Arts

A Guide to Danish Film: 12 Films to Watch

The most important Danish movies; where do we even start?! It’s hard to miss the controversial career and legacy of Lars von Trier, nor can one avoid the enigmatic aura of Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, who seems to act in just about every single Danish film. The Danish films are creative, often dark, and never boring.The Danish film industry has gained notoriety for its uncompromising choice of themes and aesthetics, and the degree of creative freedom given to directors, actors, and producers alike.

 
 

History of Danish Film

Nordisk Film, the world’s oldest film company still in operation, was founded in 1906. Before the World War I, in the time of silent films, the Danish film industry was actually one of the most vibrant and most productive globally, and Danish actors and films were known all across the world.

This changed as the influence and popularity of films produced in the US increased in the 1920s and 30s. The decades after the second world war saw a renewal of energy in the Danish film industry, but the market was more directed inwards, targeting Danes rather than an international audience.

In the late 1960s, Denmark was the first country in the world to legalise pornography, leading to the production of many risqué films. As a result, the Danish film industry gained a reputation for being both provocative and free-spirited.

 
 

The Dogme95 Manifesto and film movement

The Dogme95 manifesto (“dogme” means dogma in Danish), written by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg in (you guessed it) 1995, outlined a minimalistic cinematographic approach, the goal of which was to purify the world of cinema and arguably influenced a generation of indie filmmakers.

 

 

The manifesto, amongst other things, outlines “Vows of Chastity” that filmmakers would have to follow to be part of the movement. These vows of chastity involved only shooting on location, and only using props that could be found there. The light had to be natural and the sound also had to be recorded on location. And, the director could never be credited. One of the first and maybe the most famous Dogme film is Festen, directed by Thomas Vinterberg (but maybe we shouldn’t mention that? That part of the manifesto seems to have fallen by the wayside).

 
 

Zentropa Controvery

Both von Trier and Vinterberg have since moved on from the Dogme95 years, and von Trier’s production company Zentropa has produced many of the most successful Danish films in recent years, including his own Depression trilogy (Anti-Christ, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac) and Vinterberg’s Druk.

Zentropa has been shrouded in controversy after a wave of #MeToo accusations, mostly directed at von Trier’s long-time producer, Peter Aalbæk Jensen. He was accused of spanking his employees, and transgressions like handing out awards to the employee with the longest pubic hair at the company’s Julefrokost. He has since been removed as the company’s CEO. Von Trier himself has been accused of sexual harassment by Björk, the Icelandic singer and performer who acted in his film Dancer in the Dark. Von Trier continues to deny any wrongdoing.

 
 

Modern Danish film

In addition to those who grew out of the Dogme95 movement, Susanne Bier is a Danish director with an impressive filmography and legacy. Hævnen won her an Academy Award in 2010, and with that she truly cemented her position as one of the most acclaimed Danish directors on the international stage. In fact, she is the first woman to ever win an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Primetime Emmy Award and a European Film Award. Her most recent project, The Undoing, an HBO mini-series starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, came out critical acclaim. If you haven’t seen it yet, you totally should.

An article about Danish cinema would not be complete without mentioning actor Mads Mikkelsen. Throughout his long and illustrious career, Mikkelsen has played everything from Bond villains to depressed high school teachers, bringing his special sense of depth and detail to every role. Despite his international fame, Mikkelsen hasn’t fully abandoned the mothership but has continuously acted in both grand Hollywood productions, as well as in quirky Danish films.

Let’s play a round of Mikkelsen bingo, shall we? How many films on our must-see list is he in? Not included in the list, but clearly important to the canon: Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video.

