Danish Film History 1930-1959: Sound, World War II, and Folk Comedies

Danish Film History

The Introduction of Sound

In the early 1930s, sound film was introduced to Denmark. While silent films had been easy to distribute around the world, language became a natural barrier and heavily impacted the film industry, especially for a small country like Denmark. There were almost no exports, and the earnings had to be based on what sold well to Danes. This was found in the form of comedy, and folk comedies flourished throughout the decade.

The Vicar of Vejlby (1931) – Source: DFI.dk

It was  director George Schneevoigt who was most active throughout era, working as the lead director at Nordisk Film. He actually introduced  sound film to Denmark and Norway, first with the co-production Greenlandic Eskimo (1930), filmed in Norwegian, and then with The Vicar of Vejlby (Præsten i Vejlby, 1931), which is considered the first Danish sound film. A remake of August Blom’s version from 1920 and based on the novel by Steen Steensen Blicher, The Vicar of Vejlby is based on a true murder case from 1626 in the village of Vejlby. The story is about Søren Qvist, a village rector with a short temper who is accused of murdering his unlikable servant, Niels Bruus. Judge and sheriff Erik Sørensen is forced to investigate. Qvist doesn’t remember the murder but believes he must’ve done it, and is beheaded. The film then jumps ahead twenty years, and Niels Bruus returns. He declares that Sørensen got it wrong, and Sørensen collapses from a heart attack. The next day, Bruus is found dead, lying across the grave of Qvist.

Despite the fact that melodramas were made throughout the 1930s, such as the popular Hotel Paradise (1931), the biggest genre was undoubtedly comedy. Since production companies could only sell films to local audiences, they needed to focus on what pleased the masses, and that has always been comedy. These comedies were aimed at the local market, and the genre is still the biggest in Denmark. These were movies made by Danes, for Danes. Comedies typical of the time include Do You Want to Bet a Million? (Skal vi vaedde en Million?, 1932) and Rasmine’s Wedding (1935). They commonly feature populace optimism, escapes from reality (especially because of the Great Depression) and traditional entertainment.

A typical example of a Danish film from the 1930s is Nyhavn 17, directed by Schneevoigt. It is about the café owner’s daughter Primula, who lives near the docks and who, while cycling to her job selling furniture, gets hit by the store director’s car driven by his future son-in-law. Primula, who is late to work, loses her job. The son-in-law, however, who is there to buy furniture, falls in love with Primula. Their meeting introduces the first of a series of musical acts in the film. Primula also turns out to be the director’s illegitimate daughter, whose populist heart is revealed when he goes to the café for a reunion with her mother. Eventually the young lovers, after a few more complications, can get married.

Image result for Lau Lauritzen’s Barken Margrethe

These films would also be regarded as rather racist today, especially since they often depicted blackface or caricatured images of Jewish characters. Lau Lauritzen’s Barken Margrethe (1934) is a common example of a caricatured Italian character.





While fiction film struggled, documentary began to flourish. One of the biggest documentaries of the decade was Poul Henningsen’s Denmark, which was a lyrical film depicting Denmark as a modern and dynamic society. The documentary was funded by the government, which at the time had the objective of producing educational and informative films. These institutions supported production and distributed the films to schools and other public institutions. Thanks to this funding system, Danish documentaries have always had a steady production.

The Second World War

On the 9th of April 1940, German forces occupied Denmark. Danish cinemas were prohibited from showing films from the countries that Germany was at war with – first popular American and British movies, and later films from both the Soviet Union and France. Germans controlled all production companies’ access to raw footage and determined the repertoires at the cinema. Audiences flocked to Danish films, and film production increased. Of the total 124 features produced between 1940 and 1949, 82 were made during the occupation. The four big studios – Nordisk Film, Palladium, ASA and Saga – took the opportunity to produce films other than the established and highly popular comedies. During the occupation, Danish films became darker and focused more on national identity. The comedies did not lose their dominant position but, from then on, Danish film also included more mature and sophisticated work. While the crime genre had largely been absent since the 1920s, it made a comeback during the 1940s with films like Afsporet (1942) by Bodil Ipsen and Lau Lauritzen. The thriller film The Melody of Murder (Mordets Melodi, 1944) also has traces of French poetic realism and American film noir. While these films could not comment on the occupation, they certainly hinted at it.

