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.
As Rona said after the screening: “This will divide audiences”. I agree but it’s interesting to conjecture why. On the one hand, the film’s references are very obscure if you are a) under 45, b) not interested in European exploitation films c) unaware of what happens in D/S relationships. On the other hand, most intelligent audiences will recognise that this film is a) beautifully made and b) a humanist love story. My hat is off to all concerned from writer/director Peter Strickland to the ‘human toilet consultant’ listed in the credits and everyone else in between.
It helps if you have seen Strickland’s two previous remarkable films, Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio. The former was made in Hungary – and so is this new film. The latter was an attempt to explore the giallo, the Italian exploitation genre best-known in the UK via the 1970s works of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. The Duke of Burgundy riffs instead on the 1970s sexploitation films of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. If you don’t know these filmmakers I recommend Kim Newman’s Sight and Sound review.
‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is a (rare, English) butterfly and the study of insects is the only public activity in the strange community invented by Strickland – a community existing in a 1970s ‘mittel-Europe’ and made up solely of adult women. In this sense the relationships are not ‘lesbian’ as defined in majority heterosexual communities since all relationships are between women. The relationship at the centre of the narrative is between Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna). Fifty Shades of Grey has recently attracted huge audiences. I haven’t seen it, but from what I read in reviews, it doesn’t understand domination/submission in sexual relationships. The Duke of Burgundy gets it right. Evelyn the submissive is the real controller in this loving relationship and Cynthia tries to do what she asks until the ‘human condition’ becomes apparent and Cynthia develops a bad back. La bella Sidse proves to be a real trouper as Cynthia, wearing fetish gear that seems ugly to me but which supposedly does something for Evelyn. She has to appear as both the authority figure ‘dominant’ and the frump in comfy pyjamas and she does it movingly. Unfortunately, her English, though beautifully enunciated, occasionally has the wrong pitch or intonation. Where that worked for the Prime Minister of Denmark in Borgen, speaking English as part of international diplomacy, here only the slightest nuance is noticeable in the delicate soundscape. Perhaps it’s just me and I’m being hyper-critical?
In the UK the film has been given an 18 certificate and the BBFC ‘advice’ shown before the screening explains that this because of its ‘sexual fetish theme’. I can only assume that there is some kind of ‘health and safety’ warning implied here, perhaps concerning bondage. There is no explicit sexual activity on screen and ‘no nudity’. Despite what some reviewers imply, this is not an S&M relationship and the sexual ‘play’ is mostly off-screen. Does this mean the film isn’t erotic? Not really, much of the pleasure/arousal associated with D/S comes from the dialogue between the partners and the acting out of the assigned roles. I certainly found some scenes erotic. But the film is also very funny at times and raucous laughter emanated from the back of the cinema when some members of the audience clearly recognised the scenarios. It’s the humour that makes the film for me – or rather the delicate balance that Strickland and his collaborators achieve between eroticism, moments of humour, social observation and the emotional intensity of a genuine loving relationship.
It’s important to recognise the collaborators. Nic Knowland the cinematographer has vast experience, much of it in television and since he was working in the 1970s he certainly knows how to recreate the look. Several of the creative team have worked with Strickland before on Berberian Sound Studio and on international film and TV productions using Hungarian facilities. The music by Cat’s Eyes is excellent and evokes atmosphere well. Listen to extracts here. Overall, the look and ‘feel’ of the film reminded me of Nic Roeg’s work with a film like Don’t Look Now from 1973.
Peter Strickland’s films aren’t for everyone, but he is a unique talent to be nurtured and appreciated. Here’s a clip from The Duke of Burgundy:
So, it’s all over. No more Saturday nights with Birgitte and Katrine and attention has turned to the second outing of The Bridge which started last Saturday. I’ve enjoyed Borgen immensely and apart from the performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as the two central characters throughout, what has been most fascinating has been the way in which the writers have manipulated storylines and shifted between different genres/modes. Occasionally this has led to outrageous plotting and truncated stories but overall the narrative flow has been steady and the structure sound.
(There are some spoilers here if you haven’t watched all ten episodes yet.) The biggest surprise in the third part of the serial was the ‘dropping’ of Kasper Juul from the original trio. I’m guessing that this was partly due to the other acting commitments of Pilou Asbaek, including his leading role in Kapringen (Hijacked, Denmark 2012). Asbaek had to fly out to the Indian Ocean whereas Søren Malling, who was in the same film but only in the Danish scenes, was presumably more available. Whatever the logistics, Malling’s character Torben Friis comes to the fore in Borgen 3 in a new storyline. This mirrors the earlier episodes in creating a personal/work-related set of crises. Torben’s affair with studio director Pia and his domestic marital problems are counterpointed by the arrival of a new executive at TV1 who wants to ‘commercialise’ the news and current affairs output at TV1. We had this before of course with the arrival at TV1 of the ousted populist Labour politician Michael Laugesen who then became the editor of a muck-raking tabloid. What is different this time is that we are treated to a whole narrative strand about the shake-up at TV1 which is given a satirical edge, especially in the finale when the wonderful Hanne is allowed to star, turning on the ‘media studies student’ who is trying to change her presentation style on the flagship Election Night special. This was all very entertaining, although the treatment of poor Pia was very disturbing – being forced to wear those awful 1970s glasses was surely punishment enough without the rest of it.
