Danish Film History: The Rise and Rise of Danish Film in the 1980s

The 1980’s in Danish film history is considered to be the start of a new era, with strong international focus on country, something not seen since the silent era. However, the decade started off very weak.

The art and socially conscious films of the 1970s were indeed important for the development of Danish film, but they were never big box office hits. After all, who wants to go to the cinema to watch a film that discusses politics in an overly documentary style? People wanted to be entertained, and this was achieved by the various comedies on television. Also, television was free! And you didn’t have to leave the house!

Films weren’t making any money, and the industry was struggling. In 1982, only seven feature films were made, and altogether they sold less than a million tickets. Something needed to change.

The government stepped in with a new Film Law that granted more funding to films. Throughout the 1980s all Danish films were, more or less, reliant on government support. The Film Law was introduced in 1982 and revised again in 1989 to support mainstream films with the 50/50 funding scheme. This scheme support films that were likely to attract larger audiences, and it basically means that if a producer could come up with 50% of the financing, the government would step in and give the other 50%. This changed the idea of film from being artistic to being a product of culture and entertainment, and it paved the way for all those Danish genre films we love. But they didn’t arrive until the 1990s, so what was it about the 1980s that put Danish film on the map?

The Danish Oscar Winners

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Pride and Prejudice


In the 1980s, it was the heritage genre that started to become popular, and not just in Denmark. The genre actually has its origins in the United Kingdom, and typically involves literary adaptations of period-set stories. Pride and Prejudice is probably one of the most famous examples. It’s important to note that some don’t consider heritage to be a genre, but rather an open style of film. It’s a grey area.

American audiences were loving these heritage genre films. There were numerous reasons for this, but above all they represented the old world, i.e. the peace and serenity before the harshness of war, depression, and poverty. In other words, they were a nostalgia for the past. These films were doing incredibly well around the world, so the Danes took note and made some of their own. (We’ll cover heritage films in other article).

One of the first Danish heritage films is Kaspar Rostrup’s Jeppe of the Hill (Jeppe på bjerget, 1981), which is based on a classic play by Ludvig Holberg from 1722. The film is about a Baron and his people who put together a social experiment. They carry Jeppe, who is the most inept peasant of all, up to the Baron’s bed to see what happens. Jeppe wakes up and wonders if he is in heaven, or if he is still alive. He quickly changes character from being oppressed and hounded with by all and sundry to become oppressor himself. He is then, when the Barons “experiment” is done, thrown back into the “real life” and onto a dung heap. A fake tribunal is made by the Baron for (a fictitious) court and Jeppe is hung, (again fakely for sport) Jeppe thinks he’s dead and is again met by his wife who starts beating him and yelling and pulls him back into reality!

But the most famous Danish heritage films are easily two films you may recognise: Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast (Babettes gaestebud, 19871), and Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren, 1987).

Babette’s Feast

Babette’s Feast is based on a popular novel by the Dane Karen Blixen and is set in a remote 19th-century Danish village, where two sisters lead a rigid life centred around their father, the local minister, and their church. After their father passes away, the two sisters take in a French refugee, Babette Hersant, who agrees to work as their servant. After winning the lottery Babette wants to repay the sisters for their kindness and offers to cook a French meal for them and their friends on the 100th anniversary of their fathers birth.

Pelle the Conqueror

Pelle the Conqueror is adapted from Martin Andersen Nexø’s novel and is also set at the end of the 19th century. A boat filled with Swedish emigrants comes to the Danish island of Bornholm. Among them are Lasse and his son Pelle who move to Denmark to find work. They find employment at a large farm, but are treated as the lowest form of life. Pelle starts to speak Danish but is still harassed as a foreigner. But none of them wants to give up their dream of finding a better life than the life they left in Sweden.

Both of these films won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and Pelle the Conqueror also won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Because of this, both films got a wide theatrical release, and suddenly everyone was looking to Denmark; if they could make two Oscar winners in two years, they must be doing something right over there!

