Strategies in Danish Film Culture – and the Case of Susanne Bier

11 marts 2015 / Gunhild Agger
Peer reviewed

Dialogues between national and transnational film cultures take place incessantly. The question is: which kinds of dialogue? The principal lines in the history of encounters and exchanges between Danish and international cinematic cultures since the mid-1980s display different attitudes and experiments. On that background five main strategies in Danish film culture can be discerned. Taking the films of Susanne Bier as an example, the aim of this article is to contribute to the understanding of the complex patterns which have developed in Danish film culture as a result of the processes of international/Scandinavian cooperation and transnational transformation. 

Susanne Bier
Susanne Bier - a Danish director with an international career. Photo: Les Kaner.

Domestic talent and international ambition

It is a commonplace observation that domestic talent and ambition in cinema tend to move beyond national borders. However, as for Danish cinema or TV series, this movement is not sufficiently commonplace to go unnoticed. On the contrary, every single step is registered and analysed in the Danish press. This is evident from recurrent headlines such as “Lone Scherfig’s Danish eye on British class society” (“Lone Scherfig’s danske blik på det britiske klassesamfund”, Politiken December 4, 2014), “Danish Director to try his strength against American cult series” (“Dansk instruktør skal prøve kræfter med amerikansk kultserie”, referring to Janus Metz and True Detective, Berlingske Tidende, December 23, 2014), and “Morgenthaler using the sex icon of the 1980s as a battering ram” (“Morgenthaler med 80’ernes sexikon som rambuk”, Politiken January 6, 2015, referring to Morgenthaler’s film I Am Here, 2014 with Kim Basinger). These headlines reflect the interest typically shown by small nations in their international impact. But they also display the general tendency that Danish cinema is, to an increasing degree, entangled with international cinema, implying the concept of transnational cinema.

The crucial question is whether certain strategies are discernible in the dialogue that has taken place during the past few decades between national and transnational film cultures. If this is so, we might then ask how these strategies can be described and mapped. The aim of this article is to contribute to the understanding of the complex patterns which have developed in Danish film culture as a result of the processes of international/Scandinavian cooperation and transnational transformation.

I shall begin by discussing the conceptual frame for the dialogue taking place between national and transnational film cultures. It is evident that the concept ‘transnational’ can be understood in several ways. I shall delineate and make use of reflections and typologies suggested by Nestingen & Elkington 2005, Hjort and Petrie 2007, Hjort 2010, Higbee and Lim 2010, Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011, Kuhn and Westwell 2012. The typological discussion calls for a historical perspective against which to assess and qualify the implied assumptions regarding prevalent lines of development. I shall therefore describe some principal lines in the history of encounters and exchanges between Danish and international cinematic cultures since the mid-1980s. This survey enables a distinction between five main strategies in Danish film culture, and I shall exemplify these in terms of prominent directors. One director in particular stands out in her experiments with strategies:  Susanne Bier. I have therefore chosen the case of Susanne Bier to further illustrate advantages and drawbacks of the proposed strategies.

Transnational Cinema

Significantly, in 2005 Nestingen & Elkington called their book about the state of Nordic cinema Transnational Cinema in a Global North. The concept of transnational film seemed necessary to define the development: “Financing for Nordic cinema productions is often multinational; the cultural-political bodies that provide funding for cinema cannot be fitted neatly within the borders of a single nation-state; and the networks of production, distribution and exhibition through which all films pass are transnational” (Elkington 2005: 2). This understanding of the concept stresses the tendency to deal with relationships and processes in which more nations take part, and in which the specific national elements may be difficult to discern.

During the past few decades, film scholars have investigated the implications of the term ‘transnational’ in relation to ‘national,’ ‘international’ and ‘global’. Although from its invention cinema was international, the idea of a national cinema has been indispensable in connection with language, legislation, film policy, film history, production procedures, film culture, and administration of genre traditions. In The Cinema of Small Nations Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie lean on Katzenstein’s definitions of globalisation and internationalisation. Consequently, they point out that globalisation “serves to erode the cohesion of nations, whereas internationalisation reaffirms the nation-state as the primary actor in the world system” (Hjort and Petrie 2007: 14). These definitions support the concept of national cinema as a prerequisite of internationalisation, understood as any type of exchange across national borders, a concept that is still viable, not least to small cinematic nations with their own languages.

As proposed by Jean K. Chalaby, the transnational may be understood as a new phase indicating a development beyond internationalisation and globalisation: “The transnational media order belongs to this emerging context, challenging boundaries, questioning the principle of territoriality and opening up ‘from within’ the national media” (Chalaby 2005: 32).

In the light of increasing cross-cultural cooperation on all levels, it is obvious that the understanding of national cinema has been challenged and is gradually changing. It is illuminating that Andrew Higson in 1989 spoke in favour of the concept of national cinema, but in 2000 critically highlighted the relevant questions this might raise: “I want to suggest that the concept of the ‘transnational’ may be a subtler means of describing cultural and economic formations that are rarely contained by national boundaries”  (Higson 2000: 64). In her conceptual survey “Deconstructing and Reconstructing ‘National cinema’”, Deborah Shaw (2013) points to Higson’s article as one of the key essays introducing the concept of the transnational into film studies. Since then it has been the ambition of film scholars to remodel the concept of transnationalisation from just another buzz word (basically signifying the same as globalisation) to a more precise and useful term.

