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There’s No Such Thing as Danish Humour

Danish Comedy films, it seems to be an exception, but they really do exist. Fact is we don’t see these more mainstream and light/ease movies in cinemas in the rest of Europe. The rest of Europe, or maybe the world, is familiar with the profound dramatic art house films like Jagten or Festen or with series as Borgen and Forbrydelsen/The Killing. Danish movies and series seem to be equivalent about deeply dark drama (Nordic Noir), Nordic black humour, feelings of depressions and mourning, and always dealing with topics like incest, alcohol problems or brutal killings. I never saw the more funny and humorous Danish films in cinemas in the Netherlands or Germany (two countries where I’ve lived).   

However, Danish comedies certainly do exist and are popular among the Danish population. The best example, and immediately the most seen film in Danish cinemas since 1990, is the romantic comedy of Susanne Bier Den eneste ene (The One and Only -1999) with lead roles by Sidse Babett Knudsen (a.k.a. Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen), Sofie Gråbøl (a.k.a. Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen) and Paprika Steen (Festen). Furthermore, this film marked the big domestic breakthrough from Susanne Bier and Sidse Babett Knudsen and made them one of Denmark’s biggest director and actress. 

This movie has two little storylines. The first one is about Sus (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is married to the Italian Sonny (Rafael Edholm). Together they’re trying to become pregnant and remodel their kitchen. When Sus gets pregnant she finds out that Sonny is cheating on her and leaves him. The other storyline is about the couple Niller (Nils Olsen) and Lizzie (Søs Egelind). They are trying to get pregnant, but find out that Niller is infertile. They decide to adopt a little girl, Mgala (Vanessa Gouri). On the day when they can finally close their daughter in their arms, the mother dies in a fatal car accident.  

Coincidental the newly divorced Sus and the newly widowed Niller met each other at Sus’ house. Niller is the handyman from the company where they purchased their new kitchen. You can guess what happens next. I won’t give you further details or more spoilers. I can only tell it has something to do with love at first sight, overcoming some problems and living happily ever after. Exactly what you can expect from a typical ‘Romcom’.

Despite that this movie is directed by Susanne Bier, one of the biggest directors in the Danish Film industry (She won an Oscar and an Golden Globe for In a Better World (2010) and makes movies in the US) it isn’t sold to other countries, other than the Nordics. And even in the other Nordic countries this movie wasn’t as big of a success as it was in Denmark.  

According to Ib Bondebjerg, Bier is known as a more mainstream filmmaker who uses mainstream narratives, characters and a more mainstream style in her psychological and social dramas in her movies. The Danish audience do love her movies and especially this one. Reruns of this 1999 movie on television always achieve high audience ratings. Probably because the Danes love comedies and humour.

Danish Humour 

This brings me to the topic of Danish humour. While Bier’s movieDen eneste ene is a typical mainstream romantic comedy. It reminds me a bit of Notting Hill (1998), I won’t use this movie as an example for the typical Danish humour. Instead of using a movie, I’ll use the more dramatic seriesBorgen (2010, 2011, 2013) as an example to clarify the way Danes makes fun of themselves. Because in profound Danish drama, humour is also present.

The Danish humour is like the Dutch humour, and I assume also like the English humour. Danes are known by the way that they use irony, sarcasm and the fact that they making fun of themselves before someone else can. Danes seem to enjoy it to criticise themselves in an ironic way. According to the Danish writer Klaus Rifbjerg Danes laugh even if it hurts and they use humour as a disarming trait which often turns out to be a good weapon in a difficult situation. Danes will use irony or humour especially in uneasy situations in which they want to criticize someone, without hurting their feelings. The Danish/Dutch philosopher Stine Jensen says that irony belongs to the Danes. They use it as a form of shame where they hide behind with humour. Danes do say the opposite of what they mean and that is meant to be funny. With irony you do say something while you mean the total opposite. According to Jensen the Danes are proud on their irony, self-irony and sarcasm. By being ironic you always keep a certain distance, you do not speak clearly and you can always hide yourself behind a joke. “The Danish irony is an unspoken cultural phenomenon you have to grow up with it to understand it,” wrote Jensen in her Dutch book Licht op het Noorden (Light on the Nordics).

Like me, Jensen thinks that the United Kingdom and the Netherlands both do have the same kind of irony. Her clarification for this: three countries that once was a world empire and now have become three small countries. Jensen thinks irony comes from this degradation.       

Danish Humour and the Jante Law

You can trace the Danish humour and irony much further back. In 1933 the Norwegian/Danish writer Aksel Sandemose wrote the novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A fugitive crosses his tracks). This novel portrays the small Danish town Jante (in real life the small Danish town Nykøbing Mors) as it was in the beginning of the 20th century, where nobody could be anonymous. In this book Sandemose presented the Janteloven (Jante Law) as the ten rules of life. Anno 2014 these rules are still recognized in the modern Nordic way of life. Every Dane knows these rules and is raised this way. In the law of Jante dominates the idea of group behaviour towards individuals within Scandinavian communities. Individual success and achievement are seen as unworthy and inappropriate. 

As an individual you are worth nothing. In short are the ten rules:

1.You’re not to think you are anything special.

2.You’re not to think you are as good as we are.

3.You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.

4.You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.

5.You’re not to think you know more than we do.

