U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Danish Cinematic Trinity

The images above constitute the Danish cinematic trinity of the moment. At the top is Susanne Bier and her latest award winning film, In a Better World. Below her are the iconoclasts: the creators and actors of the hit television show and movie, Klovn, and the bad-boy of European cinema Lars von Trier. In a country with a total population less than Chicago, Denmark has produced an interesting spectrum of cinema.
I imagine that most people are familiar with von Trier, and if people have not actually seen his movies they are probably familiar with his name and his movement, Dogma 95. Von Trier was among a handful of filmmakers who pledged to operate in an atmosphere as devoid of Hollywood gimmicktry as possible. That basically meant, using natural lighting, eschewing soundtracks layered on scenes later (so no weepy music to cue emotions), and a healthy disdain for happy endings. Recently von Trier became a cause celeb for making ridiculous comments during the Cannes Film Festival. You can take a look here. Von Trier is an interesting filmmaker and as he made clear in his odd-digression at Cannes, the ideological opposite of Susanne Bier.
Where von Trier has set out to do just about any kind of filmmaking imaginable–with uneven results–Bier’s films consistently garner critical acclaim. To me, von Trier is an original and well-nigh impossible to categorize. Bier is a very fine filmmaker who has taken the genre of American liberal idea movies of the postwar period and updated it for the era of globalization. Von Trier has many ideas running through his career, without any organizing principle except that he refuses to be Susanne Bier. It’s a struggle that reflects Danish culture, to a certain extent. Neither Bier nor von Trier would claim to be actively engaged in the struggle but their collective work captures nicely the Danish ability to be, at once, utterly provincial and expansively (even heroically) international. Denmark is a nation that prides itself on being both a place that has a language spoken by very few people around the world, and place engaged in as many multi-national and international organizations as it can possible join. Von Trier is nothing but Danish, and yet an international star. Bier is decidedly international, but embraces that position because she is Danish.
Klovn is the bastard child of these impulses. The two main character/creators–Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen–developed a television program called Klovn that brazenly stole from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. For most of the first season of the Danish show, Frank and Casper spoke about they abject desire to sell out to Hollywood producers, if only they got the chance. They will now. Their show became wildly popular in Denmark for being “like” American shows but with humor that Danes like. And an American company has picked up an option to remake the show in the United States. But the show will change when it goes through the Hollywood rewrite machine. To get a sense of what will change, take a look at a snippet from one of the funniest episodes of the television show here. You don’t need Danish to get it.
It’s a funny consequence of the size of Denmark that, for the most part, these three expressions of Danish cinema pretty much capture the nation’s movie culture. A country could do far worse than produce such a range and, I would suggest, one could not do much better in the middle of the summer than watching some stuff from these Danes.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Von Trier was among a handful of filmmakers who pledged to operate in an atmosphere as devoid of Hollywood gimmicktry as possible.”

    So they came up with gimmickry of their own. Dogme 95’s rejection of “gimmicks” is to gimmickry what the rejection of marriage because it is bourgeois is to bourgeois attitudes. That is, the embodiment thereof.

  2. Varad: Could Dogma have done anything consciously different than Hollywood that would satisfy your criteria for genuine rebellion? The approaches differed wildly from filmmaker to filmmaker, and much of their work was not all that great, but my point was not that they were the opposite of all that is bourgeois but an attempt to be a different version of what people came to accept as standard film. That seems to be a way Danes do movies.

  3. Ray: I don’t think “genuine rebellion” is implicated here. I have no position on the films or the filmmaking; or the filmmakers. I’m only criticizing the claims that were made about the Dogma approach, mostly by its practitioners. Their mission statement is that they don’t use gimmicks. But that’s a gimmick itself. There’s a certain artificiality in how they go about things, just as there is in the Hollywood approach they reject. That’s all I’m saying. No more, no less.

    I’m not accusing them of not being rebellious, or being bourgeois, or whatever. I only cited the marriage/bourgeois thing as another example of an attitude which, while ostensibly a repudiation of what is being opposed, is instead a manifestation of the same.

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