Celebrating a Decade

in 52nd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Jan Lumholdt

During the discussions regarding this year’s San Sebastián FIPRESCI winner, a good handful of contenders quickly materialised. Some pleasant discrepancies occurred, but agreement soon nailed it down to two major candidates: Susanne Bier’s Danish Brothers and Carlos Sorin’s Argentinean Bombón, the dog. It was a hard choice: should one award a poignant tale of a Danish UN soldier who is traumatised by being held prisoner in the mountains of Afghanistan or a delicious little slice of life from the outbacks of Patagonia, concerning a sweet little man and his Argentinean Mastiff?

Although Brothers was the film that, quite literally, lost by a whisker (the old »dogs and children» axiom might have had something to do with it), we gave our verdict feeling somewhat frustrated. The intensity of the Danish film, the way it was shot, written and, mostly, acted, craved recognition. Luckily, and well deservedly, the official jury awarded both their acting awards to actors from the film: Ulrich Thomsen was named best actor and Connie Nielsen received the best actress award. (Bombón didn’t get anything from the »big» jury. At the end of the day – and in the great scheme of things – we did the right thing.)

Brothers is as good an example as any of what Danish cinema is capable of these days. The film deals with topical issues. It has well-written, natural dialogue. It has some of the best acting talent to be found, national or international. Editing and cinematography is first-rate, adventurous and executed with pace and intensity. In short terms, Brothers it a perfect representative of a ten-year anniversary, celebrating a most fruitful decade in modern Danish cinema history.

Brothers has already had a domestic audience attendance of more than 250 000. A little more than ten years ago, it could probably not have been made. At that time, few Danes would admit to being proud of their cinema industry. True, there were the award-winning works of Gabriel Axel and Bille August and the advent of Lars von Trier. But the first two adapted period classics and the third one was downright weird (influential, yes! But forever all his own). Few, if any, films dealt with contemporary Denmark in a way the concerned the young, modern moviegoer. As Brothers screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen quite mercilessly put it: »If you told your friends you’d been to see a Danish movie, they’d laugh at you and call you a sucker.»

It all really started with a little horror movie called Nightwatch. The film opened in Denmark an evening in the early spring of 1994. The morning after, a new cinematic Denmark had been born. A year later, Nightwatch had been seen by half a million Danes, it had been shown internationally, both at film festivals (where it won several awards), and in cinemas in Europe and America (where it even was turned into a Miramax remake, rather a lesser affair, though). This tight little thriller was surprisingly exciting, but the main attraction was the fact that it portrayed Danes of today, young twenty-thirty something people with whom the audience (such as the then 22-year old Jensen) could identify. This hadn’t really happened before. But it would all change.

Already in 1996 there was talk of a new Danish wave, and rightly so. Young directors came from the Danish Film School or were self-taught: Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher), Niels Arden Oplev (Portland), Anders Rønnow Klarlund (The Eighteenth) and Thomas Vinterberg (The Biggest Heroes) were the first notables. Their films fared more or less well, but there was an international interest as well as a national one, unheard of before.

A new generation of actors helped greatly: Nikolaj Koster Waldau, Ulrich Thomsen, Kim Bodnia, Mads Mikkelsen, Iben Hjejle, Paprika Steen and Thomas Bo Larsen all debuted during these years. They provided a fresh, versatile voice, acknowledged all over the world, in several cases also gaining them work in international productions.

And no one could predict the impact of Dogme 95, a movement created by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg around ten rules on filmmaking, The Vow of Chastity, a method of making basic, no-nonsense cinema. The first results of the movement, Festen/The Celebration and The Idiots created a stir in Cannes in 1998. Today, as 40 Dogme films have been made world-wide, it can safely be said that only the ten Danish entries have been successful. These, on the other hand, have been doing well: witness Søren Kragh-Jacbsen’s Mifune, Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners, Åke Sandgren’s Truly Human or Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts.

Today, Denmark still makes highly watchable Dogme films (Annette K. Olesen’s In Your Hands competed in Berlin in 2004. Nói albinói director Dagur Kári is up next). A socially critical cinema, unseen since the early 70’s, has been re-introduced and re-invented with Per Fly in the forefront through titles such as The Bench and The Inheritance. There’s also Anders Thomas Jensen, who, when he directs, creates a zany and colourful universe, a kind of Scandinavian Coen Brothers variation, seen in Flickering Lights and The Green Butchers (Jensen has three Oscar nominations for his short films. One, Election Night, won in 1999). And from the Dreyer/von Trier tradition of uncompromising individualists, Christopher Boe has emerged as the new auteur. The follow-up to his startling debut, Reconstruction, is currently being shot. Allegro is the title.

During these ten years, a vibrant community of Danish talent has materialised, gelled and created some equally vibrant cinema. Brothers effortlessly employs the talents some of those ten years’ finest: the writer of Mifune, the cinematographer of Pusher, the editor of The Kingdom, the director of Open Hearts and – not least – the producer behind most significant Danish cinema in our time, Peter Aalbæk Jensen.

In the hand-picked acting ensemble* we find similar Danish Gold, chiefly through Nikolaj Lie Kaas of The Idiots, Truly Human and Reconstruction and Ulrich Thomsen, of Festen, The Inheritance and – being the direct link back to when it all started – Nightwatch.

One is certainly looking forward to the next ten years.

Jan Lumholdt