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1864: Denmark’s Largest National Trauma is more Traumatising on Film than in Real Life

WARNING: SPOILERS

FOR THIS REVIEW I WILL ONLY TAKE THE FIRST FOUR EPISODES IN CONSIDERATION.

“I have had a free hand on this project. In one way, I am a bit like Stanley Kubrick. He is also one of the few directors who have had a free hand. And such is a rarity in 2014, where the money for films and series do not grow on trees.”

– Ole Bornedal

In 2010 while Ole Bornedal was working in Paris, he was contacted by DR’s head of Drama “Ingolf Gabold” about making a film about 1864.  A film with inspiration from the two books by Tom Buk-Swienty “Slagtebænk Dybbøl”1 and “Dommedag Als”2. A fiction-drama that four years later would cause real-life drama in the Danish society, by being the most expensive and most maligned TV-series of all times. The TV-series premiered in Denmark the 12th October 2014, to mark the 150 years event of the biggest national trauma of Denmark – a trauma where the Danes lost their power and became the state we now today.

Which year are we in, Bornedal?

The first three episodes were more in the Danish social-realistic style, taking the young confused teenager “Claudia” in consideration in the present time-line. Claudia has a hard time finding herself as a person, as well as having a true passion for something after her brother died in the war in Afghanistan. After dropping out of several schools and temporarily jobs, the municipality informs

her that it’s time to stop helping her. But they give her a last job offer. A job as a house-help for the old landowner, Baron Severin. On his estate she finds “Inges” old diary, a diary that is the linking the present to the events of 1851 and ahead.

The first episode is mostly dealing with the presentation of the different characters, and their internal relations. In the re-telling of the old events, the most important and normal characters are Inge, Laust and Peter. They also carry the most important non-war part in the story, namely the triangle drama about who will win Inges heart. Laust and Peters father were seriously injured after the successful three-year war. The father dies in the end of the first episode, and that is the starting point for them to voluntary join the army and eventually fight the big 1864 battle later on.

In the first episode we are in the year 1851, 13 years before the war. Laust and Peter are growing up in a poor, but yet safe family, working on the local goods. In these years Denmark is still living high on the 3-year-war success and the Danish nationalism and faith are growing intensely. Both of the brothers are interested in the beautiful tomboy “Inge” , and a rare and beautiful friendship with her is established. In the mean-time, the political powers are discussing their future visions for the German part “Slesvig” – strictly against the peace-treaty.

In the second episode we follow Laust, Peter and Inge growing up. They are being influenced by the traveling gypsies on life outside of Denmark, and they all feel a connection to this world outside. The strong persuasive, and genetical crazy politician “Monrad” is creating a national euphoria in the Danish parliament, when he is talking about the integration of Slesvig. Even though this will create a war. Both Laust and Peter are in love with Inge, but Inge is in love with them both. But they have to say goodbye, when they are joining the Danish army, in the honour of their father’s name.

In the third episode “Monrad” is creating a new constitution which integrates Slesvig in the Danish kingdom. A constitution that creates drama and a war declaration from Preussen. In the army Laust and Peter meets their young soldier colleagues, and it finally occurs to them how consequential war can be. In the mean-time a special bond between Inge and Laust is happening, and they are sending letters to each other secretly.

In the fourth episode Peter and Laust are reaching Dannevirke, where they meet the new captain – a familiar face from the domestic goods, but not exactly a happy reunion. Laust and Inge continue their secret exchange of letters but a wrongly delivered mail creates serious breach in the relationship of the inseparable brothers. Dannevirke proves nearly as impregnable as it has prided

itself on, and General De Meza decides against Copenhagen’s willingness to make a withdrawal from Dannevirke to Dybbol.

“You are a Dead man walking Bornedal” till “The Danes are blushing”

When you are creating the most expensive TV series in Denmark of all time, it is not only up to the most pretentious film-critics to review it, but also to the whole population as well. Especially when you are taking national-trauma and historical events into consideration. If it were only about the historical credibility and the quality of the drama, but apparently 1864 created much more debate, apart from the TV-show, than any other show has ever done before. And why? Because of the media license fee3. A fee all Danes regardless of having a television or not, have been forced to pay since public television was born. And the Danes do not like to pay their license fee. The discussion has not only been about the plot of the series, but 1864 has also been a symbol for something evil – an evil thing as the license fee. In Denmark we don’t joke about the license fee, we put it of for a debate whenever we get the chance. Is there a better chance when we are watching a television drama, that has been the most expensive of all times? I already feel pity for Bornedal. The Danish movie-magazine “Ekko” officially announced Bornedal with the title “Dead man walking”, even though they gave him five out of 6 stars. This, was the best review among all newspapers for the first episode. They are comparing the historical events in 1864 with rape. A rape of the Danish greatness and glory, and the psychological rape of the soldiers’ and the inhabitants’ mind-set – about being an undefeated state. I feel the review is a rape of my mind. The overall review seems a bit mixed in it’s tone, and it’s hard to figure out whether they actually do like the series, or they only can see a future potential in it. Especially, when they take the political and historical events credibility, much more into consideration than the actual drama.

The Danish newspaper “Ekstra bladet” gave the second episode two stars. They proclaimed that the Danes and the critics are too much focused on the credibility of the historical and political events – and that they stopped thinking about the story-line and plot. A plot they think that disappoints and a plot they say that the Danes are not worth of. Because the Danish people are not stupid – and we don’t need to get the same point twice right after each other. For the 3rd episode “Berlingske tidende” compared Bornedal with a balloon artist. A balloon artist that is only blowing up balloons for himself, so he can destroy them again afterwards. They are proclaiming like “Ekstra bladet” that he is repeating himself too much, and the series occurs like a silent film. They say that you can easily take the volume off, so easy is the plot. But the most important point that all of the critics came with for the 3rd episode was – where hell is the war? It’s a general opinion for the 3rd episode, that everybody is bored – and that we need to stop the melodrama and start the war.

In the 4th episode the slow melodrama stopped, and the cold and harsh war began. This episode got mixed reviews as well, but an interesting review about his episode is from the newspaper “BT”. They say that Denmark is blushing, and Bornedal is moving. They gave him five stars in their review, and announce that the wars seriousness and depth that have been missing so far, is not only being completed in the 4th episode, but is a beautiful extension of the drama so far.

Visually ground-breaking

Taking the visual expression into consideration – there is only one word, that can describe the overall style in the series and that is “Ground-breaking”. It’s not only ground-breaking because of the style itself – because we’ve been watching it from America for decades. It’s ground-breaking because we finally dare to do it in Denmark. As a person that has been watching a lot of Danish movies and series throughout the time, it’s a relief that somebody finally dares to break the social realistic style with too many closeups and reaction shots. Innovative compositions, a general total-frame tendency and use of steady-cam – it is a gift to the series overall look. The colour grading is wisely chosen for the series and the dark, cold and realistic colours for the events in the 1860’s are giving the series an older look, which is a big contrast to the 2010’s events where the visuals have much more light, colours and warmth within the picture.

The visual impression is art in itself, so therefore it’s a shame that sometimes the visual beauty overshadows the storyline. But on the other hand it’s important that the visual aspect works, because then we can be tempted to ignore the missing dramaturgy.
No war without drama: Understand the history

One thing I find shocking, is that nobody really understand the historical events 1864 are about.

The series have been more discussed than any other thing the last couple of weeks. Everybody has his own opinion about the drama, acting, the director and of course the value of the series. But it seems to me, that nobody in my generation knows what this war is about. They know that it was the biggest national-trauma in the Danish history, they know that thousands of soldiers died and that the war meant that Denmark lost its greatness forever. But what they don’t know is which war we were fighting. Many people have said to me it is the 1864-war. Well that’s not a war, 1864 is the year where the war events were happening.

The concrete war and battle that the series take in consideration is The Second Schleswig War. This particular war was the second military conflict, about Schleswig-Holstein matter. The war was fought between Prussia and Austria, and then in Denmark from 1st of February 1864 till the 20th July 1864. The key battle of the Second Schleswig War was The Battle of Dybbøl4. It occurred on the morning of the 18th April 1864 following a siege-starting on 7th April. Denmark suffered a severe defeat against Prussia which decided the outcome of the war. The Danish defeat of the war meant loosing several soldiers, loosing our patriotism and loosing Holstein, Lauenburg and Schleswig5 all the way up to the “Konge”creek.