The other two main stories were Birgitte’s health issues and her rather wet new boyfriend – a liaison that provided a lesson for all of us in the possible pitfalls of global television. I’m not sure how Alastair Mackenzie as ‘Jeremy Welsh’ went down in Denmark but in the UK his main claim to fame was a long stint as the young laird in the popular Sunday night ‘comfort show’ Monarch of the Glen between 2000 and 2003. It is already difficult to cope with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s beautifully enunciated English in their scenes together (it’s perfect, but doesn’t sound ‘right’) without being reminded of the earlier series. They never worked as a couple for me. The other main narrative was, of course, Birgitte’s return to political life with her new party. Setting up the ‘New Democrats’ was fascinating. More problematic was Katrine’s love life and the appearance of Lars Mikkelsen (Troels from The Killing 1) as the economics guru Søren Ravn. Bringing Katrine and Søren together seemed a little desperate – as if the scriptwriters realised how much had been lost by demoting Kasper from his lead role.
Overall, the serial worked for me as an entertainment and I thought it was a skilful production. If I’m slightly unhappy it’s because I wanted more of Katrine and Kasper together and I wanted to see Birgitte back in charge (and what happened to her children, Laura and Magnus – great performances throughout by Freja Riemann and Emil Poulsen). But it’s a wise decision to call a halt at this stage. Over three seasons Borgen has been unmissable and it will stay in the memory for a long time. There are rumours of a BBC/HBO remake. I hope not. Something original please! Meanwhile my attention shifts to Saga and Martin in The Bridge 2.
Missing Borgen already and need a fix of Sidse Babett Knudsen? This UK DVD release offers an enjoyable family melodrama with a star-studded cast and some comic scenes. It’s presented in CinemaScope framing and acts as an almost ‘real estate porn’ promo for life on the Copenhagen waterfront. The strange title refers to the close proximity of three couples living around one of the more attractive canals in Copenhagen city centre.
Sidse Babett Knudsen is Anne, an actor preparing for a performance as Ophelia in a new production of Hamlet in the waterfront theatre. She is married to Ask (Nicolas Bro – the Justice Minister in The Killing 2). The marriage isn’t going well and he is having an affair with Bente (Ellen Hillingsø), a drama critic separated from Bjørn (Anders W. Berthelsen – the shipping magnate in The Killing 3). Bjørn is now drinking away his time and living on his boat moored on the canal where he is overlooked by Charlotte (Ellen Nyman) who works as a counsellor and who is currently listening to Anne and Ask fight through her sessions. Charlotte is married to Carl (Nils Ole Oftebro), the director-manager of the theatre where Anne is to perform her Ophelia. Carl appears to be a ‘serial shagger’ of any passing woman who might be amenable. As well as these interconnections, the children of Anne and Ask and Bente and Bjørn are also in contact – and are seemingly more ‘sorted’ than their parents.
I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s slight but has several redeeming features, not least the chance to see Sidse Babett Knudsen in a very different role. She is flustered, forgetful and liable to lose it. She’s also 10lbs overweight and unable to get into her dress as Ophelia and she looks positively ‘raddled’ – a far cry from the perfect Birgitte in Borgen. She’s also brilliant. (Her son in the film is played by the very young Emil Poulsen who repeats the role so successfully in Borgen). All the cast are very good and the director Charlotte Sieling (with plenty of experience directing episodes of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen) makes sure it moves at a good pace. I’d starting watching it late at night thinking I’d just fit in the first 30 minutes – but I watched the whole film because I got caught up in it. If you don’t like the intertwining narratives of soap opera or the coincidences of melodrama, this won’t be for you – but plenty of us do and this is a very good example of the genre. It’s definitely worth seeking out on rental or download.
The second season of Borgen has now reached halfway on BBC4 in the UK (having aired in Denmark in Autumn 2011). I don’t think I’ve waited so eagerly for something on TV for a long time. But what’s it like the second time round? I’m conscious that I might be watching it in a different way – or perhaps reflecting more on what I’m seeing.
Season 1 established that there would be three central characters and this has continued in Season 2. Birgitte as Prime Minister and Kasper as her political adviser are engaged in trying to keep the coalition government in power, but both have issues with their partners/families. Meanwhile Katrine has left her job at the TV company and joined the tabloid edited by the disgraced Labour Party leader. Katrine also has a new partner of sorts with Episode 1 showing her growing professional relationship and friendship with the older journalist Hanne who has a drinking problem. The structure of each episode has remained the same with an ‘external’ issue concerning the government involving each of the three protagonists to a different extent. Each has also got an ongoing personal narrative and at least one of these is advanced in each episode – and sometimes two or all three. My impression is that the central political narrative is beginning to fade into the background at this halfway point. The political stories seem more cut and dried, more neat somehow. Birgitte seems to solve a problem in a skilled but not altogether plausible way. She appears much harder and more pragmatic. In one sense of course this makes sense as she is likely to change with experience – but the writers seem less interested in the political stories and more in how the three central characters are under stress.
