Royal danish ministry of foreign affairs - Go to the frontpage of   Publication  



The polar bear on the globe has been the logo of Nordisk Film since its foundation in 1906, Photo from 1030. Photo: Nordisk Film.

At the beginning of the new millennium, Danish cinema is experiencing a boom period of international recognition and national progress. This success found its origins in the 1970s through intensified public effort with the 1972 Film Act and the establishment of the Danish Film Institute.

Gabriel Axel and his film based on Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast put Danish cinema on the map with an Oscar in 1987, and the following year Bille August repeated the feat with Pelle the Conqueror (1987), based on Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel.

However, Danish and Nordic cinema really became famous when August’s film of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiography, The Best Intentions (1991), won the Golden Palms in Cannes in 1992. During the 1990s, the Dogme movement and figures such as Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen continued the internationalisation of Danish cinema.

Realism: August, Malmros and Arnfred

Bille August is internationally the best known of the generation of directors who emerged in the 1980s. Social and psychological realism characterises this generation, which in many films has explored the world of children and young people.

Thus, in Zappa (1983) and Twist and Shout (1984), Bille August portrayed the world of the youth of the 1960s and 1970s. Since his breakthrough, most of his career has been outside Denmark, and The House of Spirits (1993), Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1997) and Les Miserables (1998), all based on literary bestsellers, have reached large audiences both internationally and in Denmark.

The main psychological realist of the 1970s generation, Nils Malmros, made his breakthrough with Lars Ole 5c (1973) and has since created his own universe and style. Films such as The Tree of Knowledge (1981) and Århus by Night (1989) portray the world of childhood and puberty.

He broke new ground with the tragic The Pain of Love in 1992 and his film based on the Faroese classic Barbara in 1997. The sensitive socialrealist portrayal of a young working man’s development, Johnny Larsen (1979), and the equally distinctive film about the troubles of a modern farmer, In Denmark’s Green and Pleasant Land (1983), were directed by Morten Arnfred.

Realism: Kragh-Jacobsen, Refn, Rostrup, etc.

With Rubber Tarzan (1981), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen produced one of the finest and most popular Danish children’s films ever. Realism and fantasy are also combined in The Shadow of Emma (1988) about an unusual relationship between a Swedish working man and an upperclass girl in 1930s Denmark. With his Englishlanguage The Island on Bird Street (1997), Kragh-Jakobsen approached a largerscale epic and international standard.

Other important Danish directors include Anders Refn, who has produced both powerful realistic genre films and major literary adaptations, such as The Flying Devils (1985), and Kaspar Rostrup, who produced one of the greatest Danish successes of the 1980s, Dancing with Regitze (1989). Erik Clausen’s comedies, such as The Liberated (1993), combined comedy, realism and political messages, while Helle Ryslinge produced modern, genderaware comedies such as Flambéed Hearts (1986).

The New Departure in the 1980s

Lars von Trier’s socalled European trilogy, The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), marks a decisive new departure in recent Danish cinema. It represents a highly original development of the standard Danish film language. With his trilogy, Trier left a distinctive stamp on the European art cinema tradition in a way unequalled since Carl Th. Dreyer in the early 20th century. The trilogy did not reach a large audience, but Trier’s later films did when he tackled the major classical genres such as erotic and religious melodrama in Breaking the Waves (1996) and ironic mixing of genres in the television series The Kingdom Parts I and II (1994 and 1997). With the musical Dancer in the Dark (2000), Lars von Trier finally won the Golden Palms in Cannes. In 2001 Trier started his USA trilogy with Dogville, recorded on a stage with chalk marks indicating setting and props. The movie, starring Nicole Kidman, attracted attention at the Cannes Film Festival, however without winning any prizes.

Dogme and the 1990s New Wave

Lars von Trier is a key source of inspiration for the new generation of directors of the 1990s, who tackled new genres without losing their anchoring in Danish reality. He played the leading role in the Dogme 95 manifesto, which rebelled against the bigbudget films and the dominance of technology and demanded a return to basics and simplicity in the art of cinema.

A new wave began with Ole Bornedal’s thriller Nightwatch (1994) – a film which heralded a wave of genre films about desperate male protagonists in Danish urban environments, such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996) and Bleeder (1999) and Thomas Vinterberg’s The Greatest Heroes (1996). Following this development, a number of movies were released, characterized by black humour, witty, colloquial dialogue, and a humorous depiction of violence, and they found favour with a large audience. Among these were Lasse Spang-Olsen's They Eat Dogs In China (1999), and Anders Thomas Jensen's Flashing Lights (2000) and The Green Butchers (2003).

