Denmark Breathes Life into the Original Nordic Noir

By Peter Monaghan

The glum outlook that you find in all your current favorite “Nordic noir” television crime series is not a novel perspective on the human condition. It was there, for example, at the very dawn of moving-image productions in Denmark where filmmakers took a cue from earlier prophets of gloom like playwrights Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian, and August Strindberg, a Swede.

Nearing their lives’ ends when movies emerged, those titans of Scandinavian soul-searching might have approved of one of Denmark’s first silent films, and its first fiction film, Peter Elfelt’s The Execution (Henrettelsen, above), from 1903. It related the hanging of an infanticidal mother in seven dark, downer minutes.

The cast and crew of August Blom’s 1910 potboiler “The White Slave Trade” (Den hvide slavehandel) ham it up in a publicity shot.

From that start, early Danish popular film specialized in melodrama, often erotically tinged, about prostitution, kidnapping, espionage, and murder. Among its biggest early exports, in 1910, was August Blom’s The White Slave Trade (Den hvide slavehandel).

Vivified by the seedy and the gloomy, film boomed in Denmark. Its industry was as active as any in Europe until in the 1920s German and Swedish companies seized the lion’s share of the market.

To relive and perhaps revive those glory days, the Danish Film Institute has launched a major effort to preserve and again disseminate the country’s early output. With 30 million Danish kroner (about $US4.5-million) from three foundations — the A.P. Møller Foundation, the Aage and Johanne Louis-Hansen Foundation, and the Augustinus Foundation — the Institute has begun to digitize the whole of the remaining silent-film heritage. That amounts to some 415 titles from the “golden age of Danish silent film” — about 350 hours of viewing — that archivists at the Institute are digging out of storage to restore, preserve, and disseminate through screenings and online postings.

Driving with Greenland Dogs (Kørsel med grønlandske Hunde], 1897

As with the silent-film heritage of most countries, only a small part of Denmark’s remains — about 20 percent, in its case; most of the rest of the films were thrown out when talkies displaced silent films in public affection in the 1930s. The survivors go back almost to the dawn of filmmaking. As Peter Schepelern, a film historian at the University of Copenhagen, relates in a series of posts on the Danish Film Institute’s website, within 15 months of the Lumières’ first public exhibition of film in Paris in 1895, Peter Elfelt, later an official photographer of Denmark’s royal court, had had a film camera made to match what he had seen in Paris, and he had set to work on the delightful one-minute Driving with Greenland Dogs (Kørsel med grønlandske Hunde).

Elfelt’s The Execution (1903) was a pioneering fiction film, but documentary was his preferred format. He made many films of national events and daily life as well as commercial shorts. (One-third of his approximately 200 films survive, and the Danish Film Institute has placed those on the European Film Gateway as the Elfelt Collection. The Gateway displays some 500,000 films, images, and text from early cinema through recent times, provided by European film archives.)

The mildly erotic pops up even in his documentaries. There, chaste technically experimental depictions predominate — firemen, ballet dancers, and (in advertisements) beer and coffee — but in Sommerglæder [Joys of Summer, 1899, above] young ladies haul on swimming costumes behind a semi-transparent veil.

The next prominent Danish filmmaker was Ole Olsen; in 1906 he set up Nordisk Films Kompagni, a fiction-film specialist. The White Slave Trade [Den Hvide Slavehandel, 1910] was its first hit. Today, as Nordisk Film, it is the world’s longest-established film-production company. During its first decade and a half, when Hollywood too was in its infancy, Nordisk’s feature films were internationally distributed and renowned. (About 500 films from the Nordisk Collection are on the European Film Gateway, too.) The company boasted stars like Asta Nielsen, Valdemar Psilander, and comedians Fy & Bi (right). The country’s great director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, began his career with Nordisk. Among his ambitious productions, before he traveled to filmmaking centers in Sweden, Norway, Germany, and France, was his grand study of evil, Leaves From Satan’s Book [Blade af Satans bog, 1920]. He returned to Denmark in the 1940s and directed sound features like Day of Wrath [Vredens dag, 1943] (set during a 17th Century witch hunt), The Word [Ordet, 1955], and Gertrud [1964].

With what was characterized as a “subdued and intensified acting style,” Denmark’s first international film star, Asta Nielsen, demonstrated how film acting could set itself apart from stage acting. She infused her acting with eroticism, too, as in her suggestive dance in her 1910 debut, The Abyss aka The Woman Alway Pays [Afgrunden, left] directed by Urban Gad with whom “Die Asta” relocated to Germany and greater stardom.

Also leading film away from the conventions of literature and theater was the prolific director Benjamin Christensen, a stage actor and opera singer whose stage fright led him to seek refuge behind the camera, and also in front of it. He directed and took lead roles in well-received films like Sealed Under Orders [Det hemmelighedsfulde X, 1914] and Blind Justice (1916) — in his Häxan (1922, below) he played The Devil — and then went to Hollywood to direct overwrought dramas like The Devil’s Circus (1926) and Seven Footprints to Satan (1929).

“Häxan,” a 1922 fictionalized documentary showing the evolution of witchcraft from pagan roots to modern-day hysteria. As “Witchcraft Through the Ages,” a 1968 American reissue had added narration by William S. Burroughs.

What is now considered the “First Golden Age of Danish film” was relatively short lived — it was over by 1920. Schepelern attributes that to various causes: Nordisk Film opted for literary adaptations that did not meet public favor; a competing company, Palladium, slowed Nordisk’s ascendancy; and the Danish government taxed cinema revenues to the extent that the local market lost momentum. Swedish, German, and American industries quickly came to dominate international film making and marketing.