Significantly, in 2010 a new film journal with the title Transnational Cinemas was launched. In their platform article in the very first issue of Transnational Cinemas, Higbee and Lim (2010) ask for critical forms of transnationalism in film studies and make their own contribution by mapping out dominant understandings as well as by focusing on sore spots. According to Higbee and Lim, three approaches prevail. The first “focuses on a national/transnational binary” (Higbee and Lim 2010: 9), understanding the concept of national cinema as limiting and inadequate, especially vis-à-vis “questions of production, distribution and exhibition” (ibid.). The second approach sees the concept as a regional phenomenon, e.g. in Nordic or Chinese cinema, whereas the third approach uses the concept to highlight the postcolonial and diasporic developments challenging traditional constructions of nationality. Each approach has its own implications; on this background the proposed tripartition seems useful.

Higbee and Lim critically point out that the concept of the transnational implies the risk that the national level is underestimated, and especially that the uneven balance between national and international film makers in terms of power inequality is neglected: “Can transnational film studies be truly transnational if it only speaks in English and engages with English-language scholarship?” (Higbee and Lim 2010: 18).

In her article “On the plurality of cinematic transnationalism”, Mette Hjort (2010a) is even more critical in her conceptual analysis. She understands cinematic transnationalism as an open phenomenon “with the potential to develop in many different directions” (Hjort 2010a: 30). To be more precise, Hjort recommends using transnationalism “as a scalar concept allowing for the notion of strong or weak forms of transnationality” (Hjort 2010: 13), related to specific levels: production, distribution, reception, the cinematic work. Further, she suggests using “a distinction between marked and unmarked transnationality” (Hjort 2010 a: 13). Marked transnationality foregrounds transnational elements which are used intentionally. On the whole, precision is the keyword of this article. To demonstrate the need for a more adequate understanding of the term, Hjort proposes a typology based on “the conceptual implications of actual cases” of nine cinematic forms of transnationalism highlighting tendencies that are not mutually exclusive. This typology further underlines that transnationalism exists in complex versions.

In their Dictionary of Film Studies, Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell elaborate on Higbee and Lim’s basic tripartition. Historically, they trace the origin of the term to the mid to late 1990s, understanding it as a consequence of the “internationalization of production capital and audiences across a limited set of national cinemas, namely those of the Chinese nations” (Kuhn and Westwell 2012: 432). From this point of departure, the concept quickly grew into “a critical term denoting a distinctive perspective on a range of World cinemas” (ibid.). In the overall definition of ‘transnational cinema’, the concept of ‘reference’ is the key notion: “Films and cinemas that transcend national boundaries and/or fashion their narrative and aesthetic strategies with reference to more than one national and cultural tradition or community” (ibid.). Thus, Kuhn and Westwell stress the intentionality of transnationalism.

In conclusion, no single viable definition of transnationalism is found in film studies. But there is a growing consciousness that the concept is needed to denote a phenomenon of contemporary importance. On the one hand, ‘transnationalism’ connects national cinema to diverse ways of transcending national boundaries at different levels. On the other hand, it is essential to apply the term with a critical eye on its limitations. Hjort’s idea of using it as a scalar concept and relating it to specific levels seems to be one way of aiming at a larger degree of precision.

Ib Bondebjerg and Eva Novrup Redvall’s report A Small Region in a Global World (2011), which maps prevalent patterns of Scandinavian film and TV culture, represents the second approach outlined by Higbee and Lim. Further, it is meticulous in its indication of the levels which given information refers to. It is based on empirical data and interviews with key people from the production industry, highlighting the current dialogues between national, Scandinavian and other transnational trends.

One of the interesting conclusions of the report concerns the significance of national markets, which only illustrates the complexity. Apparently, consumption and screen distribution represent a special pattern that opposes the overall transnational development: when compared to the Scandinavian as well as the EU market “the national market is the most important” in cinema. (Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011: 8). According to this report, the co-production system in Scandinavian TV drama functions well and usually there is a Scandinavian audience for Scandinavian TV drama (though this is dominated by Swedish and Danish productions). But the same cannot be said of Scandinavian films. Not all Swedish and Norwegian films are even released in Denmark and vice versa.

Considering Scandinavian-American possibilities for equal exchange – one of the critical features stressed by Higbee and Lim – these are virtually non-existent. American distribution is the obstacle – and always was. On the whole, as pointed out by Tom O’Regan in his reflections on cultural exchange, “The partners to cultural exchange in the cinema come to that exchange on an undeniably and permanently unequal basis with disparities of language, wealth, size, infrastructures, and culture (O’Regan 2004: 270). A compelling example of this unequal basis was documented by Jens Ulff-Møller, who concludes in his book about the American-French film wars: “The central element in the audiovisual policy of the European Union remains television quotas, a policy that has failed since Hollywood today holds an 80 to 90 percent market share in Europe, whereas foreign films hold ¼ to ½ percent in the U.S.” (Ulff-Møller 2001: 157). The distribution of Scandinavian films into the US is mostly limited to festivals and art cinema: “No Swedish film was distributed in the US in the period 2002-2006, and for Denmark and Norway there are also only few examples of American distribution. […] The total European sale in this period [2002-2008] is measured to 3.1 million compared to the 11.9 million tickets sold nationally (or 26 % compared to the national sale) (Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011: 60). Often remakes are the only way to the American audience.

Another interesting conclusion in Bondebjerg and Redvall’s report is that, due to the development in distribution platforms, “Cinema is no longer the key element in a film’s life” (Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011: 12). The streaming services which have rapidly developed in recent years, affecting films as well as TV drama, have only confirmed this observation. This may lead to an even more transnationalised cinematic output. However, due to a lack of data, this aspect will not be included in the following, where only traditional distribution systems will be considered.

