This is a political thriller which received its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is based on actual events in 1968 when a B52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, crashed at the US Airbase at Thule in Greenland. Greenland was a territory administered by Denmark and in both cases there was a ‘nuclear free’ policy. At the time the USA and Denmark maintained that the accident site was cleared and the weapons accounted for. In the 1980s workers involved in the clear-up in 1968 started showing signs of illnesses linked to radiation. The investigations led on to evidence of both contamination at the time and of a cover-up over the incident. The film explores this story focusing on a radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg) who researches and reports the story. There is a full account of the historical events on Wikipedia: the film has obviously simplified the process for dramatic effect.
The film in many ways falls into the genre of the investigative journalism uncovering secrets: films like All the President’s Men (1976) or Defence of the Realm (1986). So we get light and shadows, the neon lit urban areas at night, basements, [but not underground car parks], the following car, the officious sectary or policeman, and the missing files, either hard copy and on computers. There are also the humorous moments when irony is lost on some official or bureaucratic rules lead to unintentional revelations. However, the film also achieves a distinctive treatment through the use of archive film: bonus point, these are all in the correct aspect ratio. This footage is in black and white and colour and includes television interviews and reports and an unintentionally funny US military promotional film for the airbase.
The cast is generally very good, especially Peter Plaugborg. I thought the victims of the incident were credible, though not the main focus. And the members of officialdom, with those hiding something and those letting something slip, were very good. The film is well photographed by Laust Trier-Mørk. The landscape in Greenland offers great opportunities: there is one splendid shot of the Thule Base at night, shrouded in darkness. It well edited by the team of Olivier Bugge Coutté, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. And director Christina Rosendahl has exercised very effective control over her team.
The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa and is screened from a DCP in standard widescreen. It runs 114 minutes, slightly long as some scenes drag a little, though overall it works well. The film has English subtitles. The film does not have a UK distributor yet but it is good enough to warrant that.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I’d chosen it because it fitted my schedule. I’m always slightly wary of documentaries and I’m not sure why. I rarely choose to see documentaries at my local cinemas but when I do get to see them I nearly always find them rewarding. This one certainly sounded grim and when I arrived at the ICA (which didn’t have seat reservations for this screening) I found myself sitting behind the tallest person in the cinema. With poor raking in the cinema this meant I had to lean sideways to read the subtitles. It wasn’t a good start but I needn’t have worried.
People live and work on or near to rubbish tips all over the world and I can think of both cinema documentaries and fiction films set in Brazil, Egypt and India in which potentially positive stories can be found about their lives. I wasn’t aware of the same scale of living with rubbish in Moscow. Rummaging about in Cairo or Mumbai sounds relatively attractive in comparison to surviving a Russian winter in a makeshift hut on a waste tip in the snow and slush. But apparently this is what hundreds, if not thousands, of people do every year. The film’s title comes from a quote from Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths (1902), a play depicting ‘Scenes From Russian Life’ amongst the poorest classes. Hanna Polak’s film focuses on one young woman and offers us glimpses of her life over a 14 year period, starting when she was 10.
Hanna Polak is a celebrated Polish documentarist and a humanitarian campaigner. Reading her biographical details, her list of films and awards over the last fifteen years and the range of her work with charitable organisations, I’m surprised (and perhaps shamed) that I haven’t come across her before. After the screening she gave a spirited account of how she made her latest film and used the opportunity to encourage us all to promote the film and the various campaigns around it. In short, Hanna Polak embodies what was once called ‘social documentary’. Her films are meant to not only show the world but definitely to change it. In Putin’s Russia that’s a tough call.
The genesis of the film was a project that Polak began in order to try to help street children in Moscow. It was they who introduced her to the communities on the dumps. For a long period she worked to help children with medical problems, getting them access to treatment. She always carried a camera and took both still photographs and film footage but most of the time she was too busy to do this systematically. It was only later that somebody suggested that she make a film and that she realised that she might be able to do more for the people on the dumps if a film showed what was happening to a much wider audience. The decision to make the young woman Yula, the central character in the story was in effect retrospective and we see glimpses of her as a child before we get more sustained coverage of incidents from her later teenage years onwards. Across the 14 years, Hanna Polak had other films to make as director, producer and cinematographer including Children of the Leningradsky (2004) about street children living around a Moscow railway station. She made other social documentaries as well as, presumably, jobs to simply pay the bills. She graduated from a cinematography school in Moscow so she had contacts in the city but she had to look elsewhere for funding. Something Better to Come is co-produced by Polish and Danish/Nordic public funding (an example of Scandinavian support for charitable/aid-related work?).
The difficulties of making this film – physical, organisational, personal etc. – mean that it doesn’t offer many ‘aesthetic pleasures’ but it packs a powerful punch as a social statement. Yula herself is a remarkable young woman and Hanna Polak amused us by revealing that the 23 year-old Yula is now living a carefully organised life in Moscow which allows the filmmaker limited interview time. “You get one hour, then I must do something else.” Yula’s family lost their original apartment in Moscow and ended up homeless and eventually on the dump. Years later, almost like a miracle in a fairy tale, the Moscow authorities discovered that the family had property rights that were still valid and Yula got an apartment. In the meantime her father, like many others, had died. Life on the dump is hard. A temporary shelter may need to be moved every few days as the only work available is searching through the new rubbish for recycleable material and it’s important to be close by. The trucks and bulldozers move the mountains of rubbish and the ‘recyclers’ are paid in vodka for what they find. Alcoholism sits along hyperthermia in winter and various diseases associated with dirty water and contaminated food as major killers. The recycling is an illegal operation controlled by gangsters. Hanna Polak faced dangers working with the people of the dump and finding money to complete her film was a problem. Now she spends her time trying to find ways to promote her film. If a screening happens near you, please go to see it and support her cause.
Trailer for Something Better to Come:
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 viewings 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)