Danish Film History: The Silent Era

Humble Beginnings

Danish cinema began with a documentary set in Greenland. Called Driving with Greenland Dogs, the short depicts a man driving with a sledge with the help of some sledge dogs in a park in central Copenhagen as a way of depicting his life in Greenland. The film was directed by Peter Elfelt, who became the pioneer of Danish cinema: between 1897 and 1907, he filmed approximately 100 films. While they were never any longer than a few minutes, he explored a wide range of topics, from Danish culture to public events. He also directed Denmark’s first fictional film, titled The Execution, in 1903. The film was inspired by a French court case about a woman who killed her children.

Despite Elfelt’s ground-breaking work, it wasn’t until Ole Olsen that Danish cinema gained international recognition. Olsen came from a humble background, having previously worked in various jobs including at a Swedish amusement park. He opened a cinema in Copenhagen in 1905 with the goal of screening Danish films, but quickly found there weren’t enough to show. With that, he decided to make his own.

Nordisk Films Kompagni was founded in 1906 and started mass-producing fictional and non-fictional short films to be shown at Olsen’s cinema. But these films soon outgrew one cinema, and by 1909 it was the second largest production company in Europe with over 1,700 staff. Film historian Ron Mottram describes the typical film style characterising Nordisk’s productions:

“As a rule, they comprise thrillers, tragedies and love stories with an intense acting style and marked lighting, as well as urban settings that are exploited in an ingenious way. A few stock characters appear and reappear in the Danish films of the period. Among these, we find the circus performer, the prodigal son, the officer, the land-owner, and the earl.”

Mottram, Rom. The Danish cinema before Dreyer, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1988

Nordisk Film found success with films like The Anarchist’s Mother-in-law (Anarkistens Svigermoder, 1906), literary films such as The Lady with the Camellia’s (Kameliadamen, 1907), and dramatic adventure stories like The Robber’s Sweetheart (Røverens Brude, 1907) and the infamous The Lion Hunt (Løvejagten, 1907).

The Lion Hunt (1907)

 

The Lion Hunt is infamous because it’s about two hunters who chase and kill two lions. The film features Danish actors in blackface to represent Africans, and Nordisk Film bought two ageing lions from a zoo and actually shot them in the film. The Lion Hunt was understandably slammed by critics and banned.

The Golden Age of Danish Cinema

Largely thanks to Nordisk Film, Danish cinema reigned supreme between 1910 as Europe’s most prosperous film centre, with its films rivalling those of Hollywood when it came to cinemas in London and New York. The ‘golden age’ is believed to have started with two films: The Abyss (Afgrunden) and The White Slave Trade (Den hvide slavehandel), both released in 1910.

The Abyss tells the story of Magda (Asta Nielsen), a piano teacher who falls in love with the vicar’s son, Knud (Rovert Dinesen). Magda meets Knud’s parents but refuses to go to church with them, instead convincing Knud to go to the circus with her. While there, she dances with the performers and at night one of them, Rudolf (Poul Reumert), comes to seduce her. They run away on horseback, but Magda grows tired of Rudolf’s flirtatious ways with every woman they come across. However, despite Knud’s efforts, she is unable to break free from Rudolf.

The film launched the career of Asta Nielsen, who became Europe’s first major film star. She starred in several Danish silent films before heading to Germany in the 1920s, where she had a successful career.

The White Slave Trade was directed by August Blom and was Denmark’s first multi-reel film lasting more than thirty minutes. The story is about Anna, a young girl from a poor household in Denmark. She is offered an attractive job as a lady’s companion in London. Both The White Slave Trade and The Abyss were described as ‘erotic melodramas’ and, while popular in Denmark, were not so popular abroad. The bold erotics and depictions of crime provoked a debate in wide circles, not only in Denmark. In Sweden many of these films were banned, and ‘Danishness’ became an abusive word referring to all films that were considered offensive to good taste. 

Atlantis (1913)

But these films were a huge success in Denmark and The White Slave Trade launched the career of August Blom. He went on to direct The Temptations of a Great City (Ved Faengslets Port, 1911), and most importantly, the ambitious, internationally oriented epic Atlantis (1913), a melodrama based on the Nobel Prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel about the Atlantic Ocean steamship’s dramatic wreck. The novel was not inspired by the sinking of the Titanic but the actual event contributed to the company’s gamble on the epic and the expensive production, which was disappointed both artistically and commercially.

