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Denmark's new TV drama entertains and educates

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Denmark's new TV drama entertains and educates
1864 tells the story of how Denmark lost a lot of its territory to Germany. Photo: Per Arnesen/Danmarks Radio
09:43 CEST+02:00
1864 is the most expensive TV production in Danish history. We sent journalist Alex Forrest to the press premiere to find out what to expect from the period drama.
Stars of TV and screen were out in force on Wednesday for the press premiere of 1864, the most expensive Danish TV drama ever made.  Although many of the actors involved are well known for their roles in series like The Killing and Borgen, this production couldn’t be more different.
 
1864 is a period drama based around a nineteenth century war that re-wrote Danish history. That war with Prussia resulted in the loss of 5,000 Danish lives and more than a third of the country’s territory.  As 1864 producer Peter Bose told me, “The war was insane – and it was one that we started.”
 
But before you think this series sounds like a history lesson, writer and director Ole Bornedal explains: “1864 is no war movie, but the tale of human beings. It’s about absurd political interests, human sacrifices and the Danish national mind. 1864 is a tale of time – a story about all of us.”
 
 
The drama focuses on the lives of two brothers, Peter and Laust, whom we first meet as children in 1850. Their father (played by Lars Mikkelsen) returns victorious but wounded from the first war over Schleswig and Holstein. Fourteen years later the brothers, who leave behind the childhood sweetheart they share, are heading into battle with Prussia and Austria over the same disputed territories. This time though, the results for Denmark are catastrophic.  
 
Jump forward 150 years and we meet Claudia, a difficult dropout who’s also dealing with the cost of war – her brother was killed in Afghanistan.  The drama manages to effortlessly flip between the worlds of 1864 and 2014 as each character tries to understand who and what they are.
 
The cast of 1864. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix
1864 features many recognisable faces from Danish TV and film. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix
 
The majority of the series, which will also be made into a two and half hour movie, was shot in the Czech Republic. The cast spent seven weeks there filming the battle scenes in temperatures ranging from -10C to +40C. No wonder then, that thirteen people fainted in that heat. In total there were 2,000 extras, 36 locations and 323 sets. 
 
I’ve only seen the first two episodes of ‘1864’ but already I’m hooked. From the child actors to those who’ve dominated Danish TV and film for some time, each performer gives imaginative, emotional and believable performances.  The most recognisable among them may not have the largest roles but they certainly add drama and excitement. 
 
Lars Mikkelson said that he’s been waiting for “a big epic like this that tells the story of Denmark in such an emotional way”.  Actor Søren Malling explains that the series is about the country’s identity – what happens after a state realises it’s no longer a superpower. One poignant line from the second episode stands out: “The Danes are convinced they are right.”
 
Sidse Babett Knudsen, best known as Denmark’s fictional prime minister Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, depicts the colourful but domineering Johanna L. Heiberg, the Grand Lady of Danish Theatre. Knudsen said it is unusual for Danish TV to embark on expensive period drama.  And at a cost of 173 million Danish kroner, there’s no doubt that ‘1864’ was costly for Miso Films to produce for DR - even with the 100 million kroner kicked in by the Ministry of Culture. 
 
But this production is about so much more than a big budget. It’s about a defining moment in Danish history that resulted in not just a loss of life and land but also pride and self-esteem. No longer a strong military or political power, Denmark was almost forced to start again, in order to rediscover its identity.  This series tells that story through powerful, human drama.

1864 premieres on DR on October 12th and will be aired on the BBC later in the year. Alex Forrest is a freelance journalist. You can find her on Twitter at @_alexforrest.
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