 

 

 

These are the essential Danish films you need to know:

Ordet

Film title in English

The Word

Film title in Danish

Ordet

Directed by

Carl Theodor Dryer

Year

1955

Length

1h 43min

Based on

Ordet (1932 play); by Kaj Munk‎

 
Considered the original Danish classic film,Ordet tells the story of the Borgen family in rural Denmark in the 1920s. The three Borgen brothers all have their separate struggles with faith and belief; oldest son Morten, who lives his life without faith but ends up having to reckon with death in the most gruesome way, middle child Johannes, who has gone insane studying Kirkegaard and believes he is Jesus Christ, and youngest Anders, who wants to marry the daughter of a local sect leader. It’s an emotionally dense story of faith, love and ultimately, the mysteries of life and death.

 
 

Babette’s Feast

Film title in English

Babette’s Feast

Film title in Danish

Babettes Gæstebud

Directed by

Gabriel Axel

Year

1987

Length

1h 43min

Based on

Babette’s Feast; by Karen Blixen

 
Babettes Gæstebud (Babette’s Feast) follows two deeply religious sisters in West Jylland, Denmark, as they open up their home to Babette, a French refugee who seeks shelter at their home after fleeing a counter-revolutionary conflict in Paris. The two sisters take her in as a housekeeper, and to return the favour, Babette organises a magnificent feast for the whole village. A warm story of hospitality, tradition, and gratitude, Babette’s Feast won Best Foreign Language Film at the 1987 Academy Awards.

 
 

Pelle the Conqueror

Film title in English

Pelle the Conqueror

Film title in Danish

Pelle Erobreren

Directed by

Bille August

Year

1987

Length

2h 37m

Based on

Pelle the Conqueror (1910 novel); by Martin Andersen Nexø

 
In Pelle Erobreren (Pelle the Conqueror), Pelle and his father Lasse leave the south Swedish region of Skåne in search for a better life in Denmark. Set in the late 19th century, this Danish-Swedish co-production has been compared to The Emigrants, as it touches upon the same themes of poverty, oppression, and the dream of a better life. It won Best Foreign Language Film at both the Academy Awards and the BAFTA, as well as a Bodil for best film in Denmark, and a Guldbagge for Best Film in Sweden.

 
 

Pusher

Film title in English

Pusher

Film title in Danish

Pusher

Directed by

Nicolas Winding Refn

Year

1996

Length

1h 50m

 
After a drug deal goes horribly wrong, Frank (the glorious Kim Bodnia) ends up owing a dangerous drug lord a LOT of money. Along with his manic sidekick Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen’s film debut) and his girl Vic (Laura Drasbæk), Frank desperately tries to navigate the Copenhagen criminal underground to get the money to pay him back. Winding Refn has also directed the 2011 hit film Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, for which he won Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

 
 

Festen (The Celebration)

Film title in English

The Celebration

Film title in Danish

Festen

Directed by

Thomas Vinterberg

Year

1998

Length

1h 46m

 
In Festen, we witness the unfolding of Helge’s 60th birthday celebration, where he gathers his close relatives at the family-run hotel. Like many other later Danish films, it explores themes of darkness, violence and dysfunctional families, and no topic, be it suicide or incest, is shied away from. Festen is the first Dogme film and is characterised by its simple production and natural cinematographic style. A must see.

 
 

Italiensk for begyndere (Italian for Beginners)

Film title in English

Italian for Beginners

Film title in Danish

Italiensk for begyndere

Directed by

Lone Scherfig

Year

2000

Length

1h 58m

 
Another Dogme film, but unlike the many dark films considered to be part of the movement, Italiensk for begyndere is a light hearted comedy. It still deals with dysfunctional family relations, but it does it in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Get ready for a melange of family mix-ups, deaths and a lot of endearing (yet more or less f*cked up) suburbanites trying to make the best of their sometimes very challenging circumstances – and of course some Danes trying to speak Italian.

