Danish Film History: Realism and Art in the 1960s and 1970s

Defining film as art

Where the 1950s had been a successful decade for film as a source of entertainment, the 1960s began with a need to define film as an art form. This is because of how quickly the television had taken over the medium, and film was no longer able to compete as popular entertainment, especially since entertainment on television was so much easier to access than entertainment in the cinema. Cinema attendance was rapidly declining (60 million tickets sold in 1954 compared to 20 million tickets sold in 1970), and the government decided it was time they stepped in and assisted cinema. The definition of cinema was changed, and the state became an important player in cinema culture.

In 1964 a new film law was passed that defined film as an art form in need of support, and the Film Foundation was established to support national film production with funding from the tax on cinema tickets. Denmark’s recognition of film as something culturally valuable was emphasised with the founding of the National Film School of Denmark in 1966, and the following year film was introduced as a subject at the University of Copenhagen.

The government support of Danish cinema was strengthened with the establishment of the Danish Film Institute in 1972. A consultant scheme was introduced, which means that independent consultants were appointed to select and develop the films that the government would fund. The responsibility for film funding had shifted to the government.


The Danish New Wave

Weekend (1962)


This new definition of film as an art form sounds promising, but in fact it had a very shaky start. Palle Kjaerulff-Schmidt’s film Weekend (1962) is considered to be the start of the Danish new wave. The film belongs to a genre that was going to become characteristic of Danish cinema: the youth film (see blow). But because of the fact that it had scenes that involved alcohol and sex, it was banned in many countries.

Carl Th. Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) was also released with a scandal: not only did the film not make any money, but it had a scandalous premiere in Paris with the critics tearing the film and Dreyer to pieces. Even Denmark’s Paris ambassador Eyvind Bartels publicly denounced the film in a leading Danish newspaper. It was the French New Wave members like Jean-Luc Godard who admired and respected Dreyer’s film.

It was Henning Carlsen’s Hunger (Sult, 1966) that proved Danish art cinema could exist and succeed, and today the film is still considered one of the greatest Scandinavian films in cinema history. The film is one of the first major Scandinavian co-productions, featuring a Danish director, a Swedish actor (Per Oscarsson), and a Norwegian story (adapted from the novel by Knut Hamsun). It tells the modernistic story of a starving young artist in 19th century Kristiania (today Oslo). Carlsen uses a subjective narrative style, completely breaking down the boundaries between reality and fiction, in his portrayal of the writer’s confinement in a stuffy and suffocating urban environment.

The Danish Film Institute was established in 1972, and the state became a co-producer of film. A system of advisory officers, called commissioners, was introduced, each of whom assumed responsibly for their feature film projects before the Film Institute, which mediated the state subsidy.


The Abolition of Censorship

Sytten (1965)


The 1960s didn’t just recognise Danish cinema as an art form, but it also recognised Danish cinema as a liberal art form. Film censorship had been an institution in Denmark since 1907 – the first censor was founded in 1913 and enforced for the new three decades; the Movie Theatre Law of 1933 cracked down on how crime and the erotic was shown in the cinema. But the 1960s had its free spirit tendencies, and sexuality was becoming noticeable in Danish cinema. Some of the early films, while censorship was still in place, include Seventeen (Sytten, 1965), I, a Woman (Jeg, er kvinde, 1965) and Venom (Gift, 1966). Luckily censorship was abolished by the end of the 1960s, and now crime could be shown freely in the cinemas – allowing us decades later to be able to enjoy some Nordic Noir!

Denmark became the first country in the world to abolish the ban on picture pornography in 1969. This obviously affected cinema and a flourishing porn industry emerged: nudity and sex became part of the mainstream cinema. These films were nicknamed ‘bedside films’, and many were erotic folk comedies, including John Hilbard’s Bedroom Mazurka (Mazurka på sengekanten, 1970). To rival the ‘bedside films’ was the ‘zodiac films’, which includes Sign of the Virgin (I Jomfruens tegn, 1973). These films were similar to the ‘bedside films’ but had much more explicit erotica and spots of hardcore pornography. Featured in these films was the lead actor Ole Søltoft who portrays a shy, innocent man who is tempted by actresses like Annie Birgit Garde and Birte Tove.