Danish cinema and cultural exchange – a brief historical survey

The discussion delineated above raises some salient questions about the how and when of domestic transnationalism. Against this background I would like to introduce a historical perspective and to draw some principal lines in the history of encounters and exchanges between Danish and international cinematic cultures since the mid-1980s, including the levels of production, cinematic work and reception. In this context, we need confront the question of language, which in a Danish context represents an obstacle  vis-à-vis transnational trends. This is typical of small nations. Medium-sized nations habitually solve language problems by dubbing, and larger nations by hegemony. Only recently have subtitled productions appealed to e.g. British audiences, and only on TV, cf. Vicky Frost’s article “The Killing puts torchlight on subtitled drama” (The Guardian November 18, 2011). I shall provide some examples from recent Danish film history to illustrate the implications of language.

The Element of Crime
Michael Elphick, MeMe Lai and Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime. Photo: John Johansen.

For the past few decades, Danish cinema has succeeded in producing several films of interest to the domestic as well as to an international audience. A spectacular opening towards an international audience was launched by Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime (1984). The production company was Danish (Per Holst), the language of the film was English, the cast was mixed and the production crew primarily Danish. At the film festival in Cannes, this film received the Award for Technical Innovation, and its outstanding imagery and innovative experimental spirit attracted international attention. Consequently, The Element of Crime represents a remarkable event in the recent history of Danish cinema, foreboding the aesthetic experiments by Lars von Trier and his enormous influence on Danish and international cinema. With a few exceptions, Lars von Trier has produced his films in English, with a major Danish production company (Zentropa) in association with minor domestic and international producers, international co-financing and predominantly international casts.

Babettes gæstebud (Babette's Feast, 1987), directed by Gabriel Axel, was the second film to gain international recognition for Danish cinema. The same year, it was followed by Bille August’s Pelle Erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror, 1987). In 1988, Pelle the Conqueror won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. Both films received the American Academy award, in 1988 and 1989 respectively, for ‘Best foreign movie’, besides other awards. In some respects, both of these films are intentionally transnational productions. They were in Danish, but with marked participation of other languages (Swedish in both cases, in Babette's Feast combined with French, cf. Agger 2005). These films are essential for the understanding of a certain strategy in the history of Danish cinema. They are prototypical Nordic co-productions and adaptations of literary works by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) and Martin Andersen Nexø, respectively; both authors are well known in Denmark as well as abroad. They convey periods in Danish history in a classical form and are the closest we get to Danish heritage films. 

Babette's Feast
Stephane Audran playing the title role in Babette's Feast. Photo: Peter Gabriel.

Paradoxically, in the wake of these films, the strategy of embracing Hollywood manifested itself in Denmark. In The Classical Hollywood film, David Bordwell’s first sentence is “We all have a notion of the typical Hollywood film” (Bordwell 1988: 1). In the next 479 pages, Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson proceed to explore what this notion entails, finding the key features in the transparent film style and classical narrative. These notions are further developed by Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It (2006), analysing how the modern Hollywood film was able to invent amazing forms of innovation while adhering to classical principles of narration.

Hollywoodization, however, represents a special attitude to these principles of storytelling and style, revealing a distance to its original principles. According to the Oxford dictionaries, the concept ‘Hollywoodize’ means to “Adapt (a story or series of events) so as to conform to the supposed norms of a typical Hollywood film, especially in respect of being unrealistically glamorous, exciting, or simplistic”. Hollywoodization implies an exaggerated focus on such features as star quality, production value and classical narration. Ib Bondebjerg mentions ‘Hollywoodization’ as one way of coping for a film director from a small country with big ambitions: "Danish directors shoot Hollywood-style mainstream films, adding a European, Nordic tone to them" (Bondebjerg 2005: 131). The latter is not the least important as the following examples will show.

Goodbye Bafana
Dennis Haysbert and Joseph Fiennes in Goodbye Bafana. Photo: Blid Alsbirk.

The international success of Pelle the Conqueror paved the way for Bille August. He made a series of adaptations on a transnational basis as regards production and cinematic work, among them The House of Spirits (1993), Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), Les Misérables (1998) and Goodbye, Bafana (2007). It is worth noting that especially the first of these films was exceptionally popular with the Danish audience – in spite of diminishing critical acclaim: The House of Spirits had 940,700 admissions in Danmark.  With 411,654 admissions in Denmark, Smilla's Sense of Snow represented a major success in the wake of Peter Høeg’s bestselling novel. The setting mixed Denmark (Copenhagen) and Greenland, and the cast was also mixed including Irish and US stars as well as local ones. The Nordic co-production En sång för Martin (A Song for Martin, 2001) had 166,183 admissions – almost the same as the German-American-English coproduction Les Misérables (1998) with 152,917 admissions. But Goodbye, Bafana (2007), an adaptation of James Gregory’s story about his relationship to Nelson Mandela, only had 44,234 admissions in Danish cinemas [1].

Notwithstanding huge budgets and great ambitions, the line of decline for Bill August with the Danish audience (and amongst Danish critics) was steady until the release of Marie Krøyer (2012) and especially Stille hjerte (Silent Heart, 2014). These films focus on universal themes such as difficult love relationships and dignified death, but they do so with a distinct Danish/Nordic approach in language, setting and cultural references (cf. my analysis of Marie Krøyer in Agger 2013). Marie Krøyer had 280,580 admissions in 2012, and Silent Heart 241,696 admissions in 2014 (registered January 6, 2015) [1]. Cinema admissions were in decline during a part of this period, but this is not enough to explain the reduction in attention and acclaim vis-à-vis Bille August’s transnational films. Danish critics and audience alike only approved of Bille August’s transnational adaptations up to a certain limit, yearning for him to add not only a European or a Nordic, but a distinct Danish tone to his films.

