Short films from a small nation – marketing postwar Denmark (13 Nov 2014)


Good afternoon. Welcome to the UCL
Lunch Hour Lectures. It gives me great pleasure
to introduce today’s speaker, good friend and colleague,
Dr Claire Thomson. Claire is a lecturer
in Scandinavian film in the School of European Languages,
Culture and Society in the Department of
Scandinavian Studies and she is going to talk to us today
about short films in a small nation. – Welcome.
– Thank you very much. I’m really happy to talk about what
one of my students has described as the geekiest research project
in history. Geekiness is always good, I think,
when it comes to research. Just a practical thing,
if you are eating your lunch, please be sure to finish
by about twenty to, because I’m going to show a film clip
which will put you off your lunch. So, just be warned, especially if you are eating
bacon sandwiches. Right away, I am going to highlight
one of the words in this title. This research project, which
dates from about two years ago, was originally called
Short Films In a Small Nation and it’s now Short Films
From a Small Nation, so this clearly is a shift of emphasis
and today’s talk focuses on that shift. When I started, I assumed that
state-funded short films in Denmark would be very much about the
Danish nation telling stories to itself about Danish nation. People being instructed
in how to be Danish. How to cycle correctly,
that kind of thing. In fact, after the WWII, and this is really my focus today,
or endpoint if you like, there was a shift towards filmmaking
in English and other languages. Films which marketed essentially
Danish culture abroad. And the image that you saw
in the background there – Jakob was asking about this – is actually a detail from
a brochure which shows the shift. The title of the brochure
is in English. This dates from 1948:
Documentary in Denmark. And straightaway,
this is a bit problematic because I wouldn’t say necessarily
that the films I have been looking at are documentaries as such. But there is quite a weight there
that rests on the idea of documentary and, as you can see, films of facts. What the Danes were trying to do… They had been occupied
by Nazi Germany and at the end of the war, they had to come out of it
on the right side of history. So these films that are being sent out
into the world in the late 1940s are partly about staging Denmark
as a modern, democratic society, which it absolutely was, of course. On the blue filmstrip
that’s forming the letter D, the stick man has gone through
trials and tribulations. There are aeroplanes and bombers
which he is running away from, and he’s running away
from a Nazi swastika, and sitting in jail
and doing hard labour. And then he takes to sabotage
from ’42 to ’43. There was a very strong
Danish resistance movement. A lot of the filmmakers I’ve looked at
were actually resistance men. There’s a strong connection between
the occupation, the resistance and the films that came afterwards. By the end, their stick man
is waving the Danish flag, running towards the sunshine. So this is what was hoped
would happen in 1948. It’s interesting that,
while I have been doing this research, in preparing this lecture
in particular, there has been lots of discussion
in Denmark about another kind of visual culture,
another production, called 1864. If you are here as fans of The Bridge,
The Killing, Borgen and so on, on British television, you’ll be looking forward
to seeing 1864 when it arrives in the UK
after Christmas. 1864 is a really sore point
in the Danish imagination. It’s a date when Denmark
was defeated by Prussia and the other German armies and lost quite a bit of its territory
on the German border. And this new television series
dramatises that event and I don’t know if your Danish is
fluent having watched Borgen, but when you read
the words DF-Storm, you’ll work out this is
a storm that has blown up and DF is
the Dansk Folkepartis, the right wing populist
nationalist people’s party. They have been complaining the
series is not historically accurate, which is great, because it’s led to
loads of debate in the press and around water coolers
about two things in particular. First of all, who gets to decide
what is accurate history anyway? And isn’t history
just another form of storytelling with its roots in facts,
but still telling some kind of story? And secondly, what should the relationship
between the state and the films that it funds
or part funds actually be? Since the mid-1990s,
there’s been a principle in Denmark which is called
the arm’s length principle, which means any funding the film or
television industry gets from the state is given on the understanding
the state won’t actually be involved in deciding the content, which seems reasonable enough. And the content is influenced
by panels of consultants. And that’s a principle which,
under different names, actually goes back to the mid-1960s. The period that I have been looking at