To get a full impression of the Second Schleswig war, you have to look into the history books and not focus exclusively on the series. It’s important to distinguish between facts and fiction, because the series is not a documentary but fiction. It is indeed inspired by true events, but spiced up with extra drama to fictionalise it and sell it.

No Kubrick nor Bergman

Though you can be tempted to compare 1864 with the period drama “Barry Lyndon” – Ole Bornedal will still never be like Stanley Kubrick. He is known for his overuse of elaborating his themes and stories too much. As a script-writer he is not clear enough in his intentions, neither within the series nor with drama. We’ve come a long way since his epic horror-film “Nightwatch” but it’s not necessarily a good way. He thought himself that the Nightwatch was a brilliant movie, but he never expected the success it would get, nor that it would represent the horror genre. I don’t know if he got megalomania after that success and thinks that he can still live on that success, but one thing is for sure; the script is not a masterpiece without effort. He had a rough childhood, where he fantasised about two new fathers to compensate his own fathers absence. His personal preferences were Sean Connery and Ingmar Bergman. They represent themes that he found existentially in films. Themes like brutality and kindness, muscle and brain, sex and charm and seduction. Though it’s an interesting passion for the different themes, Bornedal will never be as charming as Connery or as intelligent as Bergman. But he is indeed talented, intelligent and charming in his own way.

Still hope for the future

Taking the audience-shares in consideration, there has been a clear decreasing tendency. In the beginning 1.7 million viewers were watching, but already for the fourth episode 600.000 were lost. It has probably something to do with the slow-melodrama beginning. The people want to see war, intense fights and big beautiful battles. Therefore it is a lot to expect from the viewers, that they should keep watching after the first 3 episodes – and still no war But what I think can happen in the future is, that when the whole media-storm settles and we have had some time to reflect about the series – it could become a heritage success. Like the epic drama “Matador”. In the beginning it received horrible reviews, and now the drama has been rebroadcasted several times with a huge audience-shares every time. Furthermore, this series is considered as being masterpiece within Danish heritage. So I’m not promising Bornedal a happily ever after, I’m just saying that on the other side of the media-storm there CAN be gold.

Bravest man walking?

Ole Bornedal is literally dead man walking. Not only because he’s been having the film-critics, historians and politicians eyes on him since the premiere – but also because he’s got the whole Danish population against him. But after that conclusion, he is also one of the bravest filmmakers and writers of our time. He dared to take the challenge up, a challenge about a historical event that we’re still dealing with today . So I would like to go against the storm, and announce that even though I don’t support his plot entirely – I would still dare to call him “The bravest man walking”.

Because when you look at Bornedal, you look at an artist, not a historian. An artist who got the job and a free hand to interpret true historical events. An artist who saw the historians as guides, but not as a complete result. So, if you want to learn people about the real facts around The Second Schleswig: borrow a book on the library! If you want to watch visual groundbreaking art while getting an idea of the events: watch 1864.

At the moment it feels like the series is more traumatising on television, than it actually was in real life. Not because of the historical events that I know will happen, but because of the fictionalised events I didn’t expect. Like the rape of both a cow, a gypsy and later on my psyché. I still have a hope for the series, and I see potential in it. I have only been taking 4 episodes into consideration. Four beautiful episodes, but all episodes without a clear tone about what we should focus on. I think that the visual aspects are stunning and some acting convincing. But the plot in itself is too overambitious, therefore I’m getting confused too often and find it hard to figure out what to focus on. I’m looking forward to watch the last four episodes. Hopefully it will give a more nuanced view on the series by taking all of the episodes and the overall experience in consideration.

What’s with all the characters?

