Movies and Film: Danish Directions

Danish Directions

On September 17, 1904, the first movie hall opened in Copenhagen, signaling the beginning of what would be an illustrious century for Danish film. Though relatively small by American and French standards, the country's unique contributions to world cinema is often overlooked by all but the experts. The earliest Danish silent films—Den hvide slavehandel (The White Slave Trade, 1910) for example—were innovative on any number of levels; their frank treatments of sexuality launched what would soon become the international genre of the sensation film.

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Denmark's first bona fide fiction film, Henrettelsen (The Execution, 1903), was made by the official photographer to Denmark's royal family.

These wildly popular pictures involved unprecedented action shots and concordant experiments in numerous technical aspects of filmmaking. In some cases the actors themselves contributed to new effects in, say, lighting by holding a lantern while fleeing a bad guy. Others stood in front of mirrors or screens that heightened the paranoia-inducing effects of certain shots.

World's Oldest Surviving Production Company Shoots All

Denmark's most enduring contribution to world cinema, though, is undoubtedly Nordisk. Founded in 1906 by film pioneer Ole Olsen, within five years Nordisk rivaled France's Path for status as the largest production company on the planet. In Denmark itself, the studio's production values moved the nation's cinema away from a widespread preference for short films into the uncharted waters of full-length features. Olsen and Co.'s immediate success in worldwide distribution helped establish the full-length film as an international standard that was quickly imitated elsewhere.

Though not as familiar to most filmophiles as Gaumont, MGM, or the BBC, it's impossible to overestimate the lasting impact Nordisk has had on world cinema—to this day. Indeed, Nordisk is the oldest continually operating film production company in the world, strong testimony to its continuing role as a powerhouse of motion pictures.

Denmark's Fabulous Five

The filmic ferment created by Ole Olsen and other Danish pioneers of production launched the careers of numerous directors around the nation. There are five in particular we'd advise you to check out the next time you're feeling those Nordic notions tugging you to the video store.

Director's Cut

Asta Nielsen made her cinematic debut in Urban Gad's Afgrunden (The Abyss) in 1910, portraying a naive innocent caught up in a world of sexual bondage and moral decadence. (The film featured what may have been the first S and M scene ever caught on celluloid.)

Afgrunden established Nielsen as the first truly international movie star, breaking ground that would soon allow Charlie Chaplin, Sarah Bernhardt, and others to emerge as worldwide household names. During the following years (many of them spent in Germany) she starred in numerous films that allowed her to exploit her chameleon-like ability to cross class and gender roles, cross-dressing for the titular role in Sven Gade's Hamlet (1920) and even playing a ruthless killer alongside Garbo in Die freudlose Gasse (Street of Sorrow, 1925).

  • Benjamin Christensen starred in many of his own films, but he's most famous as an undisputed master of the early horror film. Pictures like The Mysterious X (Det Hemmelighedsfulde X, 1914) and Hxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1921) exploited the visual possibilities of nighttime and gave the world a new mode of cinematic terror.
  • Urban Gad achieved numerous successes with enduring masterpieces like Den sorte drm (The Black Dream, 1911) and especially the world classic Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910)—and by furthering the career of Asta Nielsen, among others.
  • August Blom's films featured audacious explorations of the passions of lovers in experimental horror and other grand genre films like Ddens brud (The Bride of Death) and Den ddes halsbaand (The Necklace of the Dead), as well as numerous adaptations of literary texts from Hamlet to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1910).
  • Don't overlook the oeuvre of Forest Holger-Madsen, a master of visuality whose adept employment of new techniques in lighting, camerawork, and mise-en-scne won international acclaim for socially conscious films like Down with Weapons! (Ned med vaapnene, 1914) and his masterpiece, The Skyship (Himmelskibet, 1917), a bold science-fiction picture that uses a Martian landing on earth to explore issues of ethnic and cultural prejudice.
  • One of Scandinavia's greatest directors before Bergman, the young Carl-Theodor Dreyer was already exploring with surprising sensitivity the depths of human psychology and the limits of rationality in early films such as Leaves from Satan's Book (Blade af Satans bog, 1920) and Du skalaere din hustru (The Master of the House, 1925).
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"We want the cinema to open a door for us into the unexplainable. We want to undergo a tension that is the result less of an external action than of a struggle within the soul."

—Carl-Theodor Dreyer

Second Take

If you think the reputation of Danish film has remained largely confined to the Scandinavian region, think again: Bille August's Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast (Babettes gaestebud), (1987) won back-to-back best foreign film Academy Awards for the nation's always thriving industry.

Dreyer's silent career peaked with The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, 1928), which starred Rene Falconetti in the only role of her career as the French heroine. Dreyer's intimate delight in Falconetti's face, gesture, and movement established him as one of the era's great directors, though his transition to sound with Vampyr (1932) was not successful. But he returned with Vredens dag (Day of Wrath) in 1943, an acknowledged masterpiece that should top your "Nordic not-to-miss" list.

From Olsen to Oscar Night

While Denmark's sound era has not achieved the recognition of its Swedish neighbor's, the country has produced some of the most lyrical and satisfying European films since World War II, particularly in the past 30 years. Indeed, the '70s, '80s, and '90s have been illustrious ones for Danish cinema.

While not an international name, Nils Malmros created a series of quietly elegant films dealing with themes of childhood and youth, such as Boys (Drenge, 1976), The Tree of Knowledge (Kundskabens trae, 1981), and Arhus by Night (1989). Bille August's first feature film, In My Life (Honning mne, 1978) signaled the beginning of an illustrious career that would include the dark and troubling tale of adolescent cruelty, Zappa (1983), and the Oscar- and Palme d'Or-winning Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle erobreren, 1987), with which his career reached its peak. (The great Swedish actor and Bergman protg Max von Sydow also received a best actor nomination for his stellar performance in Pelle.)

Gabriel Axel made numerous films for many years in Norway, including Golden Mountains (Guld og Grnne Skove, 1957) and The Red Mantle (Den Roede Kappe, 1967), before achieving international recognition for the delicious drama Babette's Feast in 1988. And the decades-long career of the country's greatest woman director, Astrid Henning-Jensen, stretches from the 1947 Denmark Grows Up through Unknown Man (1953) and Ballet Girl (1954) in the '50s to Early Spring (1986) and Winterborn (1978) all the way to The Birthday Trip (1990) to kick off the '90s.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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