Historical drama 1864 explains modern Danes

Long before the first episode even aired, DR's 1864 attracted controversy with its interpretation of Denmark's most crushing historical defeat, but columnist Michael Booth argues that very loss is what made the Danes what they are today.

Historical drama 1864 explains modern Danes
In the first episode of 1864, viewers were introduced to brothers Laust and Peter. Photo: Per Arnesen/Miso Films/DR
So, did you see it on Sunday? Denmark’s most expensive drama series of all time, the eight part historical drama, 1864? If you did, you had plenty of company. Around 1.7 viewers tuned in. So, what did you think?
On the one hand, it is probably precisely the kind of thing a national broadcaster should be making: a serious, heavyweight series examining the roots of contemporary Danish identity, a pivotal moment in its history, but with a clear relevance to the current government’s enthusiasm for war. On the other, I have to admit that I spent most of the time saying things like, ‘Isn’t that her from that thing?’ or ‘Was he the killer in The Killing, or the reporter?’
To put it another way, despite a budget of 173 million kroner of public money, the casting directors at DR are always going to be working with a ‘quality not quantity’ rolodex. 
Of course, there have already been complaints about the historical accuracy of 1864, whether or not the series properly represents the wider political-historic picture of what was happening in Europe at the time: the usual pedants popping up like whackamoles.
They are missing the point.
What’s really interesting about 1864, the year rather than the series, is this: Denmark’s darkest moment was probably the making of the modern Danes.
By the time of the Second Schleswig War – which took place 150 years ago and is the subject of the series – Denmark had already lost its territories in southern Sweden and had lost Norway. It would go on, of course, to suffer occupation by Germany and lose Iceland, and loosen its grip on Greenland and the Faroes too. But 1864 was the biggie. 
Driven onward by some kind of mass, nationalistic ‘euphoria’ (as the show’s writer and director Ole Bornedal described it to Politiken last week), the country went to war with Germany and Austria and lost about a quarter of its land mass – some of its most valuable land, actually – as well as a large part of its population, in the Treaty of Vienna. Denmark did claw some back in the Treaty of Versailles, but by that stage the damage was done – not least because many ethnic Danes from the region were conscripted into the German army to fight in World War I). Over 5,000 Danish soldiers died fighting against Otto von Bismark’s far superior forces; understandably, those personal stories are the core of this new series.
It was this loss, above all others, which forged the Danish character – insular, yes, but also appreciative of what they have both in terms of natural resources and cultural inheritance. Nationalistic, yes that too, but with that comes the deeply impressive social cohesion that has helped make the Danes so content (or ‘happy’), And, naturally, it instilled a deep-seated need for security and protection from the vagaries of fate, hence the comprehensive safety net provided from cradle to grave by the Danish welfare state. The Danes became a self-proclaimed nation of ‘tryghedsnarkomaner’, or safety addicts; a glass half full kind of people, tightly knitted, resilient, easily content.
This is a gross simplification, of course, but you get the gist: the Danes may have lost that battle, but they won the life satisfaction war.
In terms of the series itself, there is also something deeply impressive about a country which can face up to the less glorious moments from its past, not only that, but make arguably the greatest catastrophe in Danish history (besides the Eurovision overspending, of course) the subject of their most ambitious piece of television ever. It is, perhaps, the very definition of a confident, self assured nation. 
Put it another way: can you imagine the French making a film about the Battle of Agincourt?

Michael BoothMichael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle

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Danish shows take TV world by storm

With original boundary-breaking content, thrilling plots and charismatic actors, Danish television series have captivated audiences worldwide in recent years.

Danish shows take TV world by storm
Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen plays the lead role in Ride Upon The Storm (Herrens Veje). Photo: Mads Joakim Rimer Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

The latest show to hit the small screen is “Ride Upon the Storm” (Danish title: Herrens Veje), which is being distributed in almost 80 countries with a debut later this month in Britain, where it will be broadcast on Channel 4 by the station’s foreign language arm Walter Presents from January 28th.

The new drama was created by Adam Price, the BAFTA winner behind the acclaimed drama “Borgen”, which followed the political and personal tribulations of a Danish woman prime minister.

Danish shows, with both exoticism and gritty realism, have quickly soared in popularity beyond their initial local Scandinavian viewership, Pia Jensen, an Aarhus University communications associate professor specialising in television series, told AFP.

Long known for the Nordic noir crime genre, the big international breakthrough for Danish shows came with “The Killing”, a hard-hitting series following a Copenhagen female cop's investigations.

Then came crime thriller “The Bridge” in 2011.

The Nordic noir genre has proven so popular that its aesthetic and themes are now being replicated beyond Scandinavia's borders, with shows such as “Shetland” and “Broadchurch” made in Britain, Jensen said.

For foreign audiences, Denmark as it is shown on television is “an exotic society, something to aspire to because of the welfare state and the strong women characters”, she said, referring also to the 2010 hit “Borgen”.

She added, clearly amused, that it's “as if Denmark is the fantasy land of gender equality”.

Paradoxically, in this almost utopian world, the characters are “normal” people with whom audiences can identify, according to Jensen.

But now Danish TV series have moved beyond Nordic noir.

“Ride Upon the Storm” is a character-led drama about faith and a family of Danish priests, dominated by Johannes Krogh, a tempestuous God-like father battling numerous demons.

Actor Lars Mikkelsen, known from “The Killing” and his role as the Russian president in Netflix's “House of Cards”, plays Johannes, a role for which he won an International Emmy in November.

Mikkelsen “has set new standards for the portrayal of a main character in a TV series”, the show's creator Adam Price told AFP.

Johannes “is the 10th generation of priests, it's a huge burden that haunts him and he lets it haunt his sons too”.

His eldest son Christian is lost and at odds with the family and society, while younger son August is married and following in his father's priesthood footsteps before becoming a chaplain for troops stationed in Afghanistan.

“In the Bible, you have lots of stories of fathers and sons and brothers. That was the perfect ground to tell (a story) about masculine relationships, the competitive gene between men in a family,” Price said.

Elements from “Borgen” can be seen in Price's new venture: the efficient prime minister Birgitte Nyborg and Johannes Krogh, who is headed for the top as Bishop of Copenhagen, are both characters passionate about their work.

“But Johannes reacts differently than Birgitte (does) because his ambition is not within the world of politics, but with a more supernatural power,” Price said.

Thoughts on faith, religion and spirituality are mixed with a complex study of family.

“Religion is sometimes something imposed, as authority can be imposed on our children in a family. And both are dealt with in 'Ride Upon the Storm',” he said.

Price is currently working on “Ragnarok” for Netflix, a six-part Norwegian coming-of-age drama based on Norse mythology but set in a modern-day high school.

The second season of “Ride Upon the Storm” just wrapped up on Danish public television DR, which produced the series, and had around 500,000 viewers.

“Danish producers are mainly thinking of a Danish audience. It has to stay relevant to the Danish public and that's why DR keeps experimenting,” Jensen said.

“Some of the shows will travel and some won't.”

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