T

The King’s Choice: An interview with Erik Poppe, Jesper Christensen & Anders Baasmo Christiansen

Directed by Erik Poppe, The King’s Choice is the biggest film release in Norway this year. Selected as Norway’s contender for the Academy Awards, The King’s Choice is also another in a long line of war related films to come from Scandinavia in the last two years. While at risk of falling into the category of ‘yet another war film’, Poppe’s skillful directing adds a unique quality to this World War II drama, and the result is a masterful retelling of some very dramatic days in Norway’s history.

The German occupation of Norway began on the 9th of April 1940 after German forces invaded Norway, which had declared itself neutral. Prior to the invasion, Vidkun Quisling, the leader of Norway’s fascist party, had tried to persuade Adolf Hitler that he would form a government in support of the occupying Germans, but Hitler was unreceptive to Quisling. However, on the first day of the occupation, Quisling burst into the NRK studios and made a radio broadcast that declared himself prime minister, something he did on his own initiative. This didn’t please the German authorities, who initially wanted the original government to remain in the country. Not knowing anyone better, Hitler supported Quisling and gave the orders for the King of Norway, Haakon VII, to declare Quisling the prime minister.  This is the story that The King’s Choice revolves around: The king’s resistance to this German occupation.

The King’s Choice primarily follows King Haakon VII, played by Jesper Christensen, and the efforts he made to protect his country from occupation. Haakon VII was originally a Danish prince by the name of Carl of Denmark, but he became the first King of Norway after the 1905 dissolution with Sweden. He quickly won the respect and affection of the Norwegian people, and is today regarded as one of the greatest Norwegians of the 20th century for his courage during the German invasion.

The King’s Choice begins by making it clear that Norway was largely unprepared when the Germans invaded. The first wave of German attackers were stopped with the Oscarsborg Fortress near Oslo sank the German flagship Blücher. The sinking of this ship killed over 1,000 soldiers and crew, and delayed the Germans. The Royal Family, as well as the government, were able to flee Oslo during this time. The Crown Princess of Norway, Märtha, played by Tuva Novotny, flees with her children to her native Sweden, but is not welcomed there. Many Swede’s felt she had put Sweden’s neutrality in jeopardy, and some even recommend she accepts the Germans and returns with her three-year-old son, Prince Harald (the current King of Norway), so he could be proclaimed King by the Germans. This wasn’t an option for Märtha and she accepts an invitation by President Roosevelt to go to the United States, where she takes up residence in the White House and remains there for much of the war. Her husband, Crown Prince Olav, played by Anders Baasmo Christiansen, stays with his father as they travel through Norway. Much of The King’s Choice follows this chase, with the Royal Family and the government travelling first to Hamar, and then taking residence in Nybergsund and working in nearby Elverum. It was here that the German ambassador to Norway, Carl Bräuer, which The King’s Choice gives almost as much screen time as Haakon, travels to speak to Haakon about appointing Quisling prime minister. Bräuer suggested that Haakon follow the example of the Danish government and his brother, Christian X, who had surrendered almost immediately after the previous days’ invasion, and threatened Norway with harsh reprisals if it did not surrender. Haakon told Bräuer that he would abdicate before appointing Quisling and rejected the deal. Haakon told his cabinet:

I am deeply affected by the responsibility laid on me if the German demand is rejected. The responsibility for the calamities that will befall people and country is indeed so grave that I dread to take it. It rests with the government to decide, but my position is clear.

For my part I cannot accept the German demands. It would conflict with all that I have considered to be my duty as King of Norway since I came to this country nearly thirty-five years ago.

The German’s reacted by bombing the village that Haakon was occupying. Before the bombing, Haakon and the government had fled into a forest and were saved from the attacks, though the town of Nybergsund was destroyed. They continued further into the mountains towards Molde on Norway’s west coast, and then took a British cruiser to Tromsø, where they stayed until they were able to evacuate to the United Kingdom on the 7th of June 1940.  During Norway’s five years under German control, many Norwegians surreptitiously wore clothing or jewellery made from coins bearing Haakon’s H7 monogram as symbols of resistance to the German occupation. The King’s monogram was also painted and otherwise reproduced on various surfaces as a show of resistance to the occupation. The Norwegian Royal Family returned on the 7th of June 1945 after the Germans were defeated.