Stille hjerte
Danica Curcic, Ghita Nørby and Paprika Steen in Silent Heart. Photo: Rolf Konow.

Simultaneously, Nils Malmros, another Danish auteur, chose the opposite strategy. Whereas from the start, Lars von Trier underlined his international orientation by his choice of language and his European and later American themes, Nils Malmros chose to focus on conveying and reinterpreting his own experiences as a child, a young man and an adult in the Danish town of Aarhus. In a triple movement of localising, individualising and universalising, Malmros’ films are extremely sensitive to the historical period in which most of them take place – the 1950s to 1970s. Niels Arden Oplev is another Danish director who, in his films Drømmen (We Shall Overcome, 2006) and Kapgang (Speed Walking, 2014), has focussed on interpreting his own childhood experiences. In opposition to Malmros, however, Oplev has also pursued other strategies.

During the period 1995-2005, the Dogme 95 concept became an inspiration for a new artistic development, creating interesting stories in films that might be provocative in several respects – aesthetically with their formal experiments violating the normal rules; thematically in their search for reality and truth; and regarding genres in their ambition to avoid them or at least to transform them (cf. Hjort and Mackenzie 2003). Lars von Trier’s Idioterne (The Idiots, 1998) may be the most consistent example of the rules of the Dogme movement in practice – though not the most appealing of the Dogme films (cf. Christensen 2004). Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration, 1998) and Lone Scherfig’s Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners, 2000) were far more refined – and popular (cf. the analyses by Lauridsen 2004 and Hjort 2010 b). Both represent a new approach to film production, playing with traditional genres such as the family tragedy and the romantic comedy.

Festen
Henning Moritzen as the father in Vinterberg's The Celebration. Photo: Lars Høgsted.

It is worth noticing that the most recognized of these films were primarily in Danish, with Danish casts and directors, made by Danish production companies – somehow the essence of national film making (cf. the analysis of the impact of the Dogme movement in Danish and international cinema by Schepelern 2013). In terms of international attention, acclaim and prizes, the movement soon established itself as a major source of inspiration internationally. The Dogme directors from other countries were not quite so successful as their Danish counterparts. On a general level, however, the movement enjoyed the privilege of challenging the Hollywood way of making films, asking for more reasonable production budgets and a more experimental spirit.

But the Dogme 95 concept rejecting Hollywood was not the only invention in Danish cinema during the 1990s. New Danish genre films learned from the superior way in which Hollywood directors handled the genres, and this contributed to a positive development of genre movies in Danish cinema. This revision of attitude started with Ole Bornedal’s Nattevagten (1994), which was remade in the USA as Nightwatch (1997, with Ole Bornedal as the director). Films such as Lasse Spang Olsen’s I Kina spiser de hunde (In China they Eat Dogs, 1999), or Anders Thomas Jensen’s Blinkende lygter (Flickering Lights, 2000) represent the American genre trend, in line with Anders Thomas Jensen’s Adams æbler (Adam’s Apples, 2005) and similar black comedies. They were inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996), among others. Even Ole Christian Madsen’s historical occupation film Flammen og Citronen (Flame and Citron, 2008), learnt from the same strategy, adding a touch of modern American gangster movie to its style. With admissions between 350,000 and 650,000, these films were embraced by the Danish audience, which appreciated the irony of the ‘American’ genres and tone transferred to a Danish context.

Kvinden i buret
Sonja Richter in the Danish blockbuster The Keeper of Lost Causes. Photo: Christian Geisnæs.

Recently, Danish cinema has witnessed a steady production of genre films assuming the status of local blockbusters, such as the 2014 thriller and blockbuster Fasandræberne (The Absent One, Mikkel Nørgaard, 2014), 758.237 admissions, preceded by Kvinden i buret (The Keeper of Lost Causes, Mikkel Nørgaard, 2013), 721.013 admissions; the satirical comedy represented by Klovn: The Movie (Klown: The Movie, Mikkel Nørgaard, 2010), 850,000 admissions, feeding on autobiographical details in a fictitious manner. Other examples of genre successes are represented by the revival of the family film genre from the 1950s – Far til fire (Father of Four, Claus Bjerre, 2005, followed by several others) and Krummerne (The Crumbs, Barbara Topsøe-Rothenborg, 2014) [2].

Language as domestic advantage and transnational obstacle

As documented by Ulff-Møller, the dialogue between the USA and its European counterparts is not a dialogue on equal terms. The dialogue between small, medium-sized and big countries, their ways of seeing and their different productions, can only take place on an unequal basis: Flows and transfers to e.g. the Nordic countries from e.g. the UK and the USA are more compact than the reverse movements. This is indeed the case for most countries except India and China, and is increasingly obvious, the smaller the size of the nation.

Three solutions to the question of language have been dominant in Danish cinema during the past years: 1) a Danish cast and Danish language, 2) a predominantly international cast and English language, often including one or two Scandinavian actors in the cast, and 3) a Nordic cast and a mix of the Nordic languages, either naturally, corresponding to the plot, or against the actors' natural languages. In Nordic heritage productions with a Nordic cast, e.g. Jan Troell’s Hamsun (1996), Nils Malmros’s Barbara (1997), and Morten Henriksen’s Magnetisørens femte vinter (The Magnetist's Fifth Winter, 1999), critics addressed the problem of casting an actor against his or her natural language. Mette Hjort distinguishes between two types of co-production: 1) "natural co-production": a type of co-production driven by the basic principles of cultural ownership and authenticity (Hjort 2005: 196). Due to the film's story-world, Pelle the Conqueror is an example; and Hjort’s second category of co-production is 2) "self-defeating co-production": "a form of cinematic co-production in which paradoxical use is made of the basic principles of cultural ownership and authenticity" (Hjort 2005: 199). Kjell Grede’s Hip, Hip, Hurra! (Hip, Hip, Hurrah! 1987) is seen as an example: a biopic with contradictory invitations to the envisaged national audiences. Hjort’s convincing analysis shows that there is reason to conclude that language is an essential part of any film's authenticity and appeal, which, incidentally, is one of the basic reasons for remaking films. Elkington and Nestingen agrees that among the elements that remain national, language is the most significant (Elkington and Nestingen 2005: 7).

