Les États généraux du film documentaire 2010 Doc History: Denmark

Doc History: Denmark

At the beginnings of cinema history, Denmark occupied a central place in terms of world production and distribution, in particular thanks to the work of the company Nordisk, founded by Ole Olsen. Recognition of Danish cinema was also confirmed via the international reputation of directors like Viggo Larsen, Benjamin Christensen, Carl Th. Dreyer or actors such as Valdemar Psilander and Aster Nielsen. This strong position of Danish cinema came to an end with the First World War which cut distribution channels followed by the advent of sound film. Despite maintaining its production of quality films, Denmark was then cut down to "small country" status.
Concerning documentary during the first decades of cinema, the awakening of Denmark was a little slower than in other countries. Of course newsreels and "travelogues" existed as elsewhere, and it was above all films recounting the expeditions of Knud Rasmussen which stimulated the widest public interest. Twelve years after Flaherty's Nanook, Denmark presented its own ice-bound epic: Palos brudefærd by Friedrich Dalsheim (1934). This film relates Rasmussen's final expedition and stands out above all other "expedition" films by its narrative construction, length and ethnographic interest. From the point of view of film analysis, we could place it somewhere between the fictional approach of In the Land of the War Canoes by Edward Curtis (1914) and Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) for its documentary values and aesthetics, and its connection to the real life of its protagonists.
A year later, in 1935, Poul Henningsen made Danmark, a film which can be described as part of the "Nation Films" current, travel films made inside the country designed above all to promote Denmark abroad. Nonetheless Danmark distinguishes itself from other films of the current by its poetry, impressionist style and light tone; all of which caused some concern within its commissioner, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Later we will again come across this mix of poetry, humour and irony in numerous other documentary films. During this period, documentary production took off in Denmark.
The Second World War gave another boost to Danish documentary. Indeed, under German occupation, it was forbidden to import films from enemy countries and Danish documentaries, if they were on other than "suitable" subjects, offered the public a welcome alternative to propaganda films. The director Theodor Christensen played a major role during the period. Highly inspired and influenced by John Grierson, whom he met in 1939, and by the "British documentary Movement", he adopted and promoted with his friend, Karl Roos, the same missions of public information and education for documentary, as well as the same creative and aesthetic approach as his British colleagues. Numerous documentaries made in the forties, films by Theodor Christensen and many others, dealt with work, industry (in particular the very beautiful 7 Mill. HK of 1944), the exploitation of forests and land, nature and the handling of rubbish of which Spild er penge (1942) is an emblematic example. If these films formally resemble each other, their originality lies above all in the light tone and irony with which they handle their subjects. Their aesthetic principally follows the trends developed in the "British documentary Movement", carefully framed and lit photography as well as effective cutting wed to a poetic approach. The lightness of tone adopted by Poul Henningsen suggests that he also had an important influence on his successors in the elaboration of a Danish documentary "movement". We can cite the humour with which Kornet er i fare by Hagen Hasselbalch (1945) handles the fight against parasitical disease to save the grain crop. Can be found a lightness of touch to which the public was familiar (like in Tudsen, 1944) but which visibly escaped the notice of the German occupiers: a metaphoric reading makes readily visible who the real parasites are...
Documentary production after the war continued at a sustained level and was mainly dominated by information films. The great Carl Th. Dreyer, finding it difficult to finance his fiction projects, devoted himself to documentary and revealed his qualities under another light, often adopting a soberly lyrical style. In both the portrait of a great Danish sculptor (Thorvaldsen, 1949) or an impressionist description of a bridge (Storstrømsbroen, 1950), the master's eye is easily recognisable. The most famous of his shorts is undoubtedly the film he directed to promote road safety, De nåede færgen (1948), in which we find many of the elements of his fiction films, the whole reinforced by the virtuosity of his cameraman: Jørgen Roos.
Jørgen Roos has become the emblematic figure of Danish documentary. His films stood out above all in the fifties and sixties. Younger brother of Karl Roos, he began working as a cameraman on the films of Theodor Christensen. Very soon, he began making his own experimental films with, among others, the painter Albert Mertz (Flugten, 1947), then alternated between avant-garde films and commissioned work. He painted portraits of the great characters of Danish culture like Hans Christian Andersen, Knud Rasmussen (Knud, 1965), Carl Th. Dreyer (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1966) and his own master Theodor Christensen. He continued his experiments (Støj, 1965) and made several films in Greenland (Sisimiut, 1966; Ultima Thule, 1968). Humour was an integral part of his style as revealed by his film on pork production (Den strømliniede gris, 1952). Director but also cameraman and editor on most of his films, Jørgen Roos has always worked with a relatively high degree of autonomy. His films are characterised by a non-conformist approach, careful photography, precisely timed editing and a humanistic vision marked by humour and irony. His work continued in the tradition started by Theodor Christensen and it contributed much in its turn to the evolution of Danish documentary. During the following decades, Danish documentary diversified under the combined influence of television and "direct cinema". Production increased but certain trends remained perceptible - notably filmed portraits (PH Lys, 1964; Et år med Henry, 1969; Jenny, 1978) - and some persistent characteristics like humour and irony (Livet i Danmark, 1971). Nonetheless visions of society became more critical and directors were more interested in their subjects' daily lives (De gamle, 1961) as well as in the evolution of Danish society (Havnen, 1967; Iden vi vågner, 1976; Danmark – dit og mit, 1982).
Some authors stand out by their highly individual approaches like Jørgen Leth, to whom we devote a "Fragment of a film-maker's work". This was also the case for Henning Carlsen, who began his career as assistant to Theodor Christensen and who analysed, in many of his documentaries, the problems of modern society and the lives of the humble. During this period and using the same cinematic devices, others like Jørgen Vestergaard tried to describe major social transformations.
The works of Christian Braad Thomsen and Jon Bang Carlsen outline an approach which is even more particular than that of the two former film-makers. Their style is distinguished by the unselfconscious integration of fictional elements in their films. Herfra min verden går (1976) is a filmed autobiography but Braad Thomsen goes beyond the simple family story to deal with a specific aspect of Danish society: the disappearance of a part of its heritage with the regional language of Jutland.
As for Jon Bang Carlsen, he combines a strong visual language with the staging of his protagonists to forge a trademark of his style. He explains his method in the "metafilm" At opfinde virkeligheden (1996). De Lutrede (2002) by Jesper Jargil, another "metafilm" presented in this programme, turns to fiction to show how the "Dogma" film-makers (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and others) got caught in their own trap.
Production of Danish documentary remains at a high quantitative level but, as in other countries, styles have become highly uniformed and formatted under the influence of television and the internationalisation of the documentary market. Still today, it is the above mentioned authors who mark the memory of viewers and define the wealth and quality of Danish documentary.

Kees Bakker

This programme could not have been compiled without the precious help of various film libraries. We warmly thank Thomas Christensen, Anne Marie Kürstein and Esther Wellejus from the Danish Film Institute.

Presentation and debates by Kees Bakker, in the presence of Esther Wellejus (Danish Film Institute).

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