Side program | My First Film - Denmark

Until the 1980s, Danish cinematography was primarily recognized by the legendary actress Asta Nielsen, directing genius Carl Theodor Dreyer, comedians Pat and Patachon (Karl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen – predecessors of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy) and the revolutionary breakthrough of erotica (that left particular trace in our theaters, where the melodrama 'I, Woman' and comedy 'Jumpin' at the Bedside' were among top-grossing films in the period of liberalization). And then, things changed. Shown in Cannes in 1984, the detective story 'Element of Crime' was welcomed as the most interesting film of the year. With his subsequent works, its director Lars von Trier won himself a reputation of one of the most important filmmakers of the world. Soon afterwards, Denmark won two Oscars for the best film in foreign language, almost in succession: 'Pelle the Conqueror', socially engaged epic co-produced with Swedes, and 'Babette's Feast', a minimalist film the hero of which shocks her neighbors with a luxury feat that costs a fortune. Suddenly everybody became interested in Danish film. The euphoria was even intensified when Thomas Vinterberg's 'Celebration' and Von Trier's 'Idiots' announced a new Puritanism on film – Dogma95.

The Dogma members did not persist on their principles very long, but Danish films flooded the world festivals and theaters. Numerous Oscar nominations followed again and another Oscar was won (last year, Susanne Bier and her 'In A Better World'). Danish directors started coming to Hollywood (Nicolas Winding Refn, Susanne Bier, Lone Scherfig) and Hollywood started making American versions of Danish films (Jim Sheridan made his version of 'Brothers', with Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman).

Today, Danish cinematography is one of Europe's strongest, mostly due to the activities of the Danish Film Institute, which has been coordinating film activities in Denmark since the mid-1970s. This is why it went without saying that the My First Film Program, dedicated to first films of acclaimed directors, should be dedicated to the Danes – those who have achieved acclaim after this cinematography had had its boom in the 1980s. Logically, they include 'Element of Crime' which won technical Grand Prix in Cannes for its fascinating, almost monochromatic visual presentation. Although Von Trier did not bother listing his role models, they are obvious: from Godard's 'Alphaville' to Lynch's 'Eraserhead'. Indicatively, one of the roles is played by British director Esmond Knight, who played a cameo role Michael Powell's masterpiece 'Voyer' – a filmmaker who is definitely on the list of Von Trier's spiritual mentors.

Unlike the gloomy 'Element of Crime', Thomas Vinterberg's 'Greatest Heros' is a much more entertaining and vivid film. Made in 1996, when the members of Dogma95 had already defined their new 'rules of conduct', but did not abide by them yet. The story of two Danish outsiders wandering through Sweden, accompanied by a little daughter of one of them, was a box-office success. However, the real chance for distribution around the world came for it when Vinterberg won recognition for himself with his 'Celebration' – a film that won him the jury award in Cannes, although he was not billed (being a true Dogma member and denying any authorship).

Susanne Bier never cared about Dogma95, but it did not prevent her from becoming the most successful Danish director of today (by the way, Lone Scherfig is breathing down her neck). Her first film, 'Freud Leaving Home' (1991) is a humorous melodrama about a young Jewish girl who is almost 30 and is still living with hewer parents; she has strongly attached to her mother and that has become a burden for her. Great drama actor Ghita Nørby as Mother is the emotional pillar of the film.

The most effective of the first films in the program is, of course, Nicolas Refn's 'Pusher', a merciless crime drama about a Copenhagen gangster who is constantly in danger of imprisonment or competition. The second leading role in the film is played by Zlatko Burić, a former star of Zagreb's Kugla Glumište Project, who received Bodil, the top Danish film award, for his role. Made in 1996, 'Pusher' had two sequels, and the second version in English language, where Zlatko plays the same character, is being produced at the moment. Owing to this trilogy, Refn is a big star today. His 'Drive', made in U.S., was awarded at Cannes and some critics consider it the best film of the year.

The fifth film in the program is also the newest one: Andres Thomas Jensen's 'Flickering Lights' was made in 2000. It is a film about a group of outsiders who find shelter in an abandoned cabin in woods. Just like subsequent Jensen's works, the film was a great success in Denmark. It should be mentioned here that Jensen wrote scripts for the most important films of Susanne Bier. He also worked in the UK ('Dutchess' with Keira Knightley).

For the first time ever, we have introduced to this program the short films that the above mentioned directors had made before their feature-length debuts. Among them, Jensen's 'Election Night' is a particular treat: it won an Oscar in 1999.

Nenad Polimac,
selector of the My First Movie: Denmark programme

Nenad Polimac