Flame and Citron, or Peter Mygind before Borgen

We’ve been on a Danish film and television groupie’s roll recently, in no small part inspired by going back and watching the first two series of Borgen and the first series of Bron/Broen/The Bridge all over again. It’s a bit like being allowed to eat the one meal you always remember (in our appropriately Scandi case, chateaubriand a la Peter the Great with all the Finno-Russo works at a Russian restaurant in Helsinki in June 2003) with all the tastes newly enhanced tenfold: in other words, with all the pearls of dialogue and pockets of exquisite dramatic tension you might have missed first time round all the more immediate and heightened as a sensation.

Although he is not (quite) one of the leading stars of Borgen in the same way that Sidse Babett Knudsen, Birgitte Hjørt Sørensen and Pilou Asbæk are, Peter Mygind truly reels the viewer in with his depiction of suave but ruthless politician-turned-tabloid editor Michael Laugesen. As an actor, Mygind is forensically accurate and insightful in bringing to life a cynical and manipulative (yet dangerously clever) character both palpable and evocative of some of modern liberal social dilemmas (not least the one that if you want a free society you have to deal with all the connotations of what a free press constitutes).

Peter Mygind - insightful actor

Peter Mygind – insightful actor

Mygind’s acting impressed us so much it triggered a quest to source some Danish films possibly overlooked as a result of the great Danske Radio Conquest Of Britain that has been administered via the proxy of BBC Four in the last few years. As such, we spent last weekend watching Flame and Citrona thriller set in World War Two, directed by Ole Christian Madsen and released in 2008 (admittedly BBC Four did air this film in January 2012).

The film is to some extent based on genuine historical events regarding the activities of the Holger Danske resistance group in the course of the war. The lead roles of Bent Faurschou-Hviid and Haagen Schmith are respectively taken by Thure Lindhardt and the man who would probably be filed at the front of the top Danish drawer in terms of achieving international thesp film recognition thus far in the 21st century – Mads Mikkelsen.

The film charts how the duo both serve within the Danish resistance movement under German occupation and feel morally compelled to do so whilst remaining desperately concerned about retaining their human compassion and dignity. In this respect they find their consciences tortured trying to work out whether those people around them – not least their immediate leader, Aksel Winther (played by Mygind), Faurschou-Hviid’s love interest Ketty Selmer (played by Stine Stengade, herself a Borgen alumnus) and the oddly philosophical and placid German colonel Gilbert (played by Hanns Zischler) – can be genuinely trusted.

A Danish publicity poster for Flame and Citron

A Danish publicity poster for Flame and Citron

To compound all of this tension, the film makes no bones in dealing with an issue that has remained contentious through to the new century – that of those Danish individuals who may have collaborated with the occupiers.

British audiences are probably highly familiar with the theme of WWII resistance movements, both through the medium of serious drama such as Secret Army and distinctly unserious drama such as ‘Allo ‘Allo. But the story of Danish resistance remains somewhat uncharted on UK screens at the least, and this film certainly works in offering an initial education in this respect if nothing else.

Even if the film does not adhere to actual historical events in line-and-length terms, it’s highly plausible and engaging – not least through convincing scenes such as those of Winther and his colleagues yo-yoing between Denmark and the neutral Sweden where they might plot their next activities at a safer distance. We can’t help feeling we need to go and do some serious swotting about the history of the real-life Holger Danske group as a result.

The film’s dialogue may lack the velvety, lovingly-burnished dialogue of Borgen (although maybe in a gritty drama of this sort that’s not the point), and audiences may be familiar with the genre of World War Two films like no other (even if some of them, like this one, are about relatively niche subjects), but Flame and Citron still works a treat for very much the same reason Borgen works a treat – the believability of the characters.

Mikkelsen certainly showcases his credentials by carrying off a dazzling balancing act and portraying Schmith as a man both on the verge of mental disintegration and total estrangement from his loved ones yet defiant and capable in his actions as a freedom fighter. Neither Lindhardt nor Mikkelsen are guilty of romanticising the roles of their respective characters, yet they show the veritable friendship between the two protagonists whilst demonstrating that heroes are often necessarily unsentimental and hard-edged.

In particular, the jarring conclusion as Nazi occupiers endeavour to tighten the net around both men goes hand-in-hand with the viewer’s realisation that their nemesis, Gestapo leader Hoffmann (played by Christian Berkel), has cultivated a feeling for them he probably never envisaged taking root: that of fearful respect.

Anyone familiar with Mygind’s role as Michael Laugesen will have a good idea what to expect here. Like his contemporary Søren Malling, Mygind excels in portraying figures of authority, but whereas Malling gravitates towards playing more reticent and prickly (yet intense) characters, Mygind brings a natural and relaxed ease to realising characters who are saturnine and charming yet dangerous. There’s at least one key scene in the film where Winther, just like Laugesen, raps out orders and verdicts in a voice dripping with honey and poison at the same time (the blazing blue Mygind eyes and wavy, swept-back Mygind hair synonymous with the Laugesen role being just as potent, and for the same kind of reasons, in this dramatic role).

Like Laugesen, not unlike Winther: Mygind and Lindhardt in Flame and Citron

Like Laugesen, not unlike Winther: Mygind and Thure Lindhardt in Flame and Citron

However, Winther is an even more morally ambiguous character than Laugesen; one remains archly aware that he may well be hunted as much as hunter on both sides and walking a frighteningly frayed tightrope in the process. The ‘trust no-one’ motif intrinsic to the film’s dramatic weight is a simple one but no less effective for that. At the same time, the convincing depictions of wartime impoverishment and of beautiful and tranquil Danish rural landscapes lent a new precariousness by conflict and battle emphatically underline how this war, like no other, enveloped – and nearly suffocated – all corners of modern society and civilisation.

In a very modern context, this film clearly deserves its place in the burgeoning canon of heavyweight Danish screen dramas. Borgen may be a very contemporary drama, but the work of Mygind, Stengade et al (and the presence of historical TV dramas such as Anno 1790) offers strong evidence that Danish film and television has in recent years tuned into the country’s past as much as its present in order to create arresting and convincing dramatic narratives. Flame and Citron may be wartime code-names – but they are appropriately stirring and evocative ones when considered in this wider context.

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