 
 

Blinkende Lygter (Flickering Lights)

Film title in English

Flickering Lights

Film title in Danish

Blinkende Lygter

Directed by

Anders Thomas Jensen

Year

2001

Length

1h 49m

 
In Blinkende Lygter, we follow a band of Copenhagen criminals who’ve managed to cheat their mob-boss on millions of kroner. They try to run away to Barcelona, but end up hiding out in a house on the Danish countryside. Here, their tough-guy-criminal-acts quickly melt away, as they realise they might want to stay there and start over. Maybe even start a restaurant? This endearing dark comedy is a nice contrast to an otherwise quite gloomy list of films (together with Italian for Beginners).

 
 

Hævnen (In a Better World)

Film title in English

In a Better World

Film title in Danish

Hævnen

Directed by

Susanne Bier

Year

2010

Length

1h 59m

 
The film that won Bier an Academy Award! This complex family drama (are you catching the common thread here?) tells the story of a doctor (Mikael Perbrandt) who splits his life between Denmark and Sudan, where he treats the victims of a war lord. Both him and his son Elias are fighting their own sets of demons, and the question of what is right and wrong (and according to whom?) ultimately weaves their two struggles together.

 
 

En Kongelig Affære (A Royal Affair)

Film title in English

A Royal Affair

Film title in Danish

En Kongelig Affære

Directed by

Nikolaj Arcel

Year

2012

Length

2h 17m

 
In En Kongelige Affære, you have all the ingredients for a delicious period drama: costumes (duh), infidelity, and power struggles. Alicia Vikander plays Princess Caroline Mathilde, who leaves her native England to be married off to the mentally ill Danish Prince Christian VII. Unhappy in her marriage, she starts a (royal!) affair with her husband’s physician (Mads Mikkelsen, in true movie star form), with disastrous effect. The film is based on a true story, but we cannot verify if the real royal physician was as much of a babe as Mikkelsen is in his ponytail.

 
 

Holiday

Film title in English

Holiday

Film title in Danish

Holiday

Directed by

Isabella Eklöf

Year

2018

Length

2h 17m

 
The chewing-gum-pastel-popping cinematography contrasts sharply with the violence, drugs, and gross display of wealth in Eklöf’s adeptly-named Holiday. In it, we follow Sascha, whose criminal boyfriend has taken her on a trip to the Turkish riviera. Cars, clubs, cocktails, and a great deal of explicit (sexual) violence characterises Eklöf’s debut as director. A master provocateur, the audience is inevitably sucked into her twisted, yet coldly detached universe.

 
 

Dronningen (Queen of Hearts)

Film title in English

Queen of Hearts

Film title in Danish

Dronningen

Directed by

May el-Toukhy

Year

2019

Length

2h 8m

 
In Dronningen, the boundaries between parent and child, and mother and lover, are broken down. Anne (Trine Dyrholm’s performance of a life time) starts a dangerous affair with her 17-year old stepson. Dane’s don’t shy away from nudity, and Dronningen has many explicit sex scenes. Yet it doesn’t feel overdone or unnecessary: every scene acts as a driver of the narrative and paints Anne as both the protagonist and antagonist of the film. It’s dark, sexy, and deeply uncomfortable – Danish cinema at its best. The film was long-listed for an Academy Award in 2019.

 
 

Druk (Another Round)

Film title in English

Another Round

Film title in Danish

Druk

Directed by

Thomas Vinterberg

Year

2020

Length

1h 57m

 
If you are a non-Dane navigating Danish drinking culture, you HAVE to watch Druk. Actually, even if you aren’t, you should still watch it. In Vinterberg’s latest masterpiece, four high school teachers decide to try out a Norwegian philosopher’s hypothesis that us humans are born with 0.5 mm of alcohol too little in our blood stream, and that this affects our well being negatively. The four friends start day-drinking to even out this unbalance, to see if they will become better at their jobs and more content in their lives. Naturally, it gets out of hand.

Want more Scandinavian film? Check out the essential Swedish films, the best films of Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman, and

 

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Kajsa Rosenblad

Journalist currently working with documentary films. Half Swedish, half Dutch, based in Copenhagen. Professional opinion machine and French pop music connoisseur.