Last night at Dawn Eden’s excellent birthday party, I was chatting with the birthday girl and a mutual friend about a DVD which Dawn had let me borrow. The DVD featured a series of very early short films of Vaudeville stars. To be frank, I did not care for the material. It was interesting from an archival or film historian’s perspective, but for me, that was about it.
I passed on the DVD to our mutual friend as Dawn had suggested. She kindly asked what I had thought of it; I wrinkled my nose slightly, smiled, and said, “Well…I didn’t particularly like it, sorry.” Dawn asked why, and our mutual friend interjected, “Because it’s not Danish?” Of course, this just goes to yet another proof of how amazing life is, in that some people know us better than we think they do.
Truth be told, I have not seen a huge amount of Danish cinema, but certainly more than the average Yankee. I have already commented in this blog about my growing interest in Scandinavian culture, cinema and literature. What I am beginning to discern, the more films I see, is that there is something very distinct about Danish films that sets them apart from the other Scandinavian films I have seen thus far. There is something particularly delicate and attuned to human frailty in Danish cinema, and unlike much of the other Scandinavian work I have seen to date, there is still a pronounced note of Christianity in Danish cinema produced over the last twenty years.
One Danish actor in particular whom I have found exceptionally talented, with a wide range, is Ulrich Thomsen. He has done some English-language films, but to date remains much better known in Denmark than America. So, for the edification of those who wish to disparage my limited understanding of Danish cinema, or for those who need to beef up their Netflix queue, here are three films in which he has starred, all very different from one another, which I have seen and enjoyed recently:
“Adams Apples” is a black comedy from director Anders Thomas Jensen, released in 2005, and dependent in many ways upon the book of Job as seen through the lens of contemporary Danish society. It is not for those lacking a well-grounded sense of both self and humour, as the comedy is rather black indeed. Among other things, a cat gets shot out of a tree; an Arab immigrant collects a cache of weapons in the trunk of his car to start a jihad; people get the stuffing beat out of them; and the local Lutheran minister only seems to believe in God because the minister has a brain tumour. Thus, not for those without the patience to see the story through.
Adam Pederson (Thomsen) is a neo-Nazi skinhead, paroled from prison on work duty to the care of the aforementioned minister in rural Denmark. There he joins other parolees, including the Arab immigrant, and an alcoholic felon who happens to be an over-the-hill former tennis star convicted of sexual abuse. The minister has an inexplicably sunny attitude toward life, and it becomes Adam’s task, as an atheist and man of violence, to stamp out the minister’s faith. In the end, however, it is Adam who comes to change profoundly, and in so doing change the lives of all of those around him for the better.
Per Fly’s absolutely superb 2003 story of one man atavistic experience of drowning, “The Inheritance” is an absolute masterpiece of this new century, and I am convinced will gain in stature as it is studied and becomes better known. It is not, like any of these others films, a pleasant family drama with a happy ending. It is quite horrible, actually, in many ways, and one scene in particular is horrifically disturbing and unexpected. However the layers of meaning; the wonderfully rich look of the film; the incredibly sensitive acting; influences from Shakespeare and Balzac to Matisse and Picasso, all make it well worth investigating.
One of the things which makes the film so compelling is the deeply engaging Thomsen as Christoffer, an up-and-coming young chef in Stockholm, whose life is turned upside down when his father, an industrial magnate, commits suicide, leaving the family steel business hanging by a thread. Christoffer reluctantly comes home and reestablishes his place in the family hierarchy in order to save the company, but the company begins to change him and to take over his life in ways he cannot control. The film is a powerful parable of how easily modern man can still be devoured in the fires of industry and commerce, even in this supposedly enlightened, humanistic age, losing his humanity for the sake of nothing.
Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film “Celebration” is a rather bleak ensemble work, perhaps better suited to the theatre, and dealing with those fun topics of incest, suicide, and substance abuse. It is not very pleasant to watch, and it is uneven or just simply not believable in many places – “Arven” is a far superior film dealing with family resentment and long-festering wounds. Yet there are parts of the film which go piercingly to the type of buried resentments that can plague many families.
In this piece, a well-to-do business clan gathers for the celebration of the patriarch’s birthday, scheduled not long after the suicide of one of the man’s daughters. At the celebratory dinner, the dead girl’s twin brother (Thomsen) accuses his father of sexually abusing him and his dead sister as children. A whole host of family secrets and dirty laundry comes out over the course of the evening, as Thomsen – in a great mix of improvisational acting and psychological understanding of suffering – brings down the facade of the happy family with a crash, to the horror of the dinner guests. This particular “Celebration” reminds one more of the “Masque of the Red Death” than anything else, and while probably not worthy of the Jury Prize at Cannes, certainly worth seeing.