With her genderrole comedy The One and Only (1999), Susanne Bier produced an original Danish romantic comedy, which became the greatest domestic film success of the 1990s. Lotte Svendsen’s grotesque and socially critical comic style was seen for instance in her feature film debut Gone with the Fish (1999). Jonas Elmer’s debut film Let’s Get Lost (1997) also represented a renewal of the comedy genre.

The variety and breadth of contemporary Danish cinema were confirmed by the Dogme films of 1998-1999. Thomas Vinterberg’s shocking and visually powerful family drama The Celebration (1998) won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes, where Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) also attracted attention. In 1999, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Dogme film Mifune (1999), a romantic comedy, won the Silver Bear in Berlin, as did Lone Scherfig’s Dogme film Italian for Beginners, another romantic comedy, the following year.

New Danish Dogme films were produced in 2001 and 2002, Åke Sandgren’s magicrealist fable Truly Human, Ole Christian Madsen’s powerful drama A Love Story, and Susanne Bier's tragic drama of destiny Love You Forever (2002), which together with Annette K. Olesen’s Minor Mishaps (2002) and Jesper W. Nielsen’s Okay (2002) confirmed the tendency towards films of intense, everyday realism.

Per Fly has commenced his planned trilogy about the three classes in society with the acclaimed The Bench (2000) about the lower classes, and The Inheritance (2003) about the upper classes. More Danish and foreign Dogme films are being made, proving that lowbudget films from small countries can sometimes compete with the big American budgets.

At the same time, the new generation is also in the process of producing bigbudget Englishlanguage films. Among these are Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological thriller Fear X (2003), Thomas Vinterberg's ambitious futuristic fable It's All About Love (2003) and Lone Scherfig's dramatic comedy Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002).

Much of the careers of the directors Bille August (left) and Gabriel Axel have taken place abroad, in the cace of Axel mainly in France, while August has worked in for instance Sweden and the USA. Photo from Cannes 1999. Scanpix Nordfoto/Jørgen Jessen.

Animation and the Danish Children’s Film

TraditionDenmark is also known for its films for children. Early classics include the cartoon The Tinder Box (1946) by Svend Methling and Astrid Henning Jensen’s short film Palle Alone in the World (1949). In 1971, Jannik Hastrup and Flemming Quist Møller produced the imaginative, topical cartoon Benny’s Bath Tub.

The younger generation has renewed the genre, for instance Aage Rais in Anton (1996), Jesper W. Nielsen in Adults Only (1998) and Lone Scherfig in When Mummy Returns (1998), all of which mix intimate mate realism and fantasy. More genretypical films for children include Peter Flinth’s fairytale The Eye of the Eagle (1997). Since the 1980s, animation film has experienced a renaissance and internationalisation, for instance with Jannik Hastrup and Flemming Quist Møller’s The Monkeys and the Secret Weapon (1995) and Flemming Quist Møller and Stefan Fjeldmark’s The Jungle Beast (1993).

Witch film like The Word (1955) the director Carl Th. Dreyer is regarded as one of the alltime greatest marsters of Danish cinema. Photo: Det Danske Filminstitut/Billed- og Plakatarkivet.

Silent Film

In 1906, Ole Olsen founded Denmark’s first filmproducing company, Nordisk Film. The company, which still exists to this day, was soon followed by others. The first big Nordisk Film success was The Lion Hunt (1907). The company Kosmorama introduced the erotic melodrama with Urban Gad’s The Abyss (1910), which launched the great Danish silent film star Asta Nielsen and formed the basis of the golden age of Danish silent film.

Benjamin Christensen started his career with successes such as The Mysterious X or Sealed Orders (1914) and Blind Justice (1916) before producing the silent film masterpiece The Witch in 1922. Carl Th. Dreyer made his breakthrough as an international auteur with films such as The President (1919), Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921) and The Master of the House (1925), which led to his Frenchproduced masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

Another solid success was created by Lau Lauritzen Senior and Palladium with the series of farces starring the comedy couple Fyrtaarnet og Bivognen (Long and Short), Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen.

Denmarks most discussed film project in recent years is the Dogme concept. The photo from 1999 shows the directors of the first four Dogme films. from the left Thomas Winterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Lars von Trier and Kristian Levring.
Photo: Scanpix Nordfoto/Rolf Konow.

Sound Films and the Popular Breakthrough of the 1930s

In 1929, Nordisk Film Kompani was reestablished as a sound film company. The first entirely Danish sound film was The Vicar of Vejlby (1931), directed by George Schneevoigt. The film reinforced Nordisk Film’s dominance of the Danish market. Otherwise, the 1930s were dominated by light comedies, which made cinema the Danes’ favourite entertainment medium. Schneevoigt produced several of the big Danish comedy successes of the 1930s. Nordisk Film’s other big name in the 1930s, Emanuel Gregers, is mainly remembered for his modern comedy of mistaken identity, Mille, Marie and Me (1937).

Danish Cinema during the Occupation

The German occupation of Denmark 1940-1945 provided favourable conditions for Danish cinema, which achieved a special national status and became extremely popular. While 77 Danish feature films were produced in 1930-1939, the figure for 1940-1949 was 134, including 92 during the Occupation. It became possible to make more serious art films alongside the popular genres. Film versions of literary works continued with for instance Svend Methling’s Summer Joys (1940), while Bodil Ipsen with Black Tie (1942) and Melody of Murder (1944) produced a romantic comedy and a psychological thriller of international standard. With the episodic Eight Chords (1944), Johan Jacobsen produced one of the most stylish films of the period.

However, the greatest Danish film from the Occupation is Carl Th. Dreyer’s masterpiece The Day of Wrath (1943), his first feature film for 11 years. Set in the 17th century, it concerns the oppression of sensuality and love in a disaffecting society. After the Occupation, Dreyer was to make only two more Danish films, The Word (1955) about the power of faith and love in a West Jutland parish, and the psychological love drama Gertrud (1964).

The Post-War Film Culture - the Popular and the Artistic

In 1945, Johan Jacobsen produced The Invisible Army and Bodil Ipsen and Lau Lauritzen Junior The Red Meadows, which with realism and melodramatic pathos sought to portray the Resistance Movement and the Occupation. Johan Jacobsen’s A Stranger Knocks (1959) entered the debate about the Occupation and its aftermath in a much more critical way.

The realistic line from the 1940s continued with Bjarne Henning-Jensen’s convincing film of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Ditte, Child of Man (1946), Johan Jacobsen’s The Soldier and Jenny (1947), Ole Palsbo’s Take What you Want (1947) and Lau Lauritzen Junior’s and Bodil Ipsen’s portrayal of an alcoholic in Café Paradis (1950). In the 1950s youth became a subject of public debate. Many films, such as Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt’s Dregs (1957), portray the problems of young people in a socialrealist and pessimistic style.

The film company ASA’s first film of a Morten Korch novel, The Red Horses (1950), remains the most frequently seen film in Denmark ever, having sold 2.4m tickets. Up to 1976, a total of 18 films were produced in the Morten Korch series, combining a special Danish popular comedy tradition with a reassuring portrayal of a rural environment at a time of frenzied change and modernisation. The films remain among the most popular in Danish cinema, and new versions have been made for both the large and small screen.

The Modern Breakthrough of Art Cinema

Around 1960, the socalled New Wave flourished in European film, at a time when cinema became increasingly threatened by television. A new generation of Danish film directors emerged with a modern, realistic film language, while others experimented with the genre film. Together with the author Leif Panduro, Bent Christensen created fine social comedies about the welfare state such as Harry and the Valet (1961). Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt and the author Klaus Rifbjerg created two powerful expressions of the Danish New Wave with Weekend (1962) and There Was Once a War (1966). Henning Carlsen had an international breakthrough with his film version of Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (1966). Carlsen subsequently directed major films such as Oviri (1986) about Gauguin and the Hamsun film Pan (1995). The couple Lene and Svend Grønlykke produced a unique film masterpiece with The Ballad of Carl-Henning (1969).

Popular cinema

Apart from this relatively small stream of quality films, Danish cinema largely continued with the welltried popular formulae. The legalisation of picture pornography in 1969 introduced the soft porn genre which provided increased export potential. Mention should also be made of the unique Danish farce tradition, for instance in Sven Methling’s zestful welfare satire We’re All Daft (1959) with Dirch Passer and Kjeld Petersen in two of their best roles. From 1952 to 1978, Dirch Passer was virtually synonymous with Danish farce in a huge number of films of varying quality.

In 1954, Erik Balling was given a leading director’s role with Nordisk Film, where he contributed to setting a new high standard for Danish popular cinema. His greatest continuous effort was the series of The Olsen Gang films, totalling 13 from 1968 to 1981. The fixed formula of the Danish petty criminals, who are constantly cheated by big business and foreign criminal syndicates but finally win over superior forces through their own inventiveness, seems to appeal to something central in Danish mentality. The series is one of Danish cinema’s biggest national successes and achieved great popularity abroad. Balling was also responsible for the most successful Danish television series ever, Matador (24 episodes, 1978-1982), which similarly reached a large foreign audience.

International Film Awards

Title Director Prize
Babette’s Feast Gabrial Axel Oscar (1987)
Pelle the Conqueror Bille August Oscar (1988)
Pelle the Conqueror Bille August Golden Palms (1988)
Europa Lars von Trier Jury Prize in Cannes (1991)
The Good Will Bille August Golden Palms (1992)
Breaking the Waves Lars von Trier Grand Prize of the Jury in Cannes (1996)
The Celebration Thomas Winterberg Jury Prize in Cannes (1998)
Mifune Søren Kragh-Jacobsen Silver Bear (1999)
Dancer in the Dark Lars von Trier Golden Palms (2000)
Italian for Beginners Lone Scherfig Silver Bear (2000)

The Documentary Tradition

Particularly since the 1930s, Danish cinema has developed a documentary tradition which is also recognised internationally and has won many prizes. An early example of the genre was Denmark (1935) produced by Poul Henningsen, also known as PH. The Occupation resulted in a particular need for educational and cultural films, often with concealed national messages, and directors such as Theodor Christensen, Karl Roos, Ole Palsbo, Bjarne Henning-Jensen, Hagen Hasselbalch and Carl Th. Dreyer contributed to the classic golden age of documentaries in the 1940s and into the 1950s.

Jørgen Roos is possibly the finest and internationally bestknown classic documentary producer with more than 100 films covering many subjects and styles, including a series of important films from Greenland. Around 1960, a new documentary style emerged influenced by the international cinema vérité movement, but also more experimental and poetic. The central names here were Henning Carlsen and Jørgen Leth who made a name for themselves in the 1960s, while younger directors such as Jon Bang Carlsen and Anne Wivel have continued the strong traditions of Danish documentary film.

The Danish Film Culture and its Institutions

Danish film policy dates back to the 1930s, but the cultural political line was not really established until the 1960s. In the 1930s, the main state initiative was the creation in 1938 of the Government Film Office with responsibility for the distribution, and in 1972-1997 also the production, of short films and documentaries. In 1941, the Danish Film Museum was established under private initiative. The Danish Film School was established in 1966 and the Film Act of 1972 founded the Danish Film Institute with responsibility for public subsidy of feature films.

As a result of the new Film Act of 1997, the Danish Film Institute was reconstituted as a unified organisation comprising the Government Film Office, the Danish Film Institute and the Danish Film Museum. The institution thus brings together all public subsidy sources for Danish cinema, including the Film Workshop and the Video Workshop in Haderslev, which are open to both amateurs and professionals.

The institution also houses the Media Council for Children and Young People, Danish Short Features, MEDIA Desk Denmark and the EU-subsidised screenwriter programme North by Northwest. An important independent institution is the European Film College, which accepts both Danish and foreign students on folk high school film courses.

Ib Bondebjerg
Professor, ph.d.

Further Information

Denmark’s Officil Web Site

Det Danske Filminstitut
(The Danish Film Institute)
Gothersgade 55
DK-1123 Kopenhagen K
(+45) 3374 3400

Den Danske Filmskole
(The National Film School of Denmark)
Theodor Christensens Plads 1
DK-1437 Kopenhagen K
(+45) 3268 6400

Den Europæiske Filmskole
(The European Film College)
Carl Th. Dreyers Vej 1
DK-8400 Ebeltoft
(+45) 8634 0055

This page forms part of the publication 'Cinema' as chapter 1 of 1
Version 1. 02-06-2008
Publication may be found at the address


  © |
| Top | Print