16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance

What Do Those Old Films Mean? (1987)
Each part 26 Min., Dir.: Noël Burch

Return to main: What Do Those Old Films Mean?

Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide

Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below

Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World

Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Born Yesterday

Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History
Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags

Why was Copenhagen the undisputed birthplace of the mature bourgeois cinema, of psychological realism on the screen, at a time when the most sophisticated French or American films were still no more than rudimentary melodrama (Griffith, Perret)? Contingent factors, like those which determined the appearance of a not dissimilar cinema in Italy and Russia a few years later, no doubt have to be taken into account. For example, the exceptional personality of ex-fairground impresario Ole Olsen, founder of the Nordisk Company and by far the most powerful Danish producer, who first attracted people from the legitimate stage to work in films. Or the precedent set by Asta Nielsen and Urban Gad, leaving the Royal Theatre Copenhagen to produce independently their world-wide success, The Abyss. However, one must look to the liberal social and intellectual climate of Copenhagen at the turn of the century for a more comprehensive explanation: this ”anomaly’ of early film history was grounded in centuries of national development.

Whilst the population of Copenhagen had tripled within fifty years, the Danish economy still remained largely agricultural in 1914: industrial workers were less than 10% of the labour force. However, the industrial revolution had transformed agriculture itself: mechanisation had taken over a large number of women’s traditionally lowly jobs. so that many came to the city as domestics, shop-assistants, office-workers, etc.

Now, rural Denmark had an historical profile exceptional in Europe and even in Scandinavia. During the Middle Ages, for example, serfdom seems to have been unknown, and compared with other European countries, land distribution was particularly democratic. In the latter part of the nineteenth century. the liberal reformers who rose to power did so with the support of the independent farmers and small-holders (unlike France, for instance, where peasants were the allies of a reactionary church and aristocracy). Moreover, this development was favoured by the co-operative farming structures that appeared earlier in Denmark than elsewhere.

In the United States, for example, the spread to the cities of a village culture cast a pall of puritanism over urban entertainments. Such was not the case in Denmark. This was perhaps because the rural exodus was mainly female; perhaps, too, because the consequences of industrialisation, less traumatic than in other countries, had not induced in the middle classes any great fear of culture’s power to ”subvert” the urban masses. When Strindberg could not perform his plays in Stockholm because of the strict Lutheran censorship, he was able to establish in Copenhagen (1889) his own amateur theatre. Ibsen could find no publisher in his native Norway and it was in Copenhagen that his plays first appeared in print. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Danish capital was regarded as the Paris of Northern Europe.

Key factors in determining this social climate were the status of women, the prominence of feminism and attitudes towards sexuality. Danish peasant customs seem to have been unusually liberal: from earliest times women had a say in whom they married, premarital intimacy was customary. The arrival in Copenhagen, during the last years of the century, of young, single countrywomen, reared in a tradition which privileged the marriage of convenience over romantic love but at the same time recognised women’s desire, had a profound effect on urban life. Feminism already had a long history in Denmark, first as a movement for equal work opportunities, later in the struggles for political equality. This, no doubt, is in part attributable to the early development of equal educational opportunities at the elementary level, as well as to the growth of the liberal, church-owned Folk High Schools. One of the central issues of feminist debate in the eighteen-eighties had been male-female equality in sexual relations. This controversy, fuelled by such plays as Ibsen’s The Doll’s House and Björnsen’s The Glove was still alive in literary and theatrical circles in 1910 when the first ”erotic melodramas” were made for the screen. And by this time, the Danish women’s movement, one of the largest in the world, had reached its height: women were granted certain local government suffrage rights in 1908 and were to win national suffrage by 1915, prostitution was outlawed in 1906; a generation of important feminist writers appeared before the public eye.

Small wonder, then, that the Danish cinema should have been the first to deal openly with questions of sex and desire… or that many films should have reflected male fears of women and their sexuality.

A “Legitimate”Cinema

The Danish cinema was the first to draw upon the traditions and themes of advanced bourgeois naturalism. Ole Olsen’s conviction that the portrayal of upper-class mores would captivate the hearts and purses of the “simple” Eastern European public no doubt played a role in influencing the direction of Danish film. But Asta Nielsen’s testimony also suggests that many theatre people like Urban Gad and herself felt frustrated by the limited opportunities and stiff competition of the Copenhagen stage world.

Who made up the audience of these films that dealt with subjects and situations as frank and powerful as any found in Ibsen, Björnsen or Hjalmar Sodderberg (author of the feminist play Gertrud adapted decades later by Dreyer)? They were the sophisticated - though not perhaps always middle-class - audience of metropolitan Copenhagen, for whom a discretionary censorship actually reserved the more daring productions. The Danish films sent out to the provinces belong to genres - comedy, serial - more innocuous than the ”erotic melodramas” signed Gad, Blom or Schnedler-Sörensen.

These products from the earliest of the great Scandinavian film industries were innovative, and not only for their literary qualities and psychologically sophisticated acting. Between 1910 and 1916 or thereabouts, the Danes were certainly on a par with the American cinema in the development of film language. In fact, in such aspects as lighting, camera angles or editing within one and the same scene, they adopted many techniques before the American directors.

Unfortunately for the further development of this accomplished school of psychological and social realism, the United States market, already the world’s largest, had been virtually closed to it since efforts to gentrify the American audience had instituted a strict censorship of rural, puritan inspiration. Thus, out of fourteen Nordisk films deposited with the Library of Congress for copyright in 1912 with an eye to U.S. distribution, only two actually reached American screens. And when Danish films were shown in the United States, modifications of inter-titles and catalogue descriptions often bowdlerised them.

Even the Danes themselves had a way of attenuating the shock-impact of their films. The Copenhagen audience would be given printed hand-outs of the scenario putting a moralistic gloss on the action. Yet the existence of such programme leaflets attests to the high level of literacy of the Copenhagen audience, telling us, perhaps, as much about its class composition as about the celebrated Danish school-system.

One wonders whether that audience felt deprived in 1913-1914, when these psycho-sexual genres gave way to moralising romances with religious overtones signed by such competent technicians as Benjamin Christiansen or Holger Madsen, films which, however lugubrious, were certainly more widely acceptable on the world market.