Hip Hip Hurrah
Still from Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Photo: Finn Ståle Felberg.

Can we escape the language dilemma? No, but the above-mentioned examples show that it can be accommodated in different ways. It is obvious that the English language makes it easier for the British film industry to make use of a variety of strategies, as outlined by Andrew Higson (1997). In Denmark, the producers who wish to succeed internationally have to make some difficult choices about language as well as cast. Dubbing is not a tradition used in Danish film culture except in films for small children. This makes the question of language more acute, seen from a domestic point of view.

In many European countries, the increase in the number of films produced in English is a clear tendency. Laëtitia Kulyk has made a survey of the development in nine European countries since 1990. Whereas the use of English during the beginning of the 1990s was mainly limited to Spain, the Netherlands and Greece, it expanded, especially since 2003, to encompass many more countries, among them the Nordic countries. After the mid-1990s, “their number increased: up to seven in Sweden in 2006, up to four in Danmark in 2008. Even more remarkable is the fact that most countries had at least one title per year – indeed, from 2008 to 2010 the five Nordic countries produced at least one film in English.” (Kulyk 2015: 176).

Another tendency is displayed by the market share of Danish films in Danish cinemas. This has improved remarkably during the period of internationalisation, globalisation and transnationalisation. It increased from 17% in 1996 to 28% in 2001 (Bondebjerg 2005: 127). During the years 1999-2009, the Danish average market share was 26% (Nielsen 2010), the remaining being primarily American films. According to the statistics provided by the Danish Film Institute [3], the Danish market share in 2011 was 27%; the same result is expected for 2014. At the moment, the situation seems stable. Basically, this is the result of the increase in the number of Danish films and their appeal to the audience.

Pusher
Mads Mikkelsen and Kim Bodnia in Pusher. Photo: Dick Lyngsie.

The reverse side of this coin is that Danish films in English usually attract a relatively smaller domestic audience – depending on genre, director and critical acclaim. Let us look at other examples of admissions to test this assumption. The year 2003 saw at least one film in English that confirmed the common trend – Nicolas Refn Winding’s Fear X (2003) with 6,018 admissions. Nicolas Refn Winding’s film Pusher (1996), representing a major inspiration for the new Danish genre films, was in Danish, with 185,000 admissions. Its sequels helped to pay the director’s personal debts caused by Fear X. With 90,756 admissions in Denmark, the director’s next film in English, Drive (2011), was more successful than Fear X. This figure is close to Thomas Vinterberg’s It's All about Love (86,000 admissions) [3].

It is interesting that in this respect, Lars von Trier’s films constitute no exception. Dancer in the Dark (2000) did well with 195,593 admissions, but Melancholia (2011) only had 56,687 admissions. On the other hand, the transnational Melancholia did better than the Danish Direktøren for det hele (The Boss of It All, 2006). This film was a comedy in Danish with a Danish cast, setting etc., but it only had 4,467 admissions. The Boss of It All was more successful in other European countries, such as Italy (185,845 admissions). Addressing this issue, Bondebjerg and Redvall trace a certain tendency, “where some directors achieve an international art cinema success that isn’t matched on the national market” (Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011: 60). This is supported by other evidence: According to Trust Nordisk (Nordisk Film and TV Fond) Dancer in the Dark had 1.1 million admissions in France.

The strategy of making films in English with a predominantly English cast targeting international audiences was cogently pursued by e.g. Lone Scherfig. It started with Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), a Scottish production, which had 170,236 admissions in Denmark. This enterprise was followed up by An Education (2009), an adaptation of an autobiographical novel by Lynn Barber (2009, same title). An Education is a film in a typical English setting. The London suburb, the school and the environment are underlined as being English – in contrast to France and Paris, which in this film represent all the desires of the young girl who is about to become a woman. The cast is English, and so is the production crew. In The Guardian Lynn Barber expressed her satisfaction with the film and the actors compared to her remembrance. The traces of the national origin of the director have vanished completely.

An Education
Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan in An Education. Photo: Kerry Brown.

An Education represents the strategy of full adaptation to British film culture, and the approval from Lynn Barber shows that the performance lived up to her expectations. Nevertheless, with 200,243 admissions the film also appealed to the Danish audience. The question is whether this is just another exception – or does it point towards other and more open-minded patterns of reception? A similar case is provided by Scherfig’s The Riot Club which premiered in December 2014; this is perhaps even more British than its predecessor. The theme is the English class society seen through the mirror of ‘The Riot Club’ at Oxford University, a fictitious imitation of the existing ‘Bullingdon Club’ which has fostered several prominent civil servants to British society, among them the current Prime Minister David Cameron. The attitude is critical in a harshly satirical vein, according to the critical reception in Denmark due to the director’s alien eye (Lone Scherfigs danske blik på det britiske klassesamfund”/“Lone Scherfig’s Danish eye on British class society”, Politiken December 4, 2014).