Sommerglaeder, 1940

Comedies were still made during this time, but they started to focus less on appealing to Danish audiences and more on international audiences. Comedy began to follow more sophisticated American screwball format, for example in My Dear Wives (Mine kære Koner) and Som du vil ha’ mig (both 1943). National identity was important, and films like The Joys of Summer (Sommerglaeder, 1940) painted a picture of a Danish province. Others, like Sørensen og Rasmussen (1940) jovially tells the story of the Danish King Frederik VII and his unofficial wife’s visit to a manor.

During the war, Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (Vredens dag, 1943) premiered. The film is about witch-hunts in 17th century-Europe and has since become a classic. The film has been read as an indirect commentary on Nazism, even if that wasn’t Dreyer’s intention.

Throughout World War II the production of documentaries increased due to government support undertaken to compete with German films.

The Post-war Years

Immediately after the war ended, Danish film went through a wave of contemporary realism. Behind these films were director Ole Palsbo and director couple Astrid and Bjarne Henning-Jensen, but Johan Jacobsen also contributed.

The Danish contemporary realism could be compared to Italian neo-realism with its low budgets, realistic shooting style and scripts based on social and cultural issues. Ole Palsbo showed sharp social and psychological analyses in Discretion Wanted (Diskret Ophold, 1946) about a sanctuary for unmarried pregnant women. Bjarne Henning-Jensen’s Ditte, Child of Man (1946), based on a novel by Martin Andersen-Nexø, is about the fate of a girl from an aging small-town milieu. Henning-Jensen together with his wife Astrid made both the intense psychological criminal drama Kristinus Bergman (1948), and the comedy Those Damned Kids (De pokkers Unger, 1947), the first Danish children’s film.

Vi vil ha et barn, 1949

The dominating genre throughout the 1940s was the social problem film. These were films about the difficult conditions of young people growing up, both in the city and the countryside. One of the most spectacular films is We Want a Child (Vi vil ha et barn, 1949) by Lau Lauritzen and Alice O’Fredericks, which caused something of an outcry as it showed an authentic childbirth. The film was considered to be breaking the sexual taboo.

Popular Films in the 1950s

The new realism in Danish cinema ended abruptly with the new decade, and the 1950s could perhaps be best described as a ‘cosy culture’ with the films reflecting the style and themes of the 1930s folk films. Perhaps after the darkness of the 1940s, both in war and in film, the Danes needed to get back to their traditional values.

The 1950s were dominated by comedies made for family audiences. The production company ASA dominated the 1950s, and it was as though Denmark forgot that the company’s leader, Henning Karmark, had been a member of the Danish Nazi Party. Still, ASA hit a lucky streak with its series of adaptation of novels by Danish author Morten Korch, starting with The Red Horses (De røde heste, 1950), which was the first of 13 adaptations. The film sold 2.6 million tickets (for a population of 4.5 million).

ASA also created another popular series called Father of Four, a family comedy about a widower and his four children living in a cosy suburb of Copenhagen. Both series were mainly directed by Alice O’Fredericks, who had begun her career in 1930 and continued to direct until her death in 1968. Today, she is one of the most productive female directors in the history of cinema.

Vi er syndere, 1952


Nordisk Film started off the decade with a bang, firing its realist directors (including the Henning-Jensen’s), and instead employed Erik Balling, who approved of the more populist style. Balling made his debut with the comedy We Poor Sinners (Vi er syndere, 1952). He rose to become Nordisk’s regular in-house director and later manager, and this gave him the freedom to choose the films he wished to make, among them the first two Danish features in colour: Hide and Seek (Kispus, 1956) and Qivitoq (Qivitoq-Fjeldgaergeren, 1956).

Kjeld Petersen (1959)


The decade’s biggest comedy star was Dirch Passer, whose comedy style can be found in Ove Sprogøe (1955) and Kjeld Petersen (1959). A biopic was made about him in the 2000s, with Nikolaj Lie Kaas starring as Passer.

However, the realism of the 1940s still lingered throughout the 1950s, and eventually inspired the Danish art cinema of the 1960s. Bodil Ipsen’s Café Paradis (1950) highlighted the dangers of alcoholism. Other films like Farlig ungdom (1953) and Dregs (Bundfald, 1957) were about the troubles of the youth and their lifestyles.,

Outside from the trends of the time, as always, was Dreyer’s monumental comeback with The Word (Ordet, 19555), which would become his biggest success with Danish audiences. Johan Jacobsen’s cold war drama Blændværk (1955), one of the few films that makes political themes tangible, as well as his intense drama about the traumas of occupation, A Stranger Knocks (En fremmed banker på, 1959), which caused a sensation due to the first portrayal of intercourse in Danish cinema.


Danish Film History