6.You’re not to think you are more important than we are.

7.You’re not to think you are good at anything.

8.You’re not to laugh at us.

9.You’re not to think anyone cares about you.

10.You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

These rules mark why Danes are known as humble people and irony and self-deprecating fits in this behaviour. Especially rule number eight “You’re not to laugh at us” has something to do with humour and in my opinion this might be the rule where the Danish irony does comes from. No one should make fun of the Danes; they will make fun of themselves before another person can. And this is what I see for example in the series Borgen, a political series about the first female prime minister of Denmark, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen). When Birgitte Nyborg (Episode 1, Season 1) prepares herself for the TV election debate, she finds out that she doesn’t fit in her skirt suit anymore. She is forced to wear an old dress that looks less professional. She will make fun of herself before the media can do it. In her improvised speech after the election debate she refers to the dress she is wearing and the clothes she was supposed to wear for this television debate: “I upset him [her spin doctor] by not wearing the right clothes too. The trouble is I’ve got a bit too fat for them.” A laughing audience follows this confession. It makes her a person of flesh and blood, just like the other Danes.

On the other hand you may be able to read the Jante Law as ironical rules by itself. What if you have to read them in the opposite way, like irony is meant to be? Then individual Danes are anything special or could be good in anything. It is just something to think about. If you would like to trace the Danish irony further back, you can maybe read Søren Kierkegaard’s dissertation about irony (On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates -1841). I will end this article with Kierkegaard’s words:

“As philosophy begins with doubt, so also that life which may be called worthy of a human being begins with irony.”

References:

Bondebjerg, Ib. “Regional and Global Dimensions of Danish Film Culture and Film Policy” InCompanion to Nordic Cinema, edited by Mette Hjort (London: Blackwell 2014 (forthcoming)): no page numbers.

Jensen, Stine. Licht op het Noorden: Stine Jensen in Scandinavië. Amsterdam: Ambo|Anthos, 2013.

Kierkegaard, Søren. On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. New Jersey: Princeton U.P., 1992.  

Rifbjerg, Klaus. “Denmark – Oh! To be Danish. An Essay.” [2005] The Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Archive – 22-5-14http://web.archive.org/web/20051107201828/http://www.um.dk/Publikationer/UM/English/Denmark/kap8/8.asp 

Sandemose, Aksel. En flyktning krysser sitt spor. Oslo: Aschehoug, 2005.

Audio-visual references

Borgen. Dir. Rumle Hammerich, Annette K. Olesen, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Mikkel Nørgaard [et. Al.], Scen. Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, Tobias Lindholm [et. Al.], act. Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Pilou Asbæk, Mikael Birkkjær. Distribution DR, 2010, 2011, 2013.  

Den eneste ene (The One and Only). Dir. Susanne Bier, Scen. Kim Fupz Aakeson, Act. Sidse Babett Knudsen, Paprika Steen, Sofie Gråbøl, Nils Olsen, Søs Egelind, Rafael Edholm, Vanessa Gouri. Distribution: Sandre Metronome, 1999.

A few other Danish comedies

Okay. Dir. Jesper W. Nielsen, Scen. Kim Fupz Aakeson, Act. Paprika Steen, Troels Lyby, Ole Ernst. Distribution: Bech Film, 2002. 

Nynnes Dagbok (Nynne’s Diary). Dir. Jonas Elmer, Scen. Mette Heeno, Henriette Lind (novel), Lotte Thorsen (novel), Anette Vestergaard (novel), Act. Mille Dinesen, Lars Kaalund, Mette Agnete Horn. Distribution: Angel Film, 2005. 

Direktoren for det hele (The Boss of it all – Dogme). Dir./Scen. Lars von Trier, Act. Jens Albinus, Peter Gantzler, Sofie Gråbøl. Distribution: Zentropa, 2006.

Blå mænd. Dir. Rasmus Heide, Scen. Mick Øgendahl, Rasmus Heide, Act. Thure Lindhardt, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Mick Øgendahl. Distribution: Fridthjof Films, 2008. 

Over gaden under vandet (Above the Street Below the Water). Dir. Charlotte Sieling, Scen. Yaba Holst, Charlotte Sieling, Act. Sidse Babett Knudsen, Mohammed Al Bakier, Anders W. Berthelsen, Nicolas Bro. Distribution: Nimbus Film, 2009.

Parterapi, Dir. Kenneth Kainz, Scen. Maya Ilsøe, Kenneth Kainz, Jannik Tai Mosholt, Mikkel Serup, Act. Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Søren Pilmark. Distribution: Nordisk Film, 2010.

Sover Dolly på ryggen? Dir. Hella Joof, Scen. Christian Torpe, Marie Østerbye, Act. Lene Maria Christensen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Mia Lyhne. Distribution: Nordisk Film, 2012.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 5
Birgit De Bruin

Birgit de Bruin is a Masters student Media Studies and Art Policy and Art Management at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Currently she is completing research why Danish drama series are so popular in Europe. Birgit is interested in representation of Danish culture, gender and also in writing and production processes of Danish public service television drama. Birgit’s previous work is mainly about representation of gender or cultural minorities in Dutch television series from the Dutch public broadcaster NPO. Furthermore has Birgit a broad interest in culture and media policy of the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and the European Union.