In the 1980s, Denmark became a football nation to reckon with. Under coach Sepp Piontek, a German who ushered in a new era of professionalism, the Danish national squad delivered two astounding performances, at the 1984 European Championship in France and the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Later, his otherwise widely derided successor, Richard Møller Nielsen, led Denmark to victory in a stunning upset at the 1992 European Championship in Sweden.
"Listening to a bunch of old coots relate anecdotes is all well and good, but you get that on TV sports shows every weekend". Carsten Søsted
Those were golden years for Danish soccer, and Carsten Søsted and Mads Kamp Thulstrup’s Danish Dynamite bring them to life with humour, engagement and the unmitigated enthusiasm of true football fans. Both directors are from the mid-1970s and the 1984 final round in France is a real highlight from their childhood. Meeting in 1996 at the European Film College in Ebeltoft, Denmark, Søsted and Thulstrup quickly decided that, if someone else didn’t do a film about the eighties football fest soon, they would.
The two directors wrote the script for "Danish Dynamite" with editor Daniel Dencik and, talking it over with Karoline Leth, the film’s producer, they found a shape for the story that worked. “We wanted to delve into the really big games and use them as an engine,” Søsted says. “Picking the right games and using them as dramatic pivots, we imagined would give us a good film. We knew it should open with Sepp Piontek taking over as coach of the national squad. In a brainstorming session with Karoline, we decided that the different national coaches would be another pivot in the film. At that point, Mads and I felt ready to go. Then, late one night in a bar, a friend told us to ‘Wrap it up with 1992, naturally.’ It was the obvious climax to the whole thing.”
NOT A NOSTALGIC FILM
"Danish Dynamite" is not only about football, it also paints a portrait of a small nation, Denmark, that never, at least not until Piontek, took sports as seriously as other European nations did. The always happy Danish football supporter, the “roligan” (peaceful hooligan), soon became a symbol of the Danes’ laidback, self- deprecating national character.
“The Danish mentality and spirit was always there as a separate layer in the project, though we didn’t initially define it to ourselves,” Søsted says. “Again, it was Karoline who said, ‘You’ve also given a lot of thought to the impact on us, as Danes, of the national football success up through the 1980s.’ And we had. I guess I, especially, had this homespun philosophy that football was hugely important to our national self-image.”
The two filmmakers had a clear idea that the film would mainly consist of archival footage – games, interviews, reports, funny outtakes from TV. “Listening to a bunch of old coots relate anecdotes is all well and good, but you get that on TV sports shows every weekend,” Søsted says.
“Eighty percent of the film is archival footage – which presented a major obstacle, because it’s pretty expensive,” he says. “Then again, you save money by not having to shoot so much, so we fought for it, because we were convinced that the footage would reveal a bunch of situations that would make the audience feel they were there, making them relive the moments that made such an impression on Mads and me as kids.”
For Daniel Dencik, the editor, it was important that the film had a modern component. It should be apparent that the film was made in 2008 and not in 1992. “I specifically did not want to make a nostalgic film,” Dencik says. “The football sequences should offer a now experience, as if the games were being played while you’re watching the film. Also, I realised, you never really see football in edited form. We only watch it in live-produced TV broadcasts. It was a real revelation for me to edit this material. Unfortunately, we only had a single camera most of the time, because no one had saved the raw tapes.”
PUTTING FOOTBALL GEEKERY ON HOLD
One of the greatest challenges of making "Danish Dynamite" was forging a workable dramatic form. From 1984 to 1986, the Danish national team enjoyed an almost unbroken string of victories, culminating in the 6-1 win over Uruguay at the World Cup finals in Mexico. That’s great for football fans, but it doesn’t work in a film. The thrill quickly wears off. So Søsted, Kamp Thulstrup and Dencik decided to switch certain games around chronologically to create the necessary drama. They took some flack for that when the film opened in Denmark, but Søsted stands by the decision.
“Mads and I are huge football freaks and statisticians ourselves, but we promised ourselves to go beyond that,” he says. “What mattered was making the most entertaining film possible – and that meant saving the football geekery for another day.
“The film had to do several things,” he says, “including entertaining audiences and attracting them to cinemas. It’s not encyclopaedic. And so, even though I think there’s some substance to the criticism, it’s off the mark. It represents a basic misconception about documentaries.
“It’s crazy that people in 2008 still think of a documentary as an objective description of the world. Obviously, there are a few things they aren’t teaching in schools. The moment you start photographing something, you’ve selected a section of reality, which is your subjective perception of that reality,” Søsted says.
Dencik agrees: “I’m not a big believer in the perfect continuity cut, the cut that simply sticks to naturalism. That’s why TV language is so far from film language.
“It’s striking the degree to which something becomes film by how you shorten, change, distort or extend things,” Dencik says. “Imagine the amazing product you’d get if football audiences abandoned the demand for live broadcasts. If viewers could live with watching the game at a few hours’ delay, they could get a whole other experience. A couple of film editors could judge how best to put the game together instead of just running it. Then again, I doubt that I’d be willing to wait several hours to watch the game myself. Sports today is so centred on the feeling of experiencing something in the now.”