runs up to about the mid-1960s, roughly from the mid-30s
to the mid-60s. So the filmmaking
I have been looking at doesn’t actually fall under
this arm’s length principle. There is a much more direct,
but also very complicated relationship between the Danish state and the films
that it is funding in this period. Yes. I thought I was being smart putting in
animations, then I forgot about them. What are these films
I’ve been looking at? They are on
a wide variety of subjects. There are between
400 and 1,000 shorts, depending how you define them
and where you stop counting. I have not seen
even a tiny fraction of those, but they are on all kinds of subjects, from the correct cultivation
of potatoes to anti-speeding,
to the city of Copenhagen, to different kinds of animals, to provision for pensioners,
and so on. The question is, what sense can I make
out of such a wide variety of films? Or, what were these films
actually for? Well, they were officially for education,
enlightenment and general propaganda. That was the remit
as set up in the 1930s. Of course, we are all very suspicious
of that word, propaganda. But we don’t need to take it
as anything dubious or suspect. It just means promotion
in this particular context. And the films are commissioned
and funded by different government ministries and charities
and sometimes companies. It’s really a wide variety of different
funders and commissioners. What we call them is also quite an interesting
problem for me. The Danes call them kulturfilm,
as do the Germans. Culture films. Fine, but it doesn’t
really work in English. The Danes have another fantastic
word which is enlightenment films. But I can’t say that in English,
because it sounds a bit 18th-century. Some scholars started to use
the term useful cinema, which I use sometimes. At the moment,
I’m stuck with informational film, which is not very inspiring,
but it tells you what these films do. Somewhere between documentary
and public information films. Where were they shown?
I’m always asked this at parties. They were shown in schools,
of course, libraries. Libraries tended to have
a projection equipment station so that people could borrow a film
and then watch them. In different clubs.
The Danes love their clubs. Every Dane belongs to
about 10 different clubs, be it badminton or political clubs. And trade fairs abroad. Film festivals, definitely. And cinemas. And they were called forfilm, the film that comes
before the main feature. These kinds of questions
also let me answer the question you are probably
dying to ask: why on earth would you research
this kind of cinema? There are many reasons,
but three main ones are: firstly, that these films are artistic
expressions of political priorities and, looking at these films,
we can tell a lot about what the political priorities
and anxieties of the day actually were. Secondly, they tell us about
Danish cultural history. Everything from farming practices
to fashion. And also, because they had
a really wide audience reach, this kind of cinema tends to get
forgotten about when you research. We tend to forget about
all the short films that were made by companies and
charities and educational institutions. But these films
would have been seen by, in some cases,
millions of people. So they were very influential. Now, I am looking at a triumvirate
of institutions and the first one is Dansk Kulturfilm,
or Danish culture film. First set up in 1932, and they had started to make films
by the end of the 1930s, but very, very slowly
and not particularly professionally. I have included here the signatures
of the founding director and the director
who took over from him, to emphasise
that this is a story about people. Institution sounds very dry. You’re looking through letters
they’ve written to each other, and the gossip about each of them… This is a small nation.
Everybody knows everybody else. The way these institutions run
is through personal relationships and it’s important
not to lose sight of that. So Dansk Kulturfilm was an agency. They didn’t actually produce films, but they brought people
who wanted films made together with the film producers. You also have to find
a way to distribute them and so another institution,
called Statens Filmcentral, State Film Centre,
was also set up in the late 30s, to make sure that schools
and libraries and clubs had access not only to
films which they could hire, but also to the equipment
to project them in church halls and cafes and
people’s living rooms and wherever. And again, a prominent figure,
the director of Statens Filmcentral. I’m also going to put in the signatures
of three of the important directors. And here is where I get
a little bit controversial. Most of the people
looking at useful cinema insist the actual film directors
are not important; what’s important is
the film as a product and it’s not an artistic product. Now, in the Danish context some of these films are actually
things of great beