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Danish Cinema, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema

The Inheritance (Arven, Den/Swe/Nor/UK 2003)

A happy moment for Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) backstage with Maria (Lisa Werlinder) (Image from outnow.ch)

After the first few Dogme offerings in the late 1990s, Danish filmed drama didn’t get much of an outlet in the UK until the TV series of The Killing and Borgen came along (with the exception of Lars Von Trier of course). The Inheritance did get a UK release of sorts but I’d certainly forgotten about it. In several ways the film is related to Festen (Celebration, 1998), the first ‘official’ film of the Dogme ’95 manifesto group. Festen is a form of family melodrama which lays open the wounds of a bourgeois family and something similar happens in The Inheritance. The central character is again played by Ulrich Thomsen and there is a supporting role for Lars Brygmann from Festen (he is also in Borgen). Like Festen, The Inheritance is shot on video, but Digibeta this time giving a better definition, and much of it is handheld cinematography using two cameras. Mostly I didn’t notice the camerawork as it is quite ‘composed’ but the opening did set the tone of ‘edgy intimacy’ with handheld work in the confines of a hotel room. (The film is listed on IMDb with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but the Drakes Avenue Region 2 DVD seems to be cropped to 1.78:1.)

Christoffer (Thomsen) is a youngish restaurateur in Stockholm where his beautiful young wife is a rising star of the Swedish Royal Drama Company. A sudden visit from Christoffer’s father, head of the family steelworks in Denmark, at first seems of no great importance. But a few days later Christoffer finds himself parachuted in to take over the steelworks at the behest of his rather formidable mother. This isn’t what he wants and his life is turned upside down. We learn that he had previously found working in the family business far too stressful, but he seems to do whatever his mother demands – can it all work out? I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film so I won’t go into detail but what impressed me (alongside the performances from some of Denmark’s best screen actors and Swedish actor Lisa Werlinder) was the clear-eyed dissection of family relationships and the manoeuvring within the family business. There is no sentimentality here and no pandering to notions of ‘feelgood’ cinema or happy endings. If anyone has illusions about the personal costs that dealing in this kind of business can generate, this will dispel them effectively. There are plenty of French films that deal with family businesses like this, and some of them (such as Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (1999)) have the same intensity, but I was also reminded of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) – a very different kind of film but one that links to the cold business practices of contemporary European capitalism. Part of the narrative of The Inheritance involves a possible merger with a French steel company and it is interesting to see Danish characters who can move easily between Denmark, Sweden and France, speaking fluently (when we know thy could just as easily speak English). Why can’t British and American filmmakers produce interesting stories set in the business world? Instead of intelligent dramas like this on television or in the cinema we seem obsessed with tawdry reality TV shows.

Directed and partly written by Per Fly, The Inheritance is the second in a trilogy of films set in three different strata of Danish society. Christoffer’s family are industrialists of the haute bourgeoisie (in one scene preparing for a politically-correct hunt with careful rules about what you can shoot). The other two films are Drabet (2005) and Baenken (2000), but these don’t appear to have made it to the UK – despite Draben being an official UK co-production. The Inheritance has been the most successful of Fly’s films but I’m surprised that after the domestic market and that of co-production partner Norway, the best territories for the film have been Italy and Spain rather than Sweden and the UK (the other co-producers) Germany or France (see the Lumiere database). So typing this as ‘North European Drama’ doesn’t quite seem to work out.

If any UK readers are feeling withdrawal symptoms after the end of Borgen Series 1, I heartily recommend The Inheritance which is available on offer at Amazon.co.uk at just £3.89. I doubt that you would be disappointed if this replaced your evening’s TV viewing.

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