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Bille August

Pelle the Conqueror launched the career of Bille August, and he actually went away from Danish film for a little while. At first he directed the Swedish film The Best Intentions (Den gode vilje, 1992), based on Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay about his parents, and won a second Palme d’Or. Then he directed the film adaptations The House of Spirits (Åndernes hus, 1992) and Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, 1997). He later directed Les Miserables in the United States but has since returned to Denmark and made A Fortunate Man (2018), a mini-series that oozes heritage. Watch the trailer below and compare it to Pelle the Conqueror!

These two heritage films proved that Danish film didn’t have to be all doom and gloom, but it could be inspired by abroad and use popular genre. Also, these films made money and put attention to Denmark. That’s how the film industry came to see film as a cultural product, i.e., these films showed audiences what Denmark is all about. This is a view still held in Danish cinema today.


The Rise of Popular Genre

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Spring Flood (1990)


With these new Oscar winners, and the 50/50 scheme, directors started to understand the importance of genre films. One of the first genres to emerge was the popular comedies, which blended the American-style with the Danish folk comedies of the 1930s. These comedies rarely left Denmark, though, as they catered almost exclusively to local audiences. The coming of age stories achieved a little more international success, and some of the biggest coming of age films are Birger Larsen’s Dance of the Polar Bear (Lad isbjørnene daanse, 1990) and Eddie Thomas Petersen’s Spring Tide (Springflod, 1990). Spring Tide stars a very young Trine Dyrholm in her acting debut and tells the story of Franco, who lives in the city and gets into trouble. He is sent to the countryside to live with a family. The daughter of the family, Pauline, and Franco fall in love, and the two teenagers have to struggle with their newfound love.

Note: The city vs. countryside trope is very common in Scandinavian film, where the city is seen as dangerous, full of crime, and hostile, whereas the country is seen as pure, safe, and where one can be oneself. 

The Danish director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (remember his name when we get to Dogme) also found success with his film The Boys From St. Petri (Drengene fra Sankt Petri, 1991), about youth resistance fighters against the German occupation.

At the start of the 1990s, the art directors of the 1960s and 1970s had retired, and a new generation was emerging. This generation had grown up with American genre film, and they were ready to put their knowledge of these films into their own Danish works. It is Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch (1994) that is often considered to be the first of these ‘new wave’ genre films. The film marked a striking break from traditionally gentle Danish storytelling and instead offered robust entertainment. Nightwatch stars a young Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Sofie Gråbøl in a film about Martin, who starts working as a night watchman in a mortuary to finance his law studies. When the victims of a serial killer of prostitutes are deposited there, scary things begin to happen. Therefore and because of a strange bet with his fellow student Jens, the police begins to think he is the murderer. Police detective Wormer wants to help him but Martin is more and more suspected. Nightwatch didn’t just launch Bornedal’s career, but it proved that genre film was here to stay. But first, a unique individual needed to show his skill as well.


The Early Works of Lars von Trier

The unexpected breakthrough in new Danish film came with Lars von Trier. His first film was The Element of Crime (Forbrydelsens element, 1984), and along with Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991) composes the so-called Europa trilogy. The trilogy presents a vision of a doomed Europe in the past, present, and future. Trier has always credited Carl Th. Dreyer as his greatest source of inspiration, so when he gained local attention with the trilogy, he directed Medea, based on a Dreyer script.

After the Europa trilogy, Trier formed his production company Zentropa, which is one of Denmark’s largest production companies today. The company produces genre works that will likely have success at the box office, for example the Department Q trilogy.

Lars von Trier was quickly becoming a big name in Denmark, but his success was cemented with the mini-series The Kingdom (Riget, 1994). The series takes place at the most technologically advanced hospital in Denmark. A rash of uncanny occurrences, however, begins to weaken the staff’s faith in science–a phantom ambulance pulls in every night, but disappears; voices echo in the elevator shaft; and a pregnant doctor’s fetus seems to be developing much faster than is natural. At the goading of a spiritualist patient, some employees work to let supernatural forces rest.

The Kingdom offered an experimental visual style with handheld cameras, grainy pictures, and ostentatious violations of traditional movie narrative conventions. Hey, this sounds familiar. Shortly after the release of The Kingdom, Lars von Trier announced a film movement that went on to change Danish film indefinitely. But more of that in the next article.