ones, or sacrifice themselves even though they have done nothing wrong. Melodrama's most pervasive form in today's media is the soap opera, but in much of Hollywood cinema it emerged, in Eric Bentley’'s phrase, as "bourgeois tragedy."

Over the last decade, much of the most accomplished Danish cinema has cast its lot with melodrama. Perhaps most explicit is von Trier's recurring tales of how innocent women suffer at the hands of a misunderstanding society, from "Breaking the Waves" to "Manderlay". But other directors have relied on the format's conventions. A family gathering discloses unpleasant secrets. Husbands and wives may betray one another. The commitment to melodrama extends to the use of age-old devices: announcements of pregnancy, secret liaisons, messages that go astray, and sudden revelations of fatal diseases. So many characters wind up in hospital that one must conclude that being a character in a Danish movie can be dangerous to your health. That's also suggested by Claus' art movie seen at the start of "Clash of Egos", which shows the hero wrapped in bandages. In this genre too the screenwriting skill of Anders Thomas Jensen has been pivotal. His melodramas are as solidly built as his comedies, and his stratagems for deflecting sentiment work very well in the fraught emotional atmosphere of "Open Hearts" and "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself". A climactic scene in Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding" shows Jacob asking the Indian orphan boy Pramod if he wants to come to Denmark with him. Earlier Pramod had been fascinated to learn of a land where everyone is rich, but now Pramod hestitates to go there. In an American film, Pramod would probably have accepted Jacob's offer, joining him and his daughter in Copenhagen and embarking on a better life. But Pramod declines. "I don't think so," he says. "Everything is so good here now."

Bier has sharply contrasted the bare-bones poverty of the orphanage with the luxury of Danish country houses and full-service hotels, so Pramod’s line carries a special poignancy. He has no conception of how good life can really be. At the same time, his refusal allows Jacob no easy compromise. He must give up the intimate relationship with the boy that came from casting off his dissolute past and working for the sake of others. In Copenhagen, administering a vast charity fund, Jacob can save all the Pramods. But he will lose the human connection that made his life in India meaningful. In melodrama, happiness exacts its costs. Here Jensen's sparsely written scene, ably played and given visual resonance by Bier's direction, creates subtle interplays of emotion without succumbing to bathos.

1:1/One to One. Photo: Per Arnesen

The strategy of sentiment-inoculation has been picked up in Kim Fupz Aakeson's screenplay for Annette K. Olesen's "1:1". In this social melodrama, ethnic suspicions flare up in a neighborhood of housing estates. The final shots open the possibility of a happy ending, but that turn of events will in turn precipitate more problems in the lives of characters we have come to care about. Similarly, Pernille Fischer Christensen's "A Soap" juxtaposes its central romance with the TV series that holds the gender-switching Veronica spellbound. At the climax, lines that would sound overblown coming from our protagonists – "Love is a promise”¦," "You saved me with your love”¦" – are channeled through the TV monitors they watch fairly impassively. It's not that the lines voice their feelings, but we have to consider that they might feel these very things. Pathos, again, is deflected. The movie is itself a soap, but it's also aware that soap-opera emotions, though strong and genuine, are sometimes too simple for the complications thrown up by real life.

The centrality of melodrama has helped Danish cinema attain what is in effect a Cinema of Quality – perhaps the first full-blown one since the French tradition of the 1950s. Excellent performers, sophisticated directors, and well-carpentered scripts are the mainstay of recent Danish film. This is yet another unintended consequence of the Dogme manifesto, which called for a break with conformity; of such ironies is history made.
The problem with a Cinema of Quality is that it can become sleek, stodgy,and predictable. Danish filmmakers, I think, recognize this risk and are moving in new directions. One option is to "theatricalize" melodrama quite overtly. This is most apparent in von Trier's stagebound "Dogville" and "Manderlay". In a dark vacuum with only the sketchiest indications of place, these films evoke not
only Brecht but (another irony) the Thornton Wilder play "Our Town", a classic of American middlebrow theatre. A milder form of theatricality is found in "A Soap", which by confining its action to a few apartments recalls the kammerspiel aesthetic of silent cinema and, further back, of Scandinavian drama. Yet another instance is "How We Get Rid of the Others", a bold drama of ideas that could easily be a stage play but gains intensity from its hard-edged cinematic treatment.

Back To the Tripod?