elverum-fhs_kongens-nei_foto_tinepoppe

The King’s Choice is incredibly true to the story, even though there will, of course, be some discussion about the films portrayal of history in the media. Erik Poppe spent years researching the history, and his obsession for details shows in the film. Poppe is no stranger to war dramas – his last film being the English-language A Thousand Times Goodnight – and he is incredibly careful in how he portrays high tense situations. Originally a press photographer covering local news and international conflicts, Poppe has covered war-zones abroad. This shows in The King’s Choice, which has such a refreshingly unique take on the war scenes of the film. The camera stays with each soldier and army official as they are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions, including whether or not to bomb a ship and the moments before attacking the German army. These moments are raw, unexpected and feel like you’re watching a documentary. But The King’s Choice isn’t full of explosions and dramatic scenes, in fact most of the film plays out like one of Bergman’s chamber dramas, quiet, in a small room and based solely on the body language of characters. The opening shot of the film is Haakon with his eyes covered, representing Norway’s lack of preparedness for the war, and then throughout the film we see continuous shots of him curled up in the fetal position: technically for medical reasons but highly representative of how he has no control in the situation. It’s the subtle imagery and focus on history that makes The King’s Choice something more than another war drama. It’s one of Poppe’s finest works, and it’ll be surprising if it doesn’t make it to the shortlist for the Academy Awards.

We sat down with Erik Poppe, Jesper Christensen and Anders Baasmo Christiansen to talk about the film.

Cinema Scandinavia: How did you decide on the story of The King’s Choice?

Erik Poppe: My producer had heard about a book that was about to be published. It was about the Norwegian king’s refusal to the German’s during the occupation of Norway. The king here in Norway isn’t like a president: he has a ceremonial function in life. He has to have an overlook on parliament and make sure everything is working well, but doesn’t have political power. So when the German’s came to occupy Norway on the 9th of April 1940 all functions in society collapsed. I had been taught this in school, but when I was reading about the story in this book I didn’t realise just how dramatic it was. We started to look into it and it turned out to almost be a thriller, in a way. I was really surprised about why this dramatic story isn’t really known and realised it was possible to do this story without changing too much of it, in fact I could stay really close to history.

I saw that I needed to cut the film down to just three days, the three days surrounding the occupation and king’s choice. The war did go on for five more years, but at the end of those three days we realise Norway is at war and must declare war to Germany. Why we are doing it is entirely because of the king who was pushing the government and parliament to realise we can’t accept the Germans.

King Haakon was one of Europe’s strongest symbols of freedom during WWII and he became a figure of the war, even in peacetime, as the man who stood up to Hitler and said no. To be able to make a film about him and what went on put me in a position that could make anyone panic: how do you tell the story of this man? This shook me up, to be honest, for a while. But then I realised there was enough material there to use and not just make it a story of a king, but also his son and how they were struggling with representing different ideas during these dramatic moments.

Jesper, how did you see your character, King Haakon VII?

Jesper Christensen: He’s sort of an unexpected king. He was the younger brother of the Danish king, and wasn’t considered to be very bright. He has trouble becoming a captain in the navy, and just before he goes to Norway they let him be captain and drive the ship for a while. That was his whole career. During the time there was a large party scene among the royals. They were intermarrying and having this great parties, especially in England. He gets to be the one who marries one of Queen Victoria’s daughters and you cannot do better than that. You don’t need to do anything else in your life – you’ve made it! (laughs).

Then one day the Norwegians come to him and say ‘well we have this new but also in a way very old monarchy and we want you to be our king’ and he is surprised at first. But it turns out that it’s what he wants to be. He loves history and foreign policy so he must’ve been really difficult for all of these new governments. He reads like fifteen newspapers a day and has all these paper cuttings that he categorises. He’s got it going!

At the same time, he must be very lonely. His wife has done what is to be expected of her, and she’s constantly going back to England to attend various parties. So she’s rarely in Norway and Haakon travels constantly so that must be lonely. She dies too soon and that must only add to this feeling he has. And that’s sad because he’s a person who likes children and wants to be around them.

The King’s Choice only focuses on a few characters: Haakon, Olav and the ambassador. Why did you choose these particular characters and leave out others like Quisling?

EP: We read about him and how he was taking over the country, but I wanted to limit perspectives in the film and I did that deliberately. I had been doing a PhD on how we set up stories in film in comparison to literature, and how we can move in to be closer to our protagonist. By doing that, I realised an element we need to add is to remove all other perspectives. We need to move closer down and accept that something can be gained by paying close attention to the story and by that it would be the only way of showing it. The only way, I believe, to tell this story is to be with King Haakon.

And you chose to focus on the German ambassador, as well.

