“Lord of the Rings, kiss my ass,” Lars von Trier said in a recent interview. In light of the domestic success of Danish films, his arrogance may seem justified. In Europe, only French audiences consume more locally made films than their Danish counterparts. Ever the man to challenge the status quo, Trier's importance for Denmark's filmmakers cannot be underestimated. He co-owns Zentropa with Peter Aalbæk Jensen (the closest thing Copenhagen has to a Harvey Weinstein) and thus helps produce a steady stream of new films—about one third of all domestic features in 2002.
One of the best of this year's releases is Per Fly's The Inheritance, a tight and extremely well acted examination of capitalism and the spiritual price you pay when you devote your life to making money instead of friends. This second installment of a trilogy dissecting Denmark's class system (the first, The Bench , was a study of Copenhagen lowlife set in one of its blue-collar districts) focuses on a poor little rich kid who is called upon to save the family business. Lives are sacrificed in the process, both literally and in a psychological sense. For those who believe that Scandinavia is a socialist welfare paradise, The Inheritance might come as a shock. Danish society has its fair share of predators, this one convincingly embodied by a restrained Ulrich Thomsen, the prodigal son from Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration.
Although Trier remains Denmark's most famous/notorious living director, at home and abroad, a number of his colleagues have developed a following domestically, fueled by the liberating commandments of Dogme 95. That said, while the vow of chastity prohibits genre films, a large proportion of recent Danish cinema has been just that. Sometimes it seems as if every other successful Danish film is an intimate romantic drama or comedy about middle-class characters coping with love, family, and the advent of middle age. While the search for The Great American Novel continues in the U.S., Danes vainly await the arrival of a novel that truly encompasses the zeitgeist of contemporary life in Denmark. It hasn't appeared yet, but Danish filmmakers keep writing new chapters on celluloid.
Susanne Bier paved the way in 1999 with The One and Only, a sharp romantic comedy that broke local box-office records. Her latest offering, Open Hearts, has a more serious edge (and a Dogme certificate to prove it) but is nonetheless typical of this current trend: the story is set in motion by a car accident, just as it is in several other recent Danish films, including Åke Sandgren's Kaspar Hauser story Truly Human (01) and Annette K. Olesen's dramedy Minor Mishaps (02); and once again local heartthrob Mads Mikkelsen and Denmark's most prolific actress, Paprika Steen, play the leads, just as they have in several other recent films from the Kingdom of Dogme.
In fact there's been some criticism leveled at the increasingly safe casting in Danish films. After decades in the grip of stiff, theatrical performances, a new generation has finally shown that naturalistic acting isn't confined to foreign cinema. Unfortunately, there's now a tendency for directors to typecast the best young actors and target audiences with stories offering only slight variations from film to film. Some blame it on screenwriters, too, or rather their scarcity—a bit unfair, since Danish film's rebirth can be attributed in no small measure to the renewed energy channeled into writing.
The Mentor and His Flock
The Danish Film School, regarded as one of the best in the world, has played a pivotal role in the emergence of a new generation of writers. Screenwriting teacher Mogens Rukov, in particular, has become a mentor to a number of the most interesting young filmmakers. His influence has been more constructive on films where he has served as an advisor, consultant, and script doctor rather than those whose screenplays slavishly adhere to his storytelling philosophy. Thomas Vinterberg's follow-up film It's All About Love (03) received polite reviews in Denmark but didn't fare well at the box office and was generally considered a failure because of, rather than despite, Rukov's participation (he co-wrote it).
The Rukov touch—metaphysics and pathos in equal measures—also bogs down Christopher Boe's Reconstruction (03), which nonetheless earned the 29-year-old director the Camera d'Or for best debut at Cannes last month. “All is construction, all is film. And it hurts,” intones the voiceover, as the screen fills with smoke. Boe's parallel-universe love story doesn't exactly pull your heartstrings, but it does tap into whatever Nouvelle Vague sentiments the spectator may harbor. At once film-school pretentious and boldly experimental, Reconstruction is characterized by the same cool aesthetics seen in Lars von Trier's early work. The film was (coincidentally) produced by Nordisk Film under the “Director's Cut” banner, a gimmick program that's a complete rip-off of all things Dogme, not least its techniques, which help keep production costs down. Whatever one may think of Reconstruction, Boe is certainly a filmmaker to watch.
Not all successful Danish filmmakers follow the same well-trodden path: 30-year-old Anders Thomas Jensen, who has no formal education, is the current wunderkind of Danish cinema (Trier, now 47, hardly qualifies anymore). In true Tarantino style he served his apprenticeship working in a video store and has written or co-written a number of recent Danish films, including Open Hearts, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune (99), Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive (00), and the latest film from Lone Scherfig, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. Mostly for economic reasons, Wilbur was filmed in Scotland with English actors plus a cameo by Mads Mikkelsen. As a follow-up to Scherfig's Italian for Beginners (01), Wilbur is a more somber but ultimately no less life-affirming work, highlighting the director's skill and dexterity.
Among the many women working behind the camera in Danish film, both Bier and Scherfig have nurtured the more gentle and sensitive side of Jensen's sensibility. His own directorial efforts, however, are as loud and adolescent as they come. Flickering Lights (00) and The Green Butchers (03) have proven successful at the box office, and to a lesser extent among the cautious critical community but have had a hard time breaking into the international festival circuit. It's worth noting that Jensen was involved in three shorts before venturing into features—Ernst & the Light (96), Wolfgang (98), and Election Night (98)—all of which were nominated for Academy Awards, the third one taking the Oscar in the Live Action category.
Three years Jensen's senior, Nicolas Winding Refn also skipped film school—he had just been admitted when a producer managed to pull together the finance for his first feature, Pusher (96), and he opted to learn by doing, against the advice of almost everybody, including his father Anders, who is a director in his own right. His Scorsese-inspired but nonetheless original first film stalked the mean streets of Copenhagen, as did his more thoughtful and impressionistic follow-up Bleeder (99). His third film, Fear X (03), marked this formally gifted director's international debut. He co-wrote the subdued psychological thriller with the American writer Hubert Selby Jr., and cast John Turturro in the lead, but the film failed spectacularly—and undeservedly—at the Danish box office.
The Trier Effect
Lars von Trier claims that his only true competitor is himself and seemed strangely indifferent after leaving Cannes without any of the awards many expected to be bestowed on him. Prizes or not, Dogville confirms the courage of a director who prefers new challenges to complacency. The brains behind Dogme 95 also made the bravest and most dogmatic of the films bearing the certificate of the brethren, The Idiots. On the surface, Dogville seems to be a continuation of the melodramatics of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark (not least in the unapologetic victimization of the female heroine). However, it's also a return to the no-safety-net risk taking of the early Dogme days. By abstaining from the use of props and locations (and eschewing naturalism for that matter), Trier's film becomes an exercise in Brechtian verfremdung. That the film got made at all in itself seems a triumph.
Trier's continued self-constraint will become a theme unto itself when The Five Obstructions—which looks likely to premiere at Venice—sees the light of day. The film will be directed by the Grand Old Man of Danish documentary, Jørgen Leth, the subject of a 15-film retrospective at New York's Scandinavia House last year. The point of departure is Leth's 1968 short The Perfect Human Being, which he will remake according to a set of rules and restrictions laid down by Trier. Five different versions are to be made, and the film will reportedly conclude with a discussion between the two directors on the merits of this kind of playful deconstruction. “The film will evolve from one clearly bearing Jørgen Leth's fingerprints into one carrying those clearly identifiable as Lars von Trier's,” read the production notes. This last sentence is perfectly emblematic of many a contemporary Danish film.