There's another sign of renewal, and it's more technical. Since at least Italian Neorealism, filmmakers seeking a more realistic cinema have called for a roughening of technical standards. France’s Nouvelle Vague, New York filmmakers like Cassavetes, and the documentarists of cinéma direct and cinéma vérité are forerunners of what is today called the run-and-gun aesthetic. There's location shooting, often with little supplementary lighting. The editing is jarring, offering throwaway shots, jump cuts, and mismatches. Above all, there's the bumpy handheld camerawork. This ragged look became in the 1990s the choice of first resort for many filmmakers all over the world. It had the advantage of being cheap and easily imitable on the smaller budgets available in Europe and Asia. In retrospect, the Dogme signers came along at just the right time to articulate and accelerate the trend. Dogme gave Danish cinema a trademark and brand name, so successfully that many viewers think of this jerky filmic texture as "the Dogme style". Steven Soderbergh notoriously called "Traffic" his Dogme film. The down side is that the Vow of Chastity called for a revolution in technique with no corresponding change in dramaturgy. As a result, the films' loose, nervous surface may conceal their solidly constructed plots, making them seem less a continuation of dramatic traditions than they are.

Not that the run-and-gun look is everywhere; plenty of films avoid it. But the style has become one signature of ambitious Danish cinema. Take Ole Christian Madsen's "Prague". The premise calls to mind the high period of Euromodernism, the golden days of Antonioni. Christoffer, a workaholic businessman, and his wife Maja go to Prague to claim the body of the father whom Christoffer never knew. He undergoes three voyages of discovery: into his father's past, into his wife's secret life, and into his own rather empty existence.

In the 1960s, the inertia and anomie of Christoffer's life would have been rendered in prolonged takes, abstractly composed long shots emphasizing architecture, and long passages of "dead time". But in "Prague" the editing pace is rapid – on average, a shot lasts only five seconds – and Madsen's jumpy camera seems to catch everything on the fly. "We were very dynamic about the expression," he explains, "with a free camera – as has been the practice for the last ten years in Denmark." Familiar as it is, the technique works to prepare for the physically and emotionally violent climax. An Antonioni husband would stifle his distress, but our Dane goes ballistic in a very public way, and the camera dives and whirls to capture the awful embarrassment of it.

Still, one has a lot of sympathy for the working-class aesthetics of Tonny in "Clash of Egos". When Claus directs a scene using the handheld camera, Tonny, who has veto control over "Explosive Bomb", objects. Is the cameraman drunk? It looks like home video. Claus explains that this is the style. Tonny demands a tripod, and the cameraman says he hasn’t used one since film school. "Keep that shit steady," Tonny warns, "or I’ll call my lawyer."

Fidibus/Easy Skanking. Photo: Thomas Marott

The danger is that the ragged visual texture risks becoming today's academic style. How to renew the look and feel of movies? I'd argue that von Trier, ever willing to break with what is currently cool, began to rethink the role of the camera in "Dancer in the Dark" and, more radically, in "The Boss of It All". The latter film avoids the un-Steadicam aesthetic but takes Hollywood's multiple-camera strategy in a different direction than we saw in Dancer. Automavisionâ„¢ leaves choices of framing and focus to computer programs, opening the film to chance in a way that refreshes our sense of shot design.

From a different angle, Simon Staho's "Day and Night", in the wake of Kiarostami's "Five", confined its imagery to what could be recorded from only two locked-down camera positions, both angled on the front seats of a car. "Bang Bang Orangutang" shrewdly expands the premises of this aesthetic. Now Staho allows shots from a few other positions, as long as the action is played out in or near the car. (With one brief and striking exception, there are no shots inside buildings.)

The result is, as with von Trier, exhilarating: a pictorial style that works both with and against the drama, reminding us that the camera's eye can not merely record a performance but also creatively shape what we see. Both dramatic actions and trivial everyday urban life fl it by outside the car’s windows, and we're reminded of one of cinema's powers: to recreate the world within a fixed frame, at once narrower and deeper than the one yielded by everyday vision. Efforts toward renewal have gained important institutional support from the Danish Film Institute. The New Danish Screen pool funded several of the films I’ve discussed, under the rubric of providing a small but reasonable budget for noncommercial features. The undertaking, remarks the administrator Vinca Wiedemann, makes room for the "interesting failure". The task is to maintain creative innovation as central to the historical identity of this national cinema. In the 1910s, the production company Nordisk was one of the most powerful film companies in the world. The firm's trademark, a massive polar bear surmounting the globe, became the emblem of the little nation's dynamic cinema. It can't be coincidental that "Clash of Egos", a Nordisk release, ends with Tonny and his children at the zoo. His final line sums up the challenge facing the Danish film community: "Let's go see if the polar bear is still alive".