EP: That’s more or less a result of my research and how to set up stories. I wanted to limit them. In my previous film, A Thousand Times Goodnight, I was following just one person – Rebecca, who was a war photographer and a mother. I couldn’t leave her and go and focus on her children, it wouldn’t work.

So when it came to this story I decided I needed to be with the king. I can’t leave him to be with the Crown Prince or the government in the next room, I need to be with the king. Then I need to open up and show what could reflect his story and the situation so I needed a perspective from the German side. I found the most interesting perspective, from my point of view, to be the German Ambassador. Something like a good German, which I think is much more interesting and a much more honest picture, actually. It’s believable to what went on. That was the perspective I chose. Then I needed to show what war is. The audience knows what war is, but I feel the war that is shown in cinemas today is very fictionalised or romanticised.

I wanted to show what war really is from my perspective. I’ve spent time in Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so on for the last decade and being in conflict areas then watching films I hardly see it shown accurately. I wanted to show war in a certain way and to be able to do that I needed to have one perspective to show it from that person. So that’s why I did it. So the two most important things to show in the story from the war perspective is the battleship being stopped at the beginning, which is how the king was able to flee, and then when the Germans are about to take the king and the Norwegian soldiers stop them, which saves the king.

It’s refreshing to show the war in a way that’s not ‘Hollywood’ and is instead rather stripped back with a focus on these small stories. When following the king, he’s so composed and seems to be the moral compass of the film.

EP: When I was digging into him I read between 13,000 and 20,000 pages of literature and biography, and as a group we spent 18 months just trying to find out what went on. We read diaries and we phoned people who were there at the time, including Princess Astrid, who’s still alive and went to the premiere we had in Oslo. I was looking for material you don’t find in the books, but rather the details of how Haakon was as a man. How was his language? How was he behaving? How was his temperament? How was the relationship between him and his son? I needed that. I couldn’t start working with Jesper and Anders if I didn’t know. So that’s my job, to keep digging until I have the material I want. Also in the film the dialogue is quite limited. There aren’t full sentences even. I wanted to have that language, but then I also found the temperament when they get into arguments. I wanted that to be as believable as possible.

Jesper, did you want the same insight into Haakon?

JC: Yes, absolutely. Erik Poppe has done the most strenuous research ever. I’ve never seen something that’s been so thoroughly researched as this. There was a mountain of knowledge about all things irrelevant or relevant. It is a fight to forget about it. I don’t give a damn about a film about some royal person. We made a film about a man who’s older and is a fugitive in a war and has to make some very harsh decisions and split up his family in a completely disastrous situation. So you take the research but you have to make him a human being. It’s a lot of help, but sometimes you have to throw it away and make a film.

kongens-nei

Anders, did you work with the research?

Anders Baasmo Christiansen: I was actually studying history before I went to acting school. Every time I get a chance to do some historical research it’s kind of a bonus for me. I like that. But this time it was also a character, a man, that I had grown up with as a king and most of Norway has a relationship with him.

Olav is mostly remembered for parody. He had a very high pitched voice which people sometimes parodied, so when I signed onto this film I had to meet audience expectations, of course. I read a lot about World War II because I had to get into how Norway and Europe looked in the thirties and what had happened. I had to try and forget about everything I knew after the war. I was at the national library and saw some black and white short films and that I was interesting. I saw a lot of speeches from Crown Prince Olav and realised his voice was a little deeper back then so that was relieving!

Throughout the film Haakon doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. How did you work with this?

JC: I think one of the very good things that actors bring to the table is the ability to cut lines. The writers and directors don’t have this; they think they can do it in editing but that’s not true. There’s this technique in music where you take three quarters of the notes and then throw them out. That’s all you need. I think the less is said the better, fundamentally. I think there shouldn’t be too much dialogue in film as we (the audience) need to find things out for ourselves. We want to look at characters and imagine what they could possibly be thinking. We don’t need to be told what they are thinking.

In addition to little dialogue, Haakon seems very calm and composed throughout the film.

JC: That’s something I treated more or less as historical fact. This man has a very, very serious sense of commitment to his job he has. It’s not just a job, he has responsibilities to the whole country. That’s rather pompous, in a way, but it turns out to be very good for the country.

It seems that Jesper’s and Anders’ characters complement each other in that Haakon is rather composed and Olav is a bit more impulsive.