To sum up, the above admissions figures illustrate the main tendency in the domestic audience: The bulk of the Danish audience appreciate American films, which occupy the main part of feature films in Danish cinemas. Their second preference is films by Danish directors (approx. 27%). Most of these films are in Danish, dominated by Danish settings and Danish actors – but some of the ‘Danish’ films in English have received high admission rates, which means that they have found an audience sufficiently interested in ignoring – or perhaps even enjoying – the solution selected to overcome language/cast/culture divides. European and other Nordic films only play a minor role for a Danish audience – but exceptions are found. This roughly corresponds to the average picture in the European film market, where the American share of tickets sold in 2008 was 63.9%, and the total European share was 27.8% (Bondebjerg and Redvall 2011: 13).

On the background of this brief historical survey and the discussion of the options implied in choice of language, five viable strategies are discernible in Danish film culture vis-à-vis national traditions and transnational challenges. Film makers can

  1. aim at producing art films in Danish, cherishing Danish as well as international film traditions and/or continuing their oeuvre as auteurs. The Danish Dogme movement did that. Throughout his career, Nils Malmros has been one of the most outspoken representatives of the Danish auteur strategy.
  2. aim at producing Danish genre films in Danish, primarily relying on the domestic audience for support, but not excluding international audiences. Susanne Bier’s Den eneste ene (The One and Only, 1999), 843,472 admissions is a prominent example. The past few years have witnessed a steady production of genre films, substantially contributing to the large market share of Danish film.
  3. aim at producing cross-cultural and in this sense transnational main stream films primarily in Danish, intentionally combining film traditions, cultural traditions and to a certain degree languages. Some of the best known examples of this strategy are Bille August’s Pelle the Conquerer, Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast and Susanne Bier’s Den skaldede frisør (Love Is All You Need, 2012).
  4. aim at producing original English language art films of an international standard, primarily targeting an international art film audience, without excluding a domestic audience. Since 1984, Lars von Trier has been the most consequent protagonist of this strategy, until recently always placing the debut of his films at the Cannes Festival.
  5. aim at producing English/American language mainstream and genre films of an international standard. Lone Scherfig and Susanne Bier are the prevalent representatives of this strategy. In 2014, Kristian Levring contributed with The Salvation – a western.

In this article, I have chosen the case of Susanne Bier to further illustrate advantages as well as draw-backs of these prevalent strategies. Bier has made films for primarily domestic as well as for international audiences. Producing at home and abroad, she has made ‘Hollywood’ films as well as ‘Danish’ and transnational films, genre films as well as art films.

Susanne Bier’s choices

In 2005, Lars von Trier launched a provocative attack on the development of Danish cinema in an interview in the film journal EKKO. The relationship between professionalism and personal involvement was in play. He complained that excellent manuscript writers such as Kim Fupz Aakeson and Anders Thomas Jensen had become too detached: “In many of the new Danish films some minor stories have just been expanded to stress a similarity to American films. Danish film has become more sentimental, furnished with more cheap tricks.” (Schepelern 2005: 26, my translation). In other words, ‘Hollywoodization’ was in play. Besides the manuscript writers, the obvious addressee of the attack was Susanne Bier. Questionable as it was, in some ways Trier’s statement seems prophetic.

Even Susanne Bier’s first feature film, Freud flytter hjemmefra (Freud leaving Home, 1991), is intentionally transnational in the sense that it is a Swedish-Danish co-production mixing Swedish and Danish languages, thematising relations in a Jewish family. In a domestic context, Bier made her break-through with the immensely popular romantic comedy The One and Only. However, also this comedy had a transnational potential – it was remade in an English version (director: Simon Cellan Jones, 2002).

Den eneste ene
Sidse Babett Knudsen and Niels Olsen in The One and Only. Photo: Ole Kragh-Jacobsen.

With her Dogme film Elsker dig for evigt (Open Hearts, 2002), for which Anders Thomas Jensen had written the script, Bier tried out her potential as an auteur. Again she proved her obvious talent. Open Hearts was critically acclaimed, and with 506,493 admissions, it was remarkably successful with the Danish audience. 

Bier’s main strategy, however, represents a deliberate cross-cultural approach, which will be considered in relation to Brødre (Brothers, 2004), Hævnen (In a Better World, 2010) and Love is All You Need. Brothers marked the beginning of international attention for Susanne Bier. Denmark has a certain tradition of occupation films, but in 2004, films exhibiting and discussing ethical war issues represented an exception. The Bier version of the war film was embraced by the domestic audience – it had 424,542 admissions. Brothers paved the way for international attention for Susanne Bier and was remade by Jim Sheridan in the USA in 2009 under the same title – Brothers. This version received critical acclaim in the form of two Golden Globe nominations: Tobey Maguire (Sam) was nominated for ‘best performance’ and U2’s song ‘Winter’ for ‘best original song’. Jim Sheridan received the Irish Film and Television Award as best director (2010). Both films were recognised by critics and were nominated to and received several awards.

Brødre
The main characters in Brothers, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Ulrich Thomsen. Photo: Erik Aavatsmark.

In spite of all the similarities in story-line and understanding of conflicts, there are interesting differences between the films which can best be understood from the perspective of the two national cultures and their traditions, cf. Gemzøe’s analysis 2013, focussing on the phenomenon he labels ‘cultural adaptation’. The way in which the characters in Sheridan’s Brothers refer to national traditions as well as family traditions in warfare is unparalleled in a Danish context. Whereas for a start, Brothers presents the American military power, Bier’s Brothers is more interested in presenting existential questions. This shows the different cultural frames of the two films, and this must be one of the reasons why the Danish audience rejected the American remake. A newspaper stated that “American ‘Brothers’ is a worthy heir’ (Politiken 18.03.2010), but it had only 1,910 admissions in the Danish cinemas in 2010. We might conclude that remakes are not primarily made for the audience of the original.