From the beginning 1864 has been ambitious. Not only because of the budget, the director, the historical events but also by

choosing a huge cast of characters. It is intensely enough to understand the drama between Inge, Laust and Peter but it’s even harder to understand so many different characters and their want’s and needs, when you have so many different plots to follow. This reminds me of the epic series “The Wire” not because of its beautiful drama, but because it is a series that demands something from their audience. It challenges them to remember, do their homework and to give their own effort – in order to understand the story-line and the characters. And were it works for “The Wire”, because it’s aiming for a special, diverse and passionate audience it doesn’t work for Mr and Mrs Denmark because it’s hard to follow. There are too many plots going on at one time, which makes it’s hard for the audience to create a bond and follow the characters. They thought they were going to watch a series about war, not a huge character cast.

It is important to distinguish between the characters from the present timeline, and the past time-line. I will take the most important characters in consideration for the first 4 episodes.


Claudia, present time-line 2014 (Sarah Sofie Boussnina)

As a character she reminds me of a constantly-ticking time bomb. She occurs extremely provocative and in general annoying – with her passion for joints, social support benefits and heavy eye-makeup. You might say she is a typical example of a young Danish cash benefit recipient, whose primary purpose is to take as much from the state as possible. I feel quite embarrassed about this stereotype, and I think it’s too easy and a vague move from Bornedal to boost such a weak stereotype. But well, when that is said – I see a strong possibility for her to grow as a character throughout the series and by removing her eye make-up, piercing’s and her bad attitude in general you can regain a nice person. Though I see potential in her as an actor in general, she annoys me and in someway I do not feel convinced with her acting. Maybe it’s because I don’t believe in the character, that I feel the way I do. But I think it’s a shame that she got this stereotyped role, because she was growing as an actor outside the series.


Baron Severin, present time-line 2014 (Bent Mejding)

He is almost 100 years old, about to die and all by himself on a major goods. He is too strong-armed to leave his mansion but to weak to take care of himself. He get’s help from Claudia, and together they reconstruct the events of 1864 through Inge’s diary. I get goose-bumps from his acting.

He is amazingly cast and a gift to the series. Despite he is 77 years old in real life, he is playing the old man confident and with authenticity. He has come far since the womaniser-character in the heritage series “Matador”. From the mayor-role in “The Killing” till a blind cripple, that shits his own pants suddenly is acting at its best.

Giving Peter (Sætter-Lassen) the opportunity for his biggest role so far, was a wise move from Bornedal. His sensitivity, intelligence and personality are his strongest features and makes his inner character richer than his outer. Obviously in contrast to his older brother Laust (Oftebro) who is the toughest and the most masculine of those two, both on the inside and the outside. Both actors are playing truthful to their character’s personalties.

Jakob Oftebro, originally from Norway, is best known for his work in Kon-Tiki, Max Manus: Man of War, and When Animals Dream.

Pilou Asbæk is playing the Anti-hero Didrich who is raping gypsies, cows and his own mind in order to survive. Though Asbæk has crazy eyes that matches a crazy person – I don’t like him in the series. He has been used too much in television lately in such small amount of time, which makes his character unreliable.

Pilo Asbæk is best known to international audiences for his role inBorgen, and he hosted Eurovision when it came to Denmark in 2014. He has also been in the films R by Michael Noer and The Hijacking.


Bishop Monrad, past time-line 1850’s till 1860’s (Nicholas Bro)

The bishop is portrayed as a character with lunatic genes. He is the key-person that brings Denmark into war, by being a strong proponent for the Danish nationalism and by being a rhetorical and political genius. His worst enemies are not the Germans but his own crazy self, that can bring him into the crazy house where almost everybody from his family has been. Nicholas Bro is a safe choice, and my favourite actor He plays convincingly with his theatrical competencies, despite “Bishop Monrad’s” character as interpreted by Bornedal might appear as fake.

References

1 – Slaughter bench Dybbol

2 – Judgment Day Als

3 – A television licence is an official record of payment required in many countries for the reception of television broadcasts, or the possession of a television set where some broadcasts are funded in full or in part by the licence fee paid.

4 – (Danish: Slaget ved Dybbøl; German: Erstürmung der Düppeler Schanzen)

5 – Southern Jutland

Sandra Fijn van Draat

Sandra Fijn van Draat is pursuing her passion for film making by studying Multiplatform- Storytelling and Production in Århus, Denmark.