ABC: We both did our own research, and when we met it felt natural. I think the dynamic of the father and son needed that and this is a really historically correct film so behind closed doors we don’t know what was said to one another. Everyone remembers Olav as this very nice grandfather but he also had a temperament, especially in the World War II days because he was a general. He was an army guy and he had seen the war coming for three moments and told the government they need the forces. They didn’t listen to him so when the Germans invaded he felt like he couldn’t be patient.

fra-innspillingen-av-tre-dogn-i-april

And in style, the film has a very documentary feel to it.

EP: I’ve seen all of these historical dramas and almost every time I see the same issue. They have these limitations with the camera. It gets stiff, and probably some of the most conservative dramas in film are these historical biographical stories. They are really set up and controlled and end up being very stiff. I wanted to see what happens when we loosen up the camera and use the same style I’ve used in my other movies. I was looking for a production solution where I could tell the story as it was going on. I wanted my director of photography to not really know what was going on. Sometimes I wanted the camera to be too late so I can deliberately show something is happening right now.

It feels like Norwegians have a really strong sense of nationalistic pride when it comes to the Second World War. Do you see this too?

JC: It turned out, I didn’t know back then, but when we made it I felt some sort of incline that this was not just a film. This is some sort of national unification project where Norwegians show what their grandfathers and great grandfathers told them about those days in April. That’s what we were making. And the enthusiasm from the film puts it in a very special situation. I’ve never been in any work situation where it was more than a film.

The Danish were colonialists; we were the masters. We don’t think about it anymore and we don’t think too much about Norway since we lost them in 1814. When the Germans invaded, Denmark kept the government and there were no Nazi’s at the helm. All of our institutions were intact and very few Danes were killed. But we controlled the country, probably because they wanted our pigs and food and left us with the rest, but that meant many Danish Jews were saved. I think only one hundred Danish Jews died. Some will tell you that we suffered morally and it showed the Danes had no backbone but we could’ve done the same thing as the Netherlands and been completely smashed.

ABC: Olav was kind of a symbol, in a way. He was a Norwegian and a symbol of the resistance. The three neighbouring countries of Scandinavia have a different history when it comes to the war. For example, Märtha escapes to Sweden but her uncle, the King of Sweden, tried to kidnap Harald and make Harald kind of a child king in Norway. So then they had to escape through the north of Sweden and it was President Roosevelt from the USA who smuggled them out. Sweden was neutral and Denmark was taken in two hours. Haakon and Olav pushed for Norway, and it shaped us as Norwegians.

The Danish people may call us mountain monkeys and make fun of how much we celebrate the 17th of May, but it’s a big part of who we are. My father was born in 1945 on the 13th of May and that was the day Olav came home from London. Olav’s nickname was Willie so they named my father Willie Olav because it’s considered a peace name. In 1945 there was a baby boom of peace children because people made love to each other because the war was over.

So the war is not that long ago, it’s something my father and grandparents experienced, so when we celebrate on the 17th of May we are celebrating independence not only from Sweden and Denmark, but also from the Germans. I don’t think the Swedes and Danes fully understand that.

Overall, what was the story you hoped to achieve on screen?

EP: I didn’t want to make a black and white portrait of a man or a king. What I believe I’ve achieved in my other movies and what I believe I achieved here is to make a more honest portrait of people. We are not heroes. We are good and bad. We do struggle and so I wanted to tell a story about how I believe things were. It’s not a documentary, it’s fiction. It’s what I wanted to bring to the screen. Whether that is a Norwegian film or not, well it probably is because I’m Norwegian, but I’m not really fascinated by the Second World War. I’ve never been particularly interested in the monarchy or anything else. So in that way I feel I’ve had a distance to the material. At least good enough to tell the story. 

Previously, my films have had much more of a world view, but when it came to making this film I felt like I needed to have a story that’s entirely focused on the Norwegian market. Forget about the Swedish and the Danish and just focus on that. I think the interesting thing now is that before they started any attempt on international sales it’s already to about ten countries before we have shown anything. Now for the first time producers saw the film and they just said ‘this is really material for the Americans! You will get this distributed for sure!’, and now we are the Norwegian entry for the foreign language section for sure I will get more reactions because now we are starting a campaign.

Maybe the best way of thinking when doing something outside is to not think about it when you’re doing it. Just do your story, I think that’s the best way to do it.

Film details

The King’s Choice / Kongens Nei / Directed by Erik Poppe / Produced by Finn Gjerdrum & Stein B. Kvae   for Paradox / Written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg & Jan Trygve Røyneland / Starring Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen and Tuva Novotny / Local release date 16th September 2016

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.