(An amended version of notes for an evening class.)
Denmark has an interesting cinematic history, as a small country with a Scandinavian language, but a border with Germany. Denmark produced one of the first stars of early cinema with the widespread acclaim for Asta Nielsen in the first Danish feature films from 1910-13. The early success of Danish producers could not be sustained and Nielsen worked in Germany from 1913, becoming a major figure in silent cinema. Carl Dreyer (1898-1968) is perhaps the most famous Danish filmmaker, but his best known films were made in other languages such as French or German.
Since the 1940s Denmark has consistently produced around 20 feature films each year, mostly for Scandinavian markets. In the 1980s two Danish films won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, Babette’s Feast (1987) and Pelle the Conqueror (1988). These were both historical dramas and it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lars von Trier and his colleagues began to put contemporary Denmark onto the world’s screens.
In 1991 von Trier had a critical and commercial success with Europa (Zentropa), a Danish/Swedish/French/German/Swiss co-production in English and German. This was followed by a successful TV series (known as The Kingdom in the UK) in 1994, made by the production company Zentropa Entertainments that von Trier founded with Peter Aalbæk Jensen. This company has subsequently produced all of von Trier’s films and those of many other Danish filmmakers.
In 1995 Lars von Trier and colleagues Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen formed the Dogme Collective. The basic premise was that filmmakers should dispense with most of the trappings of mainstream cinema except for believable characters and a story that was in no way contrived. Films that fulfilled the strict rules of the Dogme ‘Vow of Chastity’ received a certificate from the group. Whatever Dogme achieved in terms of changing attitudes towards filmmaking (and there are plenty of sceptics as well as supporters, it proved to be an excellent means of promoting Danish films internationally. Journalists everywhere had a handy label to pin to films they were willing to discuss as ‘Dogme’ films. Perhaps a dozen, mostly Danish, films have been widely seen internationally as Dogme films, but hundreds more have received some kind of ‘promotion by association’.
We Shall Overcome
Niels Arden Oplev’s film is not a Dogme film (historical or costume pictures are not allowed), but it was produced by Zentropa Entertainments and it has certainly benefited from the high profile Danish films have achieved on the festival circuit as a result of the Dogme phenomenon. Getting your film seen is always difficult and Zentropa’s connections mean that Danish films like this have an advantage over other films from relatively small film industries.
Based on a true story, We Shall Overcome is a feelgood drama focusing on an incident in a Danish village school in the late 1960s in which a young boy Frits stands up to one of his teachers on a matter of historical accuracy. The incident snowballs into a major confrontation. The boy is close to his father who suffers a mental breakdown and has to spend time in hospital. In thematic terms it brings together three social issues including corporal punishment, attitudes to mental illness and the social liberation movements of the late 1960s which were inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the US and the Vietnam War protests across Europe. In Denmark, the social revolution had an internationally visible representation in the hippy community in Christiania, which was founded in 1971 when squatters on state-owned land in Copenhagen set up an alternative community. Freddie, the teacher in We Shall Overcome, is presented as a forerunner to the hippies of this community. Importantly, he is associated with the international peace movement and a more politically aware outlook compared to the hippies. Nevertheless, he will ‘fail’ the central character Frits at a crucial time.
The film is ‘feelgood’ because its ‘liberal’ views on social issues are now generally supported and the narrative effectively pushes us to support the boy and his family at the centre of the story in their struggle against a conservative and repressive school system. The film also develops other elements often found in European films. One is the 1960s optimism founded in American popular culture, especially black culture. An obvious connection might be made to the early films of Wim Wenders such as Summer in the City (1970), Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976), all using images of America (and its music) to comment on contemporary life in West Germany. Just as the French New Wave directors explored aspects of American culture in order to critique traditional approaches to cinema, this film uses the Civil Rights movement in order to challenge the social order. It is also worth remembering that in many parts of Europe the development of television as a mass entertainment form took longer than in the US and the UK.
In commercial terms, We Shall Overcome also attempts to attract two separate audiences. Younger audiences might identify directly with Frits and the schoolchildren, whereas for those over forty, the film evokes nostalgia for what might now seem a more optimistic time when protest could bring about change. (The director was born in 1961 and claims that the film was very much influenced by his own memories.)
One of the important issues for British audiences to consider is that this film belongs alongside a growing number of films that are child or youth-centred. In the Scandinavian countries in particular and Europe in general, there is far more attention paid to ‘children’s film’. This often means relatively serious films by comparison with those from Hollywood, although there are similarly escapist films as well. UK audiences have got used to the idea that ‘children’s film’ means animation or fantasy adventure. There are relatively few ‘British’ rather than American films that are seen by younger audiences in Britain. In the past, the UK had the Children’s Film Foundation which made professionally-produced films for children on relatively small budgets. This ran from 1951 until the early 1980s with some public funding. Otherwise in the UK, children have been neglected as the central characters in mainstream features. Older youths in UK pictures have traditionally appeared in ‘social problem’ films – ideologically quite different in their approach to youth issues to films such as We Shall Overcome. There is now something of a movement in the UK to promote Children’s Films again and in the last few years a number of children’s film festivals have developed, notably Cinemagic in Northern Ireland and two in Yorkshire – the Leeds Children and Young People’s Film Festival and Showcommotion in Sheffield. Both these festivals are part of the European Children’s Film Network. It’s worth visiting the website at http://www.ecfaweb.org/ecfnet/films.php to see the range of films produced in recent years.
Films like We Shall Overcome have attracted middle-class audiences to new versions of ‘Saturday morning cinema’ (in arthouse cinemas like London’s Barbican Cinema), once a staple of working class life in the UK in the 1950s. But might the film have a wider audience if it was dubbed? The sub-plot around the new approach to teaching music is very recognisable from Hollywood films such as School of Rock (US 2003). However, Variety’s critic Leslie Felperin suggested after a festival screening that the film “has a feelgood factor that can win hearts and minds on the fest circuit and secure some theatrical bookings, but isn’t sufficiently revolutionary to conquer farther flung territories”. I don’t agree – I think this film could have wide appeal.
Finally, we should note the co-production credit for Glasgow-based Sigma Films. There are strong connections between Zentropa and various Scottish production groups. These have seen some high profile projects such as Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (UK/Denmark 2006) and Lone Scherfig’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (UK/Denmark 2002).
Roy Stafford 13/2/07