Screening European Heritage

The Long Tradition of Danish Historical Dramas: An Interview with Lars-Martin Sørensen, Danish Film Institute

SørensenLars-Martin Sørensen is a film historian and Head of Research Unit at the Danish Film Institute where is currently writing a study of Danish cinema during the Second World War. Previously a post-doctoral research fellow at the Department of Film and Media Studies, University of Copenhagen, he is author of Censorship of Japanese Films during the U.S. Occupation of Japan (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), has published numerous articles on Japanese film and is editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed film journal Kosmorama. In this interview with “Screening European Heritage”, he discusses the many forms which Danish historical dramas have taken since the 1930s, often in response to the Nazi occupation.


Bangert: Considering Babettes gæstebud (Babette’s Feast, 1987), it would seem that heritage film from Denmark becomes popular at a similar time as heritage film from Britain.

Sørensen: If we define heritage cinema as a cinema that embraces historical figures and so on, then I would say that it dates back quite a long time. Even in the silent film era, films were made about historical figures in Denmark, and certainly during the 1930s and World War II a lot of films were focusing on historical figures, and then of course with Babette’s Feast it becomes more international from the 1980s onwards. It’s a long tradition.

Reading about your project, I was wondering if cultural agencies, the Ministry of Culture and so on, have promoted specific heritage films, and I couldn’t think of one example. But then it struck me that one way of promoting a film is by giving it tax exemption. And already in the 1930s, Danish film production and exhibition was extremely heavily taxed. But in specific cases filmmakers could apply for tax exemption, for instance, if they made films that somehow served to enlighten the broader audience on Danish culture and history. And the first case I can think of is a film called Kongens Fald (The Fall of the King) which was released in 1938 and deals with the democratisation of Danish rural life. In the Middle Ages, we had a system of absentee landlords and tenant farmers, and tenant farmers had to stay in their native villages by law. And when this law was lifted, and the peasants set free, that was a watershed event in Danish history. A film was made about it in 1938, and it was the first film ever to be given tax exemption. So here you actually talk about the first film that was deliberately promoted by the Danish state as a film that exposed a memorable part of Danish history and heritage.

It’s a historical drama with an educational agenda. And it also celebrates Danish democracy; something which is quite significant for a film opening in 1938 when most people in this country knew that the German were going to come. Danish democracy felt threatened at that moment. So this film about a move towards modern democracy was produced. It was produced by a government agency called Danish Kulturfilm and distributed by a newly established distribution agency called the State Film Central, a government agency put into the world to distribute films for broad enlightenment, to schools and places where people could gather to see films about the blessings of Danish democracy and culture. So it was a deliberate, official initiative to use films to educate the public. And cultural heritage was a very important constituent of this whole initiative.

Bangert: Heritage cinema, not least in the British case, often has to do with the landed gentry or the aristocracy. By comparison, I find it interesting that The Fall of the King is about democratic values. Does this indicate a very different use of history?

Sørensen: It certainly deals with the liberation of the peasants but it’s also about the benevolence of the king. So is it democratic, is it feudal? I don’t know, but I think it is a significant film in a significant moment of Danish history when it was felt that Danish democracy was being threatened both by interior and exterior forces. I’m writing a book on Danish World War II cinema these days, and one of the striking tendencies of National Socialist cinema is that there are so many biopics. You have films on Ohm Krüger (Uncle Kruger, 1941), Jud Süß (Jew Süss, 1940), Friedrich Schiller – Der Triumph eines Genies (Friedrich Schiller – The Triumph of a Genius, 1940), Münchhausen (1943) and you can see this tendency to produce biopics mirrored in Danish cinema from that period. And biopics celebrating the proud fathers of history or science are also in a broader definition heritage films.

Flammen & CitronenIn mainstream Danish film history, so far this been interpreted as a nationalist move; as opposed to German cultural imperialism. The nation was under tremendous pressure from the German occupation and so the Danes and the Danish filmmakers turned toward history and heritage, and celebrated Danish songs, Danish landscapes, Danish tradition and so on. My point is that if that was the case then opposition to German dominance was undertaken by exactly the same means as the Germans were promoting National Socialism with. And this is generally considered a move towards resisting German cultural dominance. And I’m not sure I agree, because they were doing exactly the same thing as the German filmmakers were. They were celebrating the nation’s proud history – and to one nationalist, the other’s nationalism may not always be a problem.

Bangert: Talking about the Second World War as a history, as a legacy, maybe even as a heritage in Danish film: there is of course the history of the resistance, and there is a series of films about that. But then there is also a more recent film like Flammen & Citronen (Flame & Citron, 2008) where the resistance almost appears to be non-heroic. Is Flame & Citron the exception or are there more films like that? And does it imply a change in how the Danish think about this history?

Sørensen: I think you can take Flame & Citron as the one feature fiction film where historical research into the occupation era has finally caught up with popular film. That film corresponds nicely to the findings that historians have published over the last two decades in Denmark, namely, that the so-called heroes were troubled human beings in a troubled environment, with a lot more shades of grey than blacks and whites. And also the topic itself, the assassinations of Danes and Germans, collaborators and so on, done by the resistance movement, has been a taboo ever since the Second World War. Not much research was done on this particular topic until the 1980s and 1990s. Then first scholarly work started appearing on this aspect of Danish World War II history. So what you see in Flame & Citron is almost a one-off film that corresponds to what we know.

The taboo on these assassinations has a societal and an individual side. The societal one is that the assassins were never tried. A deal was made between the resistance movement and the first official government after the occupation. These people were killed, but we are not going to prosecute the ones that did it. On the individual level, most of the guys who did those killings did not want to talk about it. A lot of them suffered severe traumas, many of them became alcoholics, quite a few of them committed suicide and only a very few lived to tell the story when finally in the 1980s and 1990s historians started digging into this chapter of Danish World War II history. Flame & Citron would never have been made if it hadn’t been for scholarly historical research.

Bangert: If we look at the trajectory from Babette’s Feast to En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair, 2012), would you say that Danish heritage film is becoming more multinational or transnational? Is there a move towards a Scandinavian heritage aesthetics that is more marketable internationally?

Hvidsten gruppenSørensen: Certainly Danish film producers have become better at financing larger co-productions, better at getting money from funding agencies in different countries. They have also become better at outsourcing the shooting of films, so they get more value for money. And the films look more like Hollywood. We still don’t make films with thousands of extras in uniform sitting on horseback, but we manage to create a trustworthy, seamless atmosphere of the good old days. At the same time, computer manipulation of images is becoming quicker and quicker and cheaper and cheaper to perform. One of the largest box-office hits here last year was Hvidsten gruppen (This Life, 2012) about a resistance group during World War II. In one scene, there is this German Messerschmitt hunting them and machine-gunning them at night, and this would have been unthinkable if they had had to get hold of an actual Messerschmitt and fly it at night. They would not have been able to give the film the production value it had without CGI.

Bangert: In the British context, it is often argued that heritage films are more likely to be successful on the North American market. Since A Royal Affair made it to the Golden Globes, since it was nominated for an Academy Award, was it almost a Danish heritage film using the British model?

Sørensen: The film’s director Nikolaj Arcel deliberately works within different genres. So his ambition may have been to do a costume drama. The story itself, about this German doctor’s doings at the Danish royal court, a lot of people have tried to turn it into a film for nearly fifty years because it’s an interesting story and because it deals with the Enlightenment in Denmark. I don’t know if Arcel looked over the stone wall of British heritage cinema and thought: that’s the way to go, but it was probably influenced by it in an indirect way.

However, I would not say that this film makes use of a well-known Danish brand. Costume dramas don’t come out of Denmark onto the international market very often. Babette’s Feast did, Pelle erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror, 1987) did. They won the first Oscars for Danish cinema in the 1980s. So a way has been paved for new Danish international productions, costume dramas, heritage films, whatever you want to call them. But that is not what Danish cinema and Danish television are known for abroad. We are known for crime dramas at the moment, for the Dogma movement, for the films of Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier, but not really for heritage films. So it’s an odd one out I would say.

Bangert: In the British case, heritage film is also seen as a vehicle for promoting tourism. Is this something one could also say about the Danish case?

Sørensen: There is an element of it in the fact that over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen regional film funds mushrooming all over the place. We have several regional organisations that promote and actively try to attract film productions to the periphery of the country. Film Fyn, for instance, an agency that has taken its name after the small island in which it is working. And these regional film funding bodies have been funded by regional municipalities, and their ambition is to not just to attract the production crew because they spend a lot of money, but also to make sure that their part of the country is exposed in Danish film. And obviously this is something that they do in order to attract visitors and tourists. But they go about it in an indirect way, by trying to attract film crews and hoping that a side effect will be that you get a nice glimpse of the countryside or the city square.

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Suggested citation:

The Long Tradition of Danish Historical Dramas: An Interview with Lars-Martin Sørensen, Danish Film Institute, Screening European Heritage, 18 September 2013, <> (access date).

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