As we have seen, directors from minor film producing countries often aim at accepting the international conditions and embracing the opportunities they provide, e.g. assimilating to foreign film cultures by going English or American. Bier’s next film, Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), produced by the English production company Neal Street Productions with a primarily American cast, represents this strategy. The film can be considered a continuation of Brothers, only without the war and coming-back themes: a happy family is transformed by the father’s unanticipated, sudden death. How does his wife, Audrey (Halle Berry) react, and what about their two children? Special attention is drawn to the role which the father’s old friend and now drug addict Jerry Sunborne (Benicio del Toto) plays for the reduced family and its self-understanding. Apart from the director being Danish, it is difficult to trace any clues of national origin in Things We Lost in the Fire. Consequently, the adaptation to a foreign culture was successful. In this case, the domestic audience appreciated it (219,321 admissions).

In 2007, Bier’s Efter Brylluppet (After the Wedding, 2006 - 388,010 admissions) was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2011, Susanne Bier received a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar for her film In a Better World (2010). This confirmed the ‘American’ turn that Lars von Trier had anticipated, at least as far as appeal is concerned. Although the category is called ‘best foreign film’, it is not usually foreignness, but closeness, or at least a certain resemblance to or reflection of American culture that determines the choice. Often there will be a touch of preference for Hollywood in theme, style or performance, partly because of the conservative composition of the voting members, and partly because of the entertaining, star and celebrity–oriented character of the entire show, cf. Haastrup 2008.

The Danish title of In a Better World is Hævnen, which literally means ‘the revenge’. Seen from a narrative point of view, this is a more precise and ‘American’ title than In a Better World. So many American films revolve around the question of common justice and individual revenge (cf. lists of “Revenge movies”, e.g.). Changing the title removes the focus. Where the term ‘revenge’ addresses the problem of retaliation in a very direct manner, the combination of words In a Better World come across as more vague, promising a film about ‘if we lived in a better world, but we don’t…’. Indicating that some worlds are better than others, the title also strikes the theme of different worlds.

Hævnen
Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt in In a Better World. Photo: Per Arnesen.

Thematically, In a Better World is a film with a clear-cut transnational scope. It succeeds in drawing a parallel between different worlds in Africa and Denmark, stressing both similarities and differences. Aesthetically, the parallel as well as the contrast are underlined by the beautiful takes of nature. We see the desert in Africa and the African sky. Similarly, the cultivated harvested Danish landscape by the sea is contemplated against the sky, reminding us of certain conditions provided by nature. These conditions can be formed, but they are also given.

The parallel is provided by the elements of earth and air; the contrast by the fertile countryside in Denmark opposing the yellow, dusty soil in Africa. Correspondingly, in both cases a parallel between types of human behaviour is seen: there is the bully, and there is the underdog – and the question is asked: how do we solve the conflict as action is met by reaction in a threatening spiral of violence? The same pattern is displayed in the African and the Danish contexts, between adults and between children, mirroring each other. Susanne Bier’s typical production style is one of enhancing the contrasts visually by dwelling on them, stressing the cross-cultural approach. The close-ups and ultra-close-ups contribute to making the film aesthetically convincing, adding this touch of originality that also is indispensable in films that aspire to Academy awards.

Susanne Bier’s breakthrough film, The One and Only, questioned the qualities in a routine worn-out marriage, playing with the stereotypes. Bier’s Love Is All You Need, further explores the romantic comedy genre, but this time as a basically transnational film by way of theme, mixing of languages in everyday conversation (English, Italian, Danish), mixing of cultures and settings, and featuring Pierce Brosnan vis-à-vis Trine Dyrholm. The intentional ‘Hollywoodization’ in the shape of a Disney approach is underlined by the golden fairy dust in the credits at the beginning of the film, foreboding a Cinderella story – with an ironic Danish touch.

As was the case for its predecessor, the Danish audience found the film immensely interesting and amusing. It premiered September 6, 2012 and obtained 644,000 admissions. In line with Lone Scherfig’s Italian for Beginners, it plays with national stereotypes such as the Latin lover who turns out to be gay, and the Scandinavian blonde who turns out to be bald under her wig, contrasting the glamorous businessman to the modest hairdresser who is affected by cancer. Thus, Bier’s ‘Hollywood’ comedy represents a transnational film asserting its origins.

The limits to ‘Hollywoodization’ were confronted, however, in the specific form of transnationalisation taking place in Serena (2014). The film is an adaptation of a bestselling period novel by Ron Rash (2008), produced in the USA. The cast is primarily American, allowing a role for Danish David Dencik, and for Bodil Jørgensen and Kim Bodnia in supporting roles. Danish crew members were cinematographer Morten Søborg, costume designer Signe Sejlund and film editor Pernille Bech Christensen, but the film is very far from a cross-cultural production. Although avoiding a happy ending, Serena can be considered Bier’s most genuinely non-ironic Hollywoodized production so far, making use of the star quality, production value and classical narration.

There is no doubt that the images of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper exhibit star quality, and that the film uses the stars rather than its artistic design to promote itself. Comments from critics unanimously point out that the casting did not meet the intentions. Critic Peter Howell accuses Susanne Bier of unfortunate “stunt-casting”: “You couldn’t normally accuse Susanne Bier of stunt-casting. Yet that’s exactly what the otherwise estimable Danish auteur seems to be doing with Serena, a Depression-era potboiler starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence that never manages to get past the feeling of a calculated Hollywood reunion” [4]. Howell’s assessment is echoed by Charlie Line, another critic: “When Susanne Bier set Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper to star in her Depression-era relationship drama Serena, it was the casting equivalent of striking gold: In the three years that followed their casting in January of 2012, both actors became household names, blockbuster screen presences, and Academy Award favorites.” (Vulture, October 13, 2014). Bier cannot, of course, be blamed for the continuing rise of the fame of her two protagonists since the film was shot in 2012. But it is regrettable that the images promise more than the film is able to deliver.

Seen from a narrative point of view, the unfolding of the plot plays by the book, only too apparently. The film starts with a hunting scene. George Pemberton, the timber baron, aims at shooting the only panther left in the Smoky Mountains, led by Galloway, an Appalachian woodsman closely connected to the powers of myth and nature. Pemberton misses. He then pursues Serena. He proposes after ten seconds (“I think we should be married”). They marry, but a miscarriage as well as financial problems, and not least George’s interest in his illegitimate son, seriously affect their relationship. Serena becomes increasingly attached to the powers of wild nature, encouraged by Galloway – as well as the success delivered by the eagle she has imported to help protect the woodsmen from rattlesnakes. The parallel between the initial panther and Serena is emphasised at the end of the film: again George Pemberton is seen hunting the panther, and this time he gets it. In return, it also gets him.

The narration method is classical, only it is almost too obvious as demonstrated by the beginning and the end. The same applies to the production values – the film takes place during the depression, and the costumes of the Pembertons are lavishly luxurious, just as the cars and trucks are just right. This is a virtue in a period film, so why is it not quite convincing? In Denmark as elsewhere, the film has only reached a very limited audience. Critics unanimously agree on the film’s failure, but no one so far has been very precise in the diagnosis. I would suggest that this film lacks credibility because it is one great exhibition of the stereotypes entailed by the special form of transnationalism called ‘Hollywoodization’.

Summing up Susanne Bier’s choices in relation to the proposed strategies, it is obvious that she has made use of them all, except the English language art film strategy. (1) With the Dogme film Open Hearts, she aimed at producing an art film in Danish. (2) The One and Only is a comedy representing an example of an extremely appealing genre film in Danish. (3) Brothers, In a Better World and Love is All You Need represent the production of cross-cultural and in this sense transnational main stream films in Danish (although other languages are represented). (5) Things We Lost in the Fire and Serena are examples of English/American language mainstream and genre films of an international standard.

This register in itself displays an extraordinary openness and willingness to experiment on the part of Bier and her various production companies. Not all her attempts have been equally successful. Notwithstanding Lars von Trier’s prophecy, it is impossible not to admire the experimental spirit – a spirit that seems common amongst the present generation of directors and actors.

Conclusion

In this article I have combined a conceptual approach to the transnational phenomenon with a historical survey of Danish cinema during the past few decades. The historical survey has provided me with some basic material revealing certain patterns in Danish cinema. On the basis of this, I have outlined five prevailing strategies in Danish cinematic culture during the past few decades. One strategy may be followed by one director, or several strategies may be explored in turn by the same director. Ample examples are found of both strategies, as demonstrated by the opposition between Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier. I have chosen the case of Susanne Bier to further demonstrate the implications of experimenting with several strategies.

The conceptual frame within which we discuss the relationship between national and transnational cinema is presently being refined. Higbee and Lim as well as Mette Hjort have convincingly disputed any simplistic notion of the concept ‘transnational’ and suggested various categories and typologies to ensure a better and more precise implementation of the concept. I have aimed at following this call for more precision in my use of the term. I have found it productive to introduce a historical approach to the questions of how, when and in what ways Danish film became increasingly involved in transnationalism. The historical survey might be further elaborated, and the arguments could be enhanced by further examples.

The prevalent strategies in Danish film culture vis-à-vis transnationalisation as well as the case of Susanne Bier clearly demonstrate a readiness among directors, producers and actors to embrace the options offered by transnational cinema and to experiment with various combination strategies that have benefitted national cinema. However, the career of Bille August and in the case of Susanne Bier especially Serena also raise the question if the limits of an apt transnationalisation can be found in the phenomenon of Hollywoodization. The admission numbers show, on one hand, that the domestic audience is willing to give the various strategies a try, but, on the other hand, that there are limits to the transnational orientation of the audience.

On the whole, the transnational development has represented a challenge to directors as well as to audiences. A new perspective is that American genres and national stereotypes have recently been used to throw an ambivalent light on Nordic production cultures: a recent trend is to focus on the domestic from the perspective of the alien eye. In Norway, the TV series Lilyhammer (Eilif Skodvin, Anne Bjørnstad, 2012-), in Sweden the TV series Welcome to Sweden (Greg Pohler, 2014), and in Denmark the film Copenhagen (Mark Raso, 2014) are representative of this.


Notes

[1] Source for all figures in this article is DFI: Facts and Figures, http://www.dfi.dk/tal-og-fakta.aspx. [Return]

[2] Source for all figures in this article is DFI: Facts and Figures, http://www.dfi.dk/tal-og-fakta.aspx. [Return]

[3] Source for all figures in this article is DFI: Facts and Figures, http://www.dfi.dk/tal-og-fakta.aspx. [Return]

[4] The Star.com Movies, December 4, 2014 [Return]

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Kildeangivelse:
Agger, Gunhild (2015): Strategies in Danish Film Culture – and the Case of Susanne Bier. Kosmorama #259 (www.kosmorama.dk).

Gunhild Agger / Professor
Institut for Kultur og Globale Studier
Aalborg Universitet