Next to Italy, no country in the world has won more Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film during the past three decades than Denmark—it has three wins, tied with Spain. Boasting a pantheon of auteurs that include Thomas Vinterberg, Lars Von Trier, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nicolas Winding Refn and Susanne Bier, Scandinavia’s smallest country is the de facto powerhouse of Nordic cinema. And given this depth of talent, it’s not surprising that strong films by less revered Danish filmmakers can get overlooked. Recently Denmark announced a short list of three features for its 2016 Foreign Language entry: Vinterberg’s The Commune (Kollectivet), Lisa Ohlin’s Walk with Me (De standhaftige) and Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine (Under sandet). Left out in cold was Jesper W. Nielsen’s The Day Will Come (Der kommer en dag), a potent period drama that under different circumstances would seem an obvious Oscar candidate.
This beautifully crafted tale of two young brothers who endure nightmarish abuse at a Danish orphanage won the Fipresci prize at the 44th annual Norwegian International Film Festival last week in Haugesund. (a unanimous choice by a jury of international critics including myself). Now, this is not the kind of picture that typically wins praise from serious cinephiles. The film’s narrative rockets along a fairly conventional trajectory of horror and redemption (like a prison movie but with kids), aiming an emotional payload at a sentimental target. And the pedigree of the filmmakers has been largely shaped by television—Nielsen’s most prominent credit in the past eight years is the acclaimed political TV drama Borgen, and screenwriter Søren Sveistrup is best known for creating the hit series The Killing.
But The Day Will Come excavates a disturbing episode from Denmark’s past and dramatizes it with undeniable power. The film is based on true stories of a real-life Danish institution called Godhavn, one of many residential schools where boys were victims of violence and sexual abuse. Though there is no colonial element in play, for this Canadian viewer, the story inevitably calls to mind the horrors of native residential schools that have recently been exposed in my country, where indigenous children were abducted from their families and stripped of their language and culture while being subjected to systematic abuse far from home.
Set in 1967, the film’s narrative straddles the Space Age and an age of darkness that seems frozen in time. It opens with an urban chase scene, a kinetic sequence fired with the rock’n’roll energy of the Sixties, as two boys—Elmer (Harald Hermann) and his older brother, Erik (Albert Lindhardt)—flee from police after a bout of shoplifting. Elmer, who has a clubfoot, has stolen a telescope that’s almost as big as he is. He’s a science nerd obsessed with the space travel, and as NASA prepares for the moon landing, this avid fanboy is determined to become an astronaut. The giddy, exuberant tone of that opening scene is utterly unlike the rest of the film, as if the energy of the era is shut out once the boys become trapped within the walls of the orphanage. After their single mother becomes seriously ill, they are shipped off to this grim institution, a virtual concentration camp run by a tyrannical headmaster named Heck (Lars Mikkelsen). After an initiation of brutal abuse from the other boys and their masters, the brothers find a glint of compassion in a timid new staff member (Sofie Gråbøl), who takes the young Elmer under her wing. But as a woman subject to a patriarchal regime, she has little room to manoevre.
Nielsen composes the drama with a stern yet lyrical eye, and draws exceptional performances from his cast. Though Lars Mikkelsen portrays an unalloyed villain, a character who would not be out of place in the Nazi SS, he manages to shade the silences with sly levels of nuance. Gråbøl radiates a cautious humanity within the narrow confines of her supporting role. And as the two brothers at the heart of the story, Hermann and Lindhard are riveting. It would be easy to pass off their performances as a natural phenomenon of children simply playing themselves. But their characters, and their relationship, go deeper than that. And Nielsen deserves credit for directing them with such a consistent tone over the arc of the film. Building a measured intensity that feels authentic in every frame, with not a false note or a cute pose, they pull us into their orbit with such force that any concerns about narrative tropes are swept away.
The script’s one adventurous conceit is to frame the narrative against the unfolding drama of the Apollo moon landing, even finding a sweet spot to insert a newly minted vinyl album of the score from 2001: A Space Odyssey (a reminder that Kubrick’s timeless movie actually preceded that historic Apollo mission). Elmer’s stubborn spaceman fantasy, which makes him an object of derision among the other boys, has him tethered to a hopeful future, and a dangerous redemption. The story inevitably lifts off with an inspirational climax to rival Chariots of Fire. But by then it is well-earned. Elmer’s cosmic ambition—like that of an obsessed artist tunneling his Great Escape through the imagination—grounds him and the film in the modern world, in a place that can move beyond the nightmare.
© FIPRESCI 2016