World War I, Gambles, and Auteurs

The success of these films had made Nordisk Film a global name. The fact that Denmark was neutral during the First World War was also beneficial to the company as they were able to expand throughout Europe. The Germans had banned English and French films, and Denmark’s proximity to the country allowed Nordisk to expand into the now vacant market. However, it was during this war that the USA became the leading nation in film production, and Danish exports began to decline.

After the war ended, Nordisk Film gambled with big budget epics, producing a series of ambitious films that were expected to compete with Hollywood. These included August Blom’s The Flaming Sword (Verdens Undergang, 1916), in which a comet strikes the planet, as well as A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet, 1918), which is considered to be one of the world’s first science fiction films as it follows a space trip to visit some peace-loving Martians. Many of these films failed, and by the end of the decade the golden age was over.

It was during this era that two of Denmark’s most famous silent film directors emerged. The first, Carl Th. Dreyer, is widely recognised as one of the great auteurs in European cinema. He began his career by working for Nordisk Film’s script department in 1913, and in 1918 he got his first opportunity to direct. The President (Praesidenten, 1919) is a melodrama about a judge who must pass sentence on his long-abandoned illegitimate. The ambitious Leaves From Satan’s Book (Blade af Satan’s bog, 1920) is told in four stories about four historical epochs about evil. Dreyer’s most famous Danish silent film is Master of the House (Du skal aere din Hustru, 1925), filmed in Norway, which tells the story of regular people in a contemporary environment.

Dreyer’s unique style, which was well ahead of its time, led him to have a successful international career, making films in Sweden, Norway and Germany. This career eventually led him to France, where he was able to choose from a pile of scripts to direct a film. He chose The Passion of Joan of Arc, and, when it was released in 1928, it became an instant classic. Shot in a series of close-ups and depicting Joan’s trial and martyrdom, the film is considered one of the world’s great silent classics.

When one thinks of ambitious directors, it’s impossible to not consider Benjamin Christensen. Working away from Nordisk Film, he made three striking Danish silent films before heading to Germany and Hollywood. Mysterious X (Det hemmelighedsfulde, 1914 – also known as ‘Sealed Orders’ in English) was a spy story about war. The film follows secret agent Count Spinelli who is tasked with uncovering what the government has planned. To assist in this plan, the count organises a carrier pigeon service between the government’s headquarters and an old mill. Blind Justice (Haevens Nat, 1917) was a crime film influenced by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The film is about John Sikes, a circus strongman who has been wrongly accused of a crime. He is imprisoned for fourteen years and, after being released, searches for his love interest and son.

 

Christensen’s third film is by far his most famous. Haxan (Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922) was Swedish-produced but shot in Denmark and is considered one of film history’s most original works. It is a mixture of cultural history and historical reconstruction of the history of witchcraft from the Middle Ages to the present. The result feels like a documentary that was among the first in the world to use re-enactments as a visual tool. When it was released it faced backlash for its depiction of religion but was revived in the 1950s and became a cult hit.

Despite their acclaim today, during their time Christensen and Dreyer were never fully accepted by the Danish film industry and were not permanently associated with production companies, which was normal at the time. They both remained loners and worked abroad wherever possible.

The Introduction of Comedy

At the start of the 1920s, Nordisk Film was broke. Their big budget epics had failed to return a profit, and the company was forced into liquidation. This was common with many production companies, and the decade saw the rise in low-budget, high-profitable films, which was commonly found in the comedy genre. As Nordisk Film went through a recession, the rival company Palladium was able to gain a stronghold on popular comedy. The company took Lau Lauritzen and Carl Schenstrøm from Nordisk Film. Lauritzen paired Schenstrøm with Harald Madsen and formed the comedy duo Fyrtaarnet and Bivognen (Ligthhouse and the Trailer), shortened to Fy and Bi. This duo was the strongest asset in Danish cinema in the 1920s and created such farces as Film, Flirt, and Film (Film, Flirt og Forlovelse, 1921), Sun, Summer and Students (Sol, Sommer og Studiner, 1922), and At the North Sea (Vester-Vov-Vov, 1927). The comedians also achieved a large international audience and were especially known in Germany (as Pat and Patachon), England (Long and Short), and Eastern Europe. Today, they are considered the Danish predecessors of Laurel and Hardy, the famous American comedy duo. Despite these resurgences, at the end of the decade the Danish film industry was deeply struggling.