A Turn to the Serious

Where the 1960s allowed Denmark to experiment with international art cinema styles, the 1970s saw Danish cinema start to become influenced by its new government backing, and many films started to express their position on real-world views. Because of this, a new form of Danish realism emerged throughout the decade. One example is Franz Ernst’s Concerning Love (Ang.: Lone, 1970), which is about a young girl who runs away from both the established community as well as the alternative community. The portrayal of reality was also central in Hans Kristensen’s films about the small-time crook and misfit Per in films such as The Escape (Flugten, 1973). Astrid Henning-Jensen’s film Winter Born (Vinterbørn, 1978) follows a group of women in a maternity ward.

Give God a Chance on Sundays (1970)


The 1970s was also the first time Denmark stated to use crime and politics in their films, directly influenced with this new interest in realism. Esben Høilund-Carlsen’s Nineteen Red Roses (Nitten røde roser, 1974) is the first modern crime film with blood, action, and American genre influence. Anders Refn also made crime films, such as the cop film Copper (Strømer, 1976). Political films include Take it Like a Man, Ma’m (Ta’ det som en mand, frue, 1975), which includes a dream sequence where gender stereotypes are switched and we see a subjugated man working at home, and a swaggering woman working outside the home. An intellectual debate is found in Give God a Chance on Sundays (Giv Gu den chance om søndagen, 1970) from director Henrik Stangerup. The film is about a priest in a religious and marital crisis.

Contemporary Danish cinema takes this 1970s realism as an influence; today many films can be read as a debate on real-world issues. The only difference is that the films of the 1970s took on a semi-documentary style, whereas contemporary films are more influenced by international art cinema and genre styles.

Youth Cinema

With pornography, crime, realism and politics flooding the cinemas, it is interesting to note that perhaps the biggest breakthrough genre of the 1970s was, in fact, the youth film. The youth film had existed in Denmark since the 1950s but they tended to portray a moral distance to the amoral and irresponsible younger generation. The youth films of the 1970s were loyal and sensitive to the marginalised young.

It started with Lasse Nielsen’s Leave Us Alone (La’ os vaere, 1975), Morten Arnfred’s Me and Charly (Mig og Charly, 1975) and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s Wanna See My Beautiful Navel? (Vil du se min smukke navle?, 1978). Also, Bille August’s first film was a youth film called In My Life (Honning Måne, 1978), which deals with the fragile lives of two young individuals. With films like these, the youth film became an iconic brand for Danish cinema. Bille August also directed Zappa and Twist and Shout, which are today regarded as some of the best of the 1970s youth films.

Boys (1977)


It’s also with the youth film that one of the most known Danish directors got his start. The self-taught Nils Malmros’ Lars Ole, 5c (1973) and Boys (Drenge, 1977) can be viewed as more adult, where the director with eminent empathy and emotionally commemorative artfulness reconstructs the hopes and pains of childhood and adolescence from his hometown of Aarhus.

Danish cinema also became known for its animation. The first feature-length animation in Europe, The Tinder Box, was released in 1946, but it was not until the 1970s that regular production of animation commenced. Jannik Hastrup and Flemming Quist Møller directed Benny’s Bathtub in 1971, and today Hastrup and Møller are regarded as some of the most memorable Danish animators. Most Danish animations have been centre around the production company A Film, and Denmark is now, compared to its population, one of the countries that produces the most feature animation films in the world, surpassed only by the U.S. and Japan.

Because of the success of youth cinema, the Danish Film Institute’s budget allocated 25% of their funding to children’s films and thereby secured a regular production of films for children with high international standards.

The Olsen Gang

The folk comedy had been one of the most beloved genres since the 1920s, and while directors tried to modernise it with art cinema in the 1960s, the folk-comedy was hard to find in the 1970s. It was the cheerful heist movies about the Olsen Gang that revived the genre, and the Olsen Gang is still treasured by Danish families today. Sadly, though, the folk comedy is hard to find in modern Danish cinema.

It started with The Olsen Gang (Olsen-banden, 1968) and The Olsen Gang in a Fix (Olsen-banden på spanden, 1969), both of which didn’t have much success. The Olsen Gang Plays for High Stakes (Olsen-banden I Jylland, 1971) was the breakthrough film, and up through the 1970s, the series (with 13 films in total) was the country’s most popular film entertainment. The Olsen Gang series is about the gang leader Egon and his two hopeless assistants, Kjeld and Benny. The series was so popular that it was remade in Norway.


By abolishing censorship and allowing for more realism influenced by European art cinema traditions, by the end of the 1970s Denmark was starting to refine its form and style, and the 1980s was going to be the decade that it all paid off.