The latest Danish serial to be broadcast in the UK is a historical drama focusing on the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’ and its aftermath. I remember studying this as part of British and European political history at school but it is only more recently that I’ve begun to appreciate what a major event the loss of these two provinces was for the Danish state and the Danish people. The serial is being broadcast over four Saturdays with two 57 minute episodes each week. I’m reacting to the first two episodes here but I hope to return once the serial is completed.
To get the history out of the way first, the geopolitics of Northern Europe in the mid-19th century focused on Schleswig, the area of southern Jutland that now straddles the Danish-German border. Along with Holstein to the South, the Duchy of Schleswig had traditionally been ruled by Danish kings even though the two duchies were not officially part of Denmark. In 1849 a new ‘Democratic Constitution’ in Denmark raised the question of sovereignty in the two duchies and the Danes sought to uphold their rights. In 1851 the First Schleswig War ended with the Danes defeating the Prussians, but in 1864 they faced the new Prussian First Minister Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck used the dispute over the two duchies that followed the death of the Danish King in 1863 to force a Second Schleswig War in which the Danes were defeated by the combined forces of the German Confederation and Austria. The Danish-speaking region of Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark in 1920 but otherwise Denmark was reduced to its current size after the defeat of 1864.
Why was Schlewsig-Holstein so important? It had great strategic importance located at the ‘crossroads’ of trade, East-West and North-South. Russia and the UK were major powers concerned about trade routes and about the growing power of Prussia under Bismarck. Bismarck in turn saw the possibility of a ‘practice war’ for German military development. During the 1850s Denmark moved towards a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and gradually became reconciled to the major loss of territories in Scandinavia and the Baltic over the previous two centuries in a succession of wars with Sweden, losing control over Norway in 1814. With industrialisation arriving in the latter half of the 19th century the Second Schleswig War could be argued to mark the beginning of ‘modern Denmark’. 1864 is thus a ‘national popular’ celebration of a defeat which started the long development towards contemporary prosperity. That’s a huge task for any drama but it’s significant that Danish TV’s biggest budget has been trusted to a filmmaker with strong ideas. Ole Bornedal has written and directed the whole serial (with a co-writer for some episodes). The serial is being broadcast in something like 2.0:1 (on my TV it looks like ‘Scope) and it has a genuine cinematic feel. Certainly in Episode 2 I felt that I was watching a costume/action film rather than a UK style ‘TV costume drama’. It helps that this isn’t a literary adaptation and that Bornedal has a free hand in constructing the narrative.
Lots of money and a free hand isn’t always a good thing, however. I realise that I have seen at least one of Bornedal’s films – Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) – and that was both highly derivative but also full of energy and panache. It isn’t surprising then that 1864 adopts some familiar ‘tropes’ of contemporary film and television. The ‘national moment’ is explored through the device of a modern young woman reading the diaries of her equivalent in the 1850s to an elderly survivor of the Danish land-owning classes. Inge in the 1850s was the daughter of an Estate Manager and her two closest friends as a child are a tenant farmer’s sons. They will go off to war in 1864. The narrative will also follow the wild landowner’s son (the terrific Pilou Asbaek) and various leading political figures in Denmark (plus Otto von Bismarck and his family). Most intriguingly we are also offered the soft power of the leading Danish actress of the period Johanne Louise Heiberg (Sidse Babett Knudsen).
This is a serial and the first episode has to work hard to set up characters and situations. For me the story came to life in Episode 2, especially with the arrival of a group of Romany travellers on the estate. There is an obvious reference to contemporary migration just as there is a link via the young men going into the army in 1863 and Danish involvement in Afghanistan more recently. The serial jumps between 1851, 1863-4 and the present and it has been attacked in Denmark for ‘inauthenticity’, ‘political correctness’, ‘propaganda’ etc. I would expect nothing less – it is intended to be a ‘national story’. On the other hand, I don’t know what to expect from UK audiences. What I do know is that at times it reminded me of both European cinema and Hollywood depictions of the same period. It’s worth remembering that the main events occur at a time when the American Civil War was at its height. A barn dance/harvest supper at the end of Episode 2 made me think back to my two recent screenings of Far From the Maddening Crowd and also of John Ford films like The Searchers (1956). And, of course, the recent ‘Danish Western’ The Salvation (2014) featured two Danish brothers who migrated to the US after they fought in the Second Schleswig War.
I’m delighted to have two hours of watchable TV for a month but I’ll reserve judgment on the serial until it is completed.
Just a reminder for subscribers. Reviews of interesting films, mainly from outside the US/UK and Western Europe, are also to be found on our sister site at globalfilmstudies.com
Recent posts include:
Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)
Stones for the Rampart (Poland 2014)
The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)
OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)
This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).
It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.
In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.
Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.
The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.
I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.
Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.
The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:
Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.
Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.
There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.