Danish election: Borgen anticipates real life again

Ahead of today’s election in Denmark, it’s worth noting that centre-right Venstre party leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who may well reclaim the premiership four years after he ceded it, was perilously close to the abyss a couple of years ago over the issue of expenses claims.

Just as in the first series of Borgen in 2010, a centre-right prime minister, Lars Hessleboe, lost power after getting embroiled in a shopping expenses scandal. He later reclaimed the premiership.

Not guesswork by Borgen all round (even if the order of the prophesying is not quite impeccable). Sorry if I am the three millionth person to pick up on this: I have been out of the loop a bit recently.

Lars, not that Lars: the real-life one

Lars, not that Lars: the real-life one

Lars not that Lars: the Borgen one

Lars not that Lars: the Borgen one

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.

Borgen Anticipates Real Life Again: Yelena Isinbayeva

‘Everybody in South Kharun is entitled to equality and freedom – except homosexuals of course. But this is not a problem – there are no homosexuals in South Kharun. It’s just not part of our culture.’

(Jakob Lokoya, president of South Kharun, Borgen episode 18, first broadcast 06/11/2011)

‘We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys. Everything must be fine. It comes from history. We never had any problems, these problems in Russia, and we don’t want to have any in the future.”

(Yelena Isinbayeva, Russian pole vaulter, 15/08/2013)

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The man behind Jakob Lokoya – actor Femi Elufowoju Junior

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Yelena Isinbayeva

The recent Nordicana London event and the right names for things

magnus samuelsson

Above you can see a picture of body builder-turned-actor Magnus Samuelsson at the recent Nordicana event in London (we were there the weekend before last). The winner of the 1998 World’s Strongest Man competition, Samuelsson has done a very good job of realising a partial life-imitates-art equation by playing body builder-turned-cop Gunnar Nyberg in the Swedish television adaptations of Arne Dahl’s Unit A books recently aired on BBC4 in the UK. The adaptations are referred to as Arne Dahl, although to add to the sense of labyrinthine intrigue worthy of one of Arne Dahl’s stories, Arne Dahl doesn’t appear in the shows, no-one else plays a fictional version of Arne Dahl in the shows and Arne Dahl isn’t Arne Dahl’s real name. Hang on in there if you’re still with us.

The Nordicana event itself took place in the Farmiloe Building in Clerkenwell, something of a multi-tiered and multi-flanked navigational puzzle for first-time visitors and also a centrepiece of moody post-industrial ambience in its own right (although the building itself was only vacated by the lead and glass merchants Farmiloe and Sons as recently as 1999). Well done to the blogger who suggested that you could easily imagine Sarah Lund from The Killing looking for clues to an unsolved murder here; we couldn’t find the remark you made online on second inspection but we insist on not taking credit for it ourselves.

The Farmiloe Building - getting all moody and close-up

The Farmiloe Building – getting all moody and close-up on us

Although conventional tiered and ascending cinema-style seating might have made the films and television programmes showed as part of what was billed ‘the UK’s first expo celebrating Scandinavian crime and thriller fiction and film’ easier to watch (a very pertinent issue if one is relying on subtitles at the foot of the screen to stay abreast of the dialogue even if most of the visual action is at hand), and although the loo facilities were precariously close to being a bit ‘cross-legged-queue-at-the-rock-festival-in-the-mud’, we would be at pains to stress that these were only minor quibbles for a number of reasons thus:

1) The choice of television and film shows was outstanding. We wish we had had more time to see all of what looked like a truly chilling essay in paranoia and prejudice, The Hunt, unfold before our very eyes. One constant theme or refrain we took away from the weekend is how profound and classical great modern Scandi TV and film drama is in its conception. This film looked worthy of comparisons with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Kafka at its most terrifying in examining the stigma wrongly directed at one man (brilliantly played by Mads Mikkelsen) as he looks to rebuild his career and life – only to horribly derailed by misunderstandings and Chinese whispers highly relevant to 21st-century fears and insecurities about child welfare (as the film makes clear, these worries are valid but not if they are mixed with a cocktail of violent emotion and misanthropy).