Nonetheless, among Danish film aficionados, those early years remain vaunted ones, says Lars-Martin Sørensen (below), research manager at the Danish Film Institute: “Danish movies were truly international and groundbreaking.”

Over the next few years, he and his DFI colleagues plan to digitize all the Danish silent films that remain. Those will join already processed films — some major canonical works, along with many historic and documentary films — that the Danish Film Institute has already placed on the European Film Gateway.

Lars-Martin Sørensen, research manager at the Danish Film Institute

In the past, the Institute has outsourced its digitization work; but in the current project it will bring the work in-house through the addition of additional resources and staff. The earlier digitizations were in 2K resolution, while the new ones will generally be in 4K. “We’re establishing a brand new digital production flow, in order to be able to do this,” says Sørensen.

In “Häxan” (1922), Benjamin Christensen directed and took the choice role: The Devil.

That will include investing in new scanners and building grading suite, and also building a grading cinema so color graders can do their work in a working cinema. And, says Sørensen, “we’re doubling the number of technicians in the archive, to be able to manage this workload. So we’re expanding in a big way, which is nice and quite unusual for cultural heritage institutions in Denmark, at the moment; we’re the lucky ones.”

As much as anything, what excites him is the possibility of great rediscoveries, and even discoveries: “We’ve got quite a few prestigious works from the 1920s which have been preserved only as camera negatives, so we’re going to do narrative reconstructions of those films. We’re talking about at least 50 films that haven’t been screened since they opened at cinemas in the ’20s. And we might find forgotten masterpieces that could change our conception of Danish silent-movie history.”

Also among the Institute’s treasured possessions are about a dozen reels of uncut camera negatives. All in all, Sørensen says, “there’s quite a lot of restoration and narrative reconstruction to be done, which is why it takes a hell of a time.”

Finding funding for the project

Early directors and employees of Nordisk Film Kompagni.

Sørensen says securing funding for the project required four years of “a lot of hard work.” During that time, Institute officials built what he calls “a massive application” for 127 million Danish kroner (about $US19-m), hoping to digitize one-third of the Danish Film Archive’s entire holdings of analog film. “We presented this application to three large private foundations that we knew had sponsored digitization projects in the past and they then said ‘that’s an awful lot of money; we’ll give you 30 million Danish kroner (about $US4.5m), and you’ll have to get the rest of it elsewhere.’

If such cultural funding is hard to come by in current-day Denmark, what explains his funding application’s partial success?

I guess what they were looking for,” says Sørensen, “was a coherent whole that they could say, ‘OK, we sponsored the restoration, and preservation, and digitization of the entire first golden age of Danish filmmaking,’ as we call it now.”

Another contributing factor, he believes, was that international research interest has grown in Danish film history, both past and present.

He adds: “It certainly made a difference when I sat down to argue persuasively for the application to these foundations that this was something we should invest in. Then it makes a difference that you can say, well, there’s international research interest in Danish movies.” That includes interest in the country’s current output. The Danish Film Institute has provided generous funding to foster film production in the country, where the most prominent figure certainly is the controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier.

As Sørensen contemplates those reasons for the foundations’ smiling on the project, even if not as broadly as he might have hoped, he thinks of another reason: “I could also point to the fact that this is not just film history; it’s also corporate history. Companies like Nordiskfilm were multinationals in the silent-film era.”

What he doesn’t add to the list of drivers of funding is that Denmark, like many European countries, is experiencing a rise in popular nationalist sentiment, and with it, pride in its past.

That’s not to say that Danes commonly know the history of their country’s early film. “Most Danes would recognize Asta Nielsen (left), who paradoxically was not really a Danish film star,” says Sørensen: she was born in Denmark, but two-thirds of her 70 films were made in Germany, “so her history is much more as a German film star.”

(Tracing the history of Danish-German film interaction is another Institute project. Sørensen is heading a three-year partnership of the Universities of Copenhagen and Cologne that is tracing the two countries’ cross-border traffic of ideas and people during the silent-film era. “At that time,” says Sørensen, “there was a lot of cross-pollination.” During the 1930s many Danish directors, actors, set designers and other film personnel worked in Germany, and the traffic into Denmark from Germany was also hectic; for example, many German screenwriters worked for Nordisk film.)

Carl Theodor Dreyer directing “Vredens dag” (Day of Wrath, 1943).

Carl Theodor Dreyer (right) is well known, too, but less for his silent-film work, and more for his later talkies such as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), filmed in France, and Day of Wrath (1943).

“Apart from that, no, most are not well known among average Danes,” Sørensen says.

One exception is the comedy duo Fy & Bi — Fyrtårnet og Bivognen (Lighthouse and Sidecar). A bit like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Carl Schenstrøm (1881–1942) and Harald Madsen (1890–1949) shot scores of films and became quite famous especially in Germany during the silent era, and in modern times in Denmark through television broadcasts of comedy shorts. “I can recall seeing them on TV in the 1970s,” Sørensen says.

Future generations may soon get to share that pleasure, thanks to the Institute’s restorations and planned online postings, as well as through planned theatrical screenings of those and many other silent films from Denmark’s first golden age of cinema.

That will mark the culmination of years of work on the largest film-dissemination effort ever in Denmark. The many films and supplementary materials will be made freely available to curious viewers and institutions of learning around the world, where Danish silents are already part of the curriculum for students of film history. Also posted will be documentary materials such as film programs, stills, and posters.



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