Daniel Dencik’s The Gold Coast is bound to be the most controversial film in Denmark this year. A weird and not fully successful film about Denmark’s past as a colonizer in Ghana as well as a major participant in the international slave-trade, what ensures its notoriety above other experimental/political fare is that it’s been included in Biografklub Danmark, a mainstay in Danish cinema culture where more than 200,000 members gets half-priced tickets to a curated group of films, with this season including films by Clint Eastwood, Susanne Bier, Bille August and Thomas Vinterberg. The inclusion of Daniel Dencik’s wild and weird debut-feature seems a departure for the normally slightly conservative club, but the director explained that the film was included on the basis of it’s script, but that unforeseen circumstances at the shooting on location in Ghana meant the film became much stranger than originally planned. Apparently, the film was meant to revolve around a romance between the Danish lead Frederik Wulff – played by Jakob Oftebro from 1864 – and a local girl played by Danish-Togolesian actress Sophia Adegnika. But Adegnika got sick, so the story had to be re-structured and became much more introverted and spiritual. It’s a hilarious story, but also slightly suspicious. The illness of a lead actress might have cut out a love story, which would have made the film more relatable, but I think a lot of audience members are more put off for instance by the fact that the opening scene shows a man being urinated on, with full frontal male nudity, than the fact that there isn’t a love story.
Frederik Wulff travels to the Gold Coast in 1837, sent out by the king to establish a plantation at the colony. When he arrives, there are seemingly three other Danes employed at the fort, the diseased and tired governor, and two smarmy and unscrupulous mercenaries. A missionary couple lives nearby, working to christen the natives. Wulff sets about creating the plantation, but attacks by the local Ashanti tribe makes it necessary to get help from a local man named Henrich Richter, the most interesting character in the film, a black man who has a German name, switches clothes between African and European noble garbs, somehow manages to get The London Times delivered, has a slave playing Schubert on the violin for him, has managed to establish his own highly profitable plantations, and, oh, brands his initials into the flesh of his slaves. Wulff begins to throw himself into a multitude of idealistic projects, trying to teach the natives about the design of nature, or how to play Mozart. But when he discovers that export of slaves still exists, despite having been outlawed by the Danish state in 1792, he throws himself against powerful interests he might not be able to defeat.
The film is highly expressionistic from the beginning. The Danish fortress is mainly deserted, the Danes only spending their time on feasts and orgies. As Wulff becomes more and more unhinged, the visual style becomes positively Malickian, with philosophical voice-over ruminations over pictorial images of nature. A comparison with Malick’s The New World is obvious. However, the haste with which the production has been concluded works against the film. The visuals aren’t consistently awe-inspiring enough, and the cutting not rhythmically enough, to fully engage. Instead, clumsy expositional dialogue that should have been excised fills the film, especially in the beginning, and the excellent cast, which also includes Danica Curcic (Silent Heart, The Absent One, second season of The Bridge) in a curiously small role, seems stymied by the demands of a historical film, especially one so passionate as this one. Norwegian born Jakob Oftebro is one of the heroes of Scandinavian cinema, with his ability to act in both Danish and Norwegian, but here it works against him, as his lines sounds learned rather than lived, which is what they need to sound like with a character as unhinged as this. The result is one of the most daring works of Scandinavian cinema in a long time, but also one that doesn’t fully work.
It is also the most tricky and unflinching Scandinavian film about racism since Ruben Östlund’s great Play. Denmark’s past as a slave trading nation is not one the country likes to talk about, and one could have feared that the film would either buckle under rightful indignation, or paint the story as one about a ‘white saviour’ righting historical wrongs. Instead, the story is mostly about Danish ineptitude. The film clearly depicts the Danes as racists, from the brutal mercenaries to the paternalistic Wulff, but it includes the historical fact, that a country as small as Denmark would have been completely unable to organize the trans-continental slave-trade in the area without local help. The one holding the cards in the area is Heinrich Richter, and whatever good intentions Wulff or the missionaries start out with will run aground against their complete lack of knowledge of the area. The only role the Danes can somewhat effectively occupy is as exploiters and extractors, which the men at the fort does with more or less malice. Wulff’s intentions of being a righteous saviour with fire in his heart fails completely, and simply leaves black people dead on the ground. In the end, the native black population, from the rulers to the slaves, and the local farmers in-between, seems to observe him with a mixture of pity and bemusement. Nothing good comes from his exploits, as nothing good came out of the Danish involvement in colonizing Africa. Just misery.