Danish film can be a hard starter for many; mainstream moviegoers harp on the usual “downsides” applicable to foreign film: subtitles, unorthodox plotting, and no recognizable stars. Even art house veterans can find it hard to dissociate Denmark’s output from the well known (infamous?) director Lars von Trier, who’s films run cold, experimental and arguably misanthropic.
There’s more out there. What follows are three very different Danish films in three varied genres, all personal favorites of mine and a starting point for learning more about what Danish (or for some, just plain foreign) cinema has to offer.
Director Susanne Bier’s third feature is a loose, organic drama that can be heartbreaking at times but remains warm overall. Mads Mikkelsen stars as the manager of an orphanage in India who returns to Denmark because of a funding offer; complications soon ensue.
Bier more recently had her Hollywood debut with Things We Lost In the Fire, a film starring Benicio del Toro and Halle Berry that came and went with little fanfare. It’s unfortunate, as Bier had built up a solid body of work with a trio of earlier Danish dramas: Open Hearts, (the stateside remade) Brothers, and After the Wedding. It’s the final of the three I’m recommending as I find it Bier’s most accessible and varied in tone. It also features an incredibly strong piece of acting by Mikkleson, one of Denmark’s best actors (and vaguely recognizable by wide audiences – he played the uber-villain in Casino Royale.) The performances are nuanced and Bier paces the tone of the film very well.
Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher at first glance appears as a standard gangster/drug thriller with a very dark nihilistic streak. Yet there’s much more depth and skill underneath that give it originality: Pusher mostly features performances from non actors, some of them alleged criminals. Rein’s camera work rarely traffics in Scorsese-like flourishes; shots are to the point and hand held. All this gritty realism is ultimately held together by a great turn from Kim Bodnia as the protagonist. Bodnia (like Mikkelsen, another Danish film veteran) presents a real sense of introspection and empathy to the audience which makes his cataclysmic decisions in the final acts of the film quite watchable.
It’s ironic that in an article’s introduction that centers on breaking free of Danish cinema stereotypes I end up recommending one by the aforementioned Lars von Trier. Yet it’s a legit comedy! The plot focuses on the owner of a tech firm who in a a desperate effort to sell the company hires an actor to play the part of the “boss”. It’s far from The Office yet very funny with its own sense deadpan humor. Admittedly Von Trier can’t completely leave his compulsions behind (some general cynicism, a very self referential and distracting narration) yet most of the film holds together nicely. The director’s bite gives the film a few genuine surprises (increasingly rare in comedy) and can be appreciated on many levels, from jokes on sex and office politics to a deeper treatise on core human values.