2) The big, big screen in the main warehouse separate to the main building augmented the epic nature of the films on show. Every time we feel we have wrung every possible piece of praise for Søren Malling bone-dry, he steps up to the plate and puts in another performance that puts him dangerously high up the premier division in the ongoing ‘best actor in the world’ sweepstakes even with Hollywood possibly oblivious to his credentials at this stage in his career (not necessarily a bad thing). He has done it again in A Hijacking, a film in which he plays a shipping company CEO looking to rescue the crew of a cargo ship apparently at the mercy of Somali pirates. Just like fellow Scandi actor Max van Sydow before him, Malling becomes the character he is playing and defines the emotions synonymous with that character – although Malling himself is becoming increasingly synonymous with (and adept at) taking on roles that require what you might call terse authority and intensity. As a film watcher, being privy to that kind of intensity in that particular setting was a marked upgrade on standard cinema gawping (which is why the quibble above is only a minor one).

Malling turned CEO: upping his stock in the World's Best Actor market

Malling turned CEO: upping his stock in the World’s Best Actor market

c) The organisers (rightly) made a big effort to create break-out areas and offer leisure activities for kids (also in a designated area). There wasn’t really any point at the two days of Nordicana where we felt we were caught in an unseemly jostle or pushed for time and space. Better weather would have made attractions such as the (more-or-less) outdoor bar more attractive, but the event was organised in the right spirit. On the whole, that seemed to have a good knock-on event on co-operative and civilised punters.

d) On that note, those established Nordic actors and writers who did turn up to participate in Q & A sessions with specialist audiences and interviewers alike were a genuine delight to encounter. They had no trace of diva or egosmith about them and they themselves appeared delighted (although still a little astonished) at how Scandi screen drama has embedded itself in the British consciousness in the last two years or so. It was endearing that the participants were so candid: candid about their life ambitions (Magnus Samuelsson said he wanted to go into acting because he wanted to explore new avenues in his life; told by Q & A curator Barry Forshaw that he had made the career move from strongman to thesp far better than Arnold Schwarzenegger, he got a huge round of applause); candid about the dynamics between the characters they play (I asked the Arne Dahl panel why they thought two of the Unit A detectives, Norlander and Söderstedt, initially had a frosty relationship given that they are communally hung-up and angsty and matey with it in later episodes; Claes Ljungmark, who plays Norlander, replied: ‘Norlander is a grumpy man…the fact that Söderstedt is right all the time makes him even more grumpy!’); candid in dealing with good challenging questions from the audience (when asked why the husband of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen doesn’t have the staying power to deal with being First Man, series creator Adam Price said: ‘Because men are weak’); candid about how they prepare for roles (asked whether he had consulted with politicians prior to taking in the role of Birgitte Nyborg’s long-time mentor and sometime cabinet colleague Bent Sejrø, actor Lars Knutzon replied ‘No!’); and candid about their artistic vision (I asked if Borgen was inspired by classical drama and in-house writer Jeppe Gjervig Gram admitted there is a certain element of Shakespeare in Borgen’s dramatic expositions and machinations).

Claes Ljungmark - grumpy (but not as grizzled) as Norlander in Arne Dahl

Claes Ljungmark – grumpy (but not as grizzled) as Norlander in Arne Dahl

In view of how those genuine celebrities (people celebrated for the right reasons) who came to Nordicana managed to place their sophisticated artistic achievements in a sophisticated context, we wonder if Nordicana itself – or New Nordicana – isn’t the right epithet for the whole cultural movement vibrant within Scandi screen and print at this stage of the 21st century (and yes, we do know about the Dogme Manifesto – we would say that that in itself applies specifically to Denmark). Nordic Noir, the sub-label of Arrow Films, is a great name in its own right for a cultural movement and we’re not going to sulk if the tag remains, but we feel that films such as A Hijacking and The Hunt transcend the idea of even the noirish – they feel like Greek tragedies for the 21st century and are therefore all the more universal in their resonance and appeal. The word Nordicana might just have some global context (which is what multi-location, multi-lingual programmes like Borgen and Arne Dahl have sought to establish).