I think that this shift – if it exists and isn’t just a function of my own shifts in how I’m reading the narrative – means that the overall narrative is becoming more of a melodrama. The serial structure does allow for reflection over 10 weeks in the Danish case (and over several months between each season). In the UK there are two separate episodes/stories transmitted one after the other which perhaps alters our readings here slightly but I think I am reacting to each episode as if it was just another episode of a well-loved soap opera. That sense was confirmed after episode 5 when we have just seen the return of the PM’s secretary Sanne to her old job. It’s almost that like Birgitte, we’ve missed Sanne’s warmth.
If it is getting more like a soap or perhaps more like a telenovela, I have to say that the tension for me is all about Kasper and Katrine. There seems little mileage in Kasper’s attempt to set up home with his new partner Lotte and Katrine has just gone through a whirlwind change of jobs (four, over six episodes). I want Katrine to be happy and Kasper to get sorted out. Birgitte is clearly going to have more problems with her children. I know that many viewers are fond of Birgitte’s husband Philip but I’ve always found him a bit dispensable. I’d rather Birgitte found someone more interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Birgitte got to grips with some more complicated politics and left the shenanigans to Kasper.
On a recent Late Review, there was discussion (à propos of the revamp of Yes Minister on Sky) about how politics are treated in British drama/entertainment. The suggestion was that we are just too cynical in the UK and can only take politics as satire/comedy in shows like The Thick of It or thrillers like House of Cards. I didn’t quite follow this and there didn’t seem to be any suggestions as to why 1 million of us watch Borgen or even more followed West Wing so avidly. Perhaps we need a telenovela that extends beyond the remit of the UK’s community or institution-based soaps? The Danish political world is institutional of course, but it is also exotic – and oddly glamorous. Or at least Kasper and Katrine are glamorous if not the politicians. What does anyone else think?
After the Wedding is a full-blown melodrama with a heavyweight cast. It features several elements of what we now see as director Susanne Bier’s authorial style – the hand-held camera and big close-ups, the strong sense of colour palette (blues and greens here) and a plot that involves a connection to aid work in India. Weddings in many cultures are events which do more to reveal the tensions in families than to celebrate the foundation of a new relationship. And so it is in this case. Mads Mikkelsen is Jacob, a Dane who has lived in India for the past twenty years or so and has established an orphanage project to help street children. He is invited back to Copenhagen to be interviewed by a hotel billionaire interested in making a large-scale charitable commitment. The man in question turns out to be Jørgen – played by Rolf Lassgård, the formidable Swedish actor and one of the few figures in Nordic cinema capable of matching Mikkelsen at full throttle.
Jørgen procrastinates and invites Jacob to his daughter Anna’s wedding. When Jacob arrives at the grand mansion in its extensive grounds he is shocked to see that Jørgen’s wife (and Anna’s mother) is Helene – played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, currently the Danish Prime Minister in Borgen. We can all probably guess what the revelation that follows will be and the fourth major player in the drama becomes Anna herself, well played by Stine Fischer Christensen. But this revelation is not actually the main narrative twist – the real question is why Jorgen has seemingly engineered a situation which can only cause trouble. I won’t reveal the answer but only say that in developing the narrative, Bier sets up some very interesting debates about entrepreneurship and global capitalism, foreign aid and charitable giving etc. alongside personal happiness and responsibilities and family commitments. This is an interesting mix which we don’t often find in a melodrama. We don’t, of course, get a neat answer and nor should we, but the discussion is valuable.
The film looks terrific and I found it to be an intriguing mix of the vitality of the Dogme-style camerawork (hand-held and minimally lit) and strong acting performances with the sumptuous melodrama mise en scène of the mansion interiors – most evident in Jørgen’s room full of the heads of animals he has shot (possibly a reference to Vincente Minelli’s Home From the Hill?). The Indian locations at the beginning and end of the film also add colour – and music. In that sense the film is certainly a melodrama, as it is with the various plot coincidences. The four actors are all capable of expressive performances with Lassgård particularly good in a boorish drunk scene and Mikkelsen very good at being sullen and aggrieved.
But as well as a satisfying melodrama, After the Wedding asks us to consider what we achieve in our lives. Is looking after your loved ones as important as helping thousands out of poverty? Does helping thousands mean atonement for actions that hurt a few? If you are ‘good’ but don’t help anyone, even those you love, as much as you would like to, does that make you a failure? From this you can move on to more philosophical questions. Is foreign aid ever a good idea? Is it more to assuage the guilt of the giver than to help those who ‘receive’ it?
After the Wedding was nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Susanne Bier didn’t win but she only had to wait a few years until Haeven (2011)