This paper will examine Denmark’s quick rise to cinematic influence during its Golden Age, detail the changes Nordisk and other Danish filmmakers made and the subsequent impact on cinema internationally, as well as investigate possible reasons for the fall of both Nordisk and Denmark. Danish film had a relatively late start–its first production company, Nordisk Films Compagni, wasn’t established until 1906 (Engberg 63). Ole Olsen, the founder of Nordisk, was a businessman who owned a cinema and saw both the extreme demand for film and lack of supply internationally.
He focused his efforts on exporting films and by the end of 1906 had a branch in Berlin and representatives in several countries across Europe. By 1910 Nordisk utilized vertical integration to become one of the largest film production companies in Europe and usher in the Golden Age of Danish cinema, from 1911-1914. At this time Nordisk was the second largest film firm in the world behind Pathe in France, producing several hundred films a year (Neergaard 218). 1910 was a landmark year where Nordisk sought to differentiate itself and increase exports.
A new artistic director, August Blom, ushered in Denmark’s golden era along with a host of new, strict rules about what kinds of films to produce. Nordisk dramatically reduced its production of period pieces (“costume films”) and instead focused on realistic films about the middle-class set in the present. A new emphasis was placed on scriptwriters, who were instructed to create stories that were simple and easily understood internationally, meaning fewer intertitles and an increased importance on clarity in the film (Engberg 65).
In addition to attention to clarity, Nordisk sought realistic settings, reserved acting in contrast to the theatrical performances of actors in south Europe, and directors who, constantly employed as a result of the sheer volume of films Nordisk produced, could hone their craft (Neergaard 218). Another important event in 1910 was propagated by a minor Danish production company, Fotorama, that took a risk and showed a film, The White Slave Traffic, which far exceeded the unofficial industry standard of 15 minutes.
The 30-minute film was was a huge success in Denmark and forced Nordisk and other production companies globally to create longer, multi-reel films to meet audience demand. This transition to longer films was revolutionary in terms of artistic possibilities, storytelling, and evolution of the film medium (Engberg 65). The first actress to seize the artistic possibilities of film’s longer running time was Asta Neilsen, whose performance in The Abyss (produced by Kosmorama in 1910) was slow and subdued, in contrast with most actors’ more rushed, frenetic performances encouraged by the need to convey the story quickly.
Audiences were captivated by Neilsen’s performance, as was Nordisk, which incorporated this form of acting into its new direction. The Abyss was a hit in Denmark and abroad, ushering in a new era of artistry in acting and making Neilsen Europe’s first film star (Engberg 65). Nordisk understood the importance of exportation and catering to the markets they exported to. As Nordisk grew they catered to audiences in different markets: for example, before 1917 Nordisk exported many films to Russia.
Russian audiences loved dramatic, sad endings, so Nordisk would create endings specifically for the Russian market with these elements (Engberg 67). Nordisk continued to export all over Europe and the United States, where it held a branch, The Great Northern Film Company, ensuring that film-hungry audiences in American were exposed to Denmark’s films through renting and then direct sales (Mottram 80). While Danish cinema enjoyed great success before World War I, the country’s Golden Age began to dim around the same time the war ended.
The impact of WWI on Danish cinema was mixed, as exports to surrounding countries like Germany and Russia were helped by Denmark’s central geographic location. However, as countries began banning imports to stimulate their own film industry, Denmark suffered (Bordwell 64). Furthermore, Nordisk’s films began to wear on audiences who did get to see them. The adherence to a formula that had previously worked well for Denmark but had been built upon and improved in other countries like Switzerland signaled the beginning of the end. Ebbe Neergaard, a pioneering Danish film critic, wrote in 1958 that dditional rules Nordisk implemented in 1915 began the downfall of Danish cinema. “In Denmark there was no room for experiments, for seriousness, or for individuality in a director, as there was, for instance, in Germany. Yet the only way the film industry of a small country can compete with the products of the bigger industries is to make strikingly individualistic or strikingly documentary feature films. ” (222). Though Nordisk and other Danish films pioneered artistic advances in the form before the war, they could not evolve from this and were surpassed after World War I.
Between 1918 and 1939 Denmark’s output diminished as Nordisk’s films became less successful. Neergaard attributes this to the “naivete of her producers” (221), who upheld their “snobbish standards” and failed to evolve with the medium as “elsewhere film art grew up to feel an independent responsibility. ” (221). Nordisk did try and revitalize itself in the early twenties by employing Carl Dreyer, now considered one of the best film directors of all time. He made two films for Nordisk beginning in 1920: one inspired by D. W.
Griffith’s Intolerance titled Pages Out of the Book of Satan, that utilized exceptional acting and editing. However, Dreyer soon moved around Europe to produce more experimental films without the constraints of Nordisk, a move echoed by many of the talent in Denmark, furthering Nordisk’s and Denmark’s fall (Neergaard 221). Perhaps Denmark’s cinematic output wouldn’t have diminished during this time had Nordisk not been so dominant, but the vertically integrated company was the film industry in Denmark, and its failure was Denmark’s failure.
As far as industry is concerned, Denmark’s Nordisk was very similar to France’s Pathe. Both companies dominated not only their respective countries but also international cinema in the early 1910s (Bordwell 62). Like Nordisk, Pathe made several missteps that caused it to lose dominance before WWI. Pathe, like Nordisk, became too focused on profits and cut costs on production harming the quality (Bordwell 62). Nordisk’s inability to deviate from its proven (and profitable) film rules was part of its demise as well.
However, unlike Denmark, France’s film industry was comprised of many smaller film production companies as well as another dominant firm, Gaumont, so when Pathe faltered or as Hollywood films took hold, the industry was able to continue. With just one dominant company in Denmark, the national cinema failed with the company. Denmark’s primary cinematic period (its Golden Age) was the only portion of early Danish cinematic history devoted to any significant research or commentary. I primarily used essays from film critics and scholars from Denmark written from more modern times.
I couldn’t find any primary or secondary documents detailing the specificities of distribution and exhibition; it seemed that this topic was so obviously dominated by Nordisk that little discussion needed to be devoted to it. Similarly, details to what Denmark imported film-wise were scarce: I can only presume the industry to be similar to that of the rest of Europe, meaning imported films from the rest of the continent and America. Works Cited Bordwell, David, and Kirstin Thompson. Film History: An Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.
Print. Engberg, Margeurite. "The Erotic Melodrama in Danish Silent Films 1910-1918. " Film History 5. 1 (1993): 63-67. JSTORE. Web. 25 Sept. 2011.