With that in mind, we suggest that the Independent has a rethink about headlines such as ‘Scandi-geeks descend on Nordicana fan-convention’. The people who came to Nordicana asked intelligent questions about intelligent drama and got intelligent responses. The event was little or no different from a high-brow yet accessible film or television festival and Nordic Noir was right to point out that it was celebrating a vibrant movement with this event. No-one would call wine buffs ‘vini-geeks’, especially if that is a common topic within weekend, and indeed weekday, newspapers; we hope our point has been made.

An interview with Birgitte Hjort Sørensen from Borgen!

We were at the recent Scandinavia Show in Earl’s Court in London, and we had the huge honour of meeting and interviewing Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, the actress who plays the determined yet endearing television journalist Katrine Fønsmark in Borgen, the Danish smash hit political TV drama made popular in the UK thanks to the endeavours of BBC4. Nordic Noir, a sub-label of Arrow Films, were present as part of the weekend’s events; they’re one of the UK’s foremost DVD, Blu-ray and digital platform distributors of renowned Scandi TV hits (including Borgen and The Killing), and they managed to have Birgitte on hand for the weekend to meet all Borgen enthusiasts and attendees, Worldly Scandifriend included. We thank them both for their co-operation on this occasion.

Where it’s at: the first series of Borgen, available on DVD via the Nordic Noir sub-label of Arrow Films

WS: How did you get the part in Borgen?

BHS: I got the job after being asked to audition over a period of three months. In this time I had to audition with three different Kaspers!

WS: Surely one Kasper is enough for anyone! What did you do career-wise prior to being in Borgen?

BHS: I was in various musicals, including Chicago in London’s West End in 2008. I also appeared in films and theatre in Denmark…

WS: Has it been a surprise for you that Borgen has proved so popular in the UK?

BHS: Yes! It was a shock that it was so popular, but I’m thrilled and surprised that audiences have taken to it!

WS: The newsroom scenes in Borgen come across as very authentic. Does a lot of research go into this part of the show?

BHS: I’m glad you think that! Yes a lot of research goes into them and we have consultants in the writing department (who provide input). I spent four days within an actual newsroom trying to get a sense of the feeling of what they were actually like..

WS: What’s it like to work with Søren Malling (who plays the boss of Katrine Fonsmark in Borgen, also renowned for his role in the first series of The Killing and for being a favourite of the Worldly Scandifriend blog)?

BHS: It’s an absolute delight! He sometimes makes up lines of dialogue, but when you look into his eyes a scene takes off!

WS: I think it’s a breath of fresh air for British audiences to witness strong yet empathetic female characters in programmes such as Borgen and The Killing…

BHS: Yes, I wasn’t aware of this at first…this trend in Danish programmes goes back to Unit One, which was first broadcast in Denmark about twelve years ago and which started off the whole wave…(also due out on the Nordic Noir label soon, according to the promotional leaflet they distributed at the Scandi Show – WS)

WS: Are we due a third series of Borgen..?

BHS: Yes, we’re filming it at the moment and will be finishing in January. It’s the final series…

WS: And what will you do then?

BHS: I’m hoping to work abroad and get myself internationally established. After three years of being in Denmark, I’ll be free to travel!

We wish her well! 

Danskemania/Dane-mania/Denmark Mania in the UK

Maybe it’s not as hysterical and wide-reaching as Beatlemania in the 1960s, but Danskemania/Dane-mania/Denmark Mania – acclaim for all things Danish – has surely hit some kind of high-water mark (or high-water Denmark?) in the UK, among certain sections of British society at the very least. It would be nice for Worldly Scandifriend to do some serious swotting on Anglo-Danish relations throughout the centuries to put this into some kind of historical context, and we will make sure that that follows in good course – but let’s look at the 2012 evidence for the time being.

Anglo-Danish relations: at a high-water mark in 2012?

We have new-found British residents of Copenhagen happy to extol the city in largely glowing terms in very prominent articles in the national press. If they’re not alone in having made the move in recent times, it may be because they and others took a very strong cue from newspaper articles suggesting they should do so. We have also reached the point where Noma, hailed as the best restaurant in the world, is perceived not as an isolated anomaly or one-off but the jewel in a very rich crown of interwoven references as far as Danish – or at least Copenhagen – cuisine is concerned.

Centre-stage at the heart of this cultural zeitgeist is an unfailingly modest yet utterly triumphant trinity: the actress (Sofie Gråbøl), the detective she plays (Sarah Lund), and the woolly jumper synonymous with both. The actress, replete with woolly jumpers, has just got to meet the future Queen of the United Kingdom – although Brits might have had alternative interpretations on the day as to which one was royalty.

Two kinds of royalty

Royalty meets royalty

Now I may not have the full historical context on this one, but I remember when Danskemania didn’t exist on this side of the North Sea – and it wasn’t that long ago. This article from 2003 by John O’ Mahony, scathingly slating endeavours within Danish theatre, made an impression on me, not least because it so obviously echoed the legendary words uttered by the Harry Lime character played by Orson Welles in the 1948 film The Third Man: to the effect that safe, consensual, peaceful and democratic societies which put a weighty emphasis on such qualities simply don’t produce good art. 

To his credit, O’ Mahony did perceptively note that the advent of populist right-wing politics in Denmark at the very beginning of the 21st century might serve as some kind of wake-up call. And it is indeed impossible to dissociate the subsequent social and racial tensions, Muhammad cartoons and all, endured by the country in the last decade from the grim ‘trust no-one’ mantra espoused by The Killing, the series which has (surely) made Gråbøl a legend in her own lifetime.

But which vision of Denmark rings more true? It’s difficult to believe in this environment that the country’s new Social Democrat-led government is on an easier footing than its historical predecessors – yet ‘better quality of life’, and the very idea of social democracy still in many ways intertwined with that notion, remain a default tag for Denmark and its Nordic siblings among those Britons who have made, or might be tempted to make, the move Danmark-side. See the links in the second paragraph if you don’t believe me.

At the same time, part of the attraction of programmes such as The Killing and Borgen is surely that they are prepared, in humane and balanced yet highly persuasive fashion, to tackle sensitive social issues – not just multiculturalism, but especially the concept of 21st-century feminism and the role of women in the workplace. In the UK, that has cut some serious ice – and not just with the liberal-left intelligensia.

Borgen - taking 21st-century feminism very seriously

Borgen - taking 21st-century feminism very seriously

Sometimes this head-on approach can stoke tensions – as seen in the decision by theatre group Cafe Teatret to use the manifesto at the heart of last July’s Norway massacre as the basis for a drama. That event felt like (and still does feel like) the worst moment of Worldly Scandifriend’s life, even as a relatively distant spectator – so it’s understandable if the bereaved have strong reservations about how Anders Behring Breivik’s legacy might be interpreted for artistic purposes.

It remains to be seen whether such works can convert freedom of speech into something of palpable artistic merit that will serve humankind as a whole throughout the generations. But, as far as Denmark and its theatre is concerned in the immediate present, what a distance travelled since O’ Mahony’s 2003 critique. Ivory tower drama and Downton Abbey this ain’t.  

On this basis, I would return to one of my previous posts and suggest that if Denmark has retained its social democratic/’quality of life’ credentials, it is in an atmosphere where those who espouse such beliefs have to stand up and make their voices heard if they want to be regarded as potent and credible. One such example might have been the response to recent right-wing demonstrations in Århus. That must have evoked some relief among liberal- and left-slanting people in Britain, but if you think that’s stating the obvious, it’s again worth thinking of this in some kind of modern historical context.

In 1994, if a lot of UK-based residents reacted with relief to anything emanating from Denmark, it was Whigfield finally ending Wet Wet Wet’s hegemony on top of the hit parade. We still think of that moment fondly, but we feel that Anglo-Danish relations have in the interim become more critical, more subtly nuanced, and more valued – perhaps in a way which they haven’t been since 1945. In particular we note one thing. Political correctness started to get a beating in Blighty around the aforementioned 1994 – especially as lads’ mags moved into the ascendancy. Worldly Scandifriend hazards the thought that in 2012, Denmark makes sense to a number of Brits because it appears cool and right-on. And scrapping hard to be both.

Whigfield: part of a grander modern Danish mosaic

Whigfield: part of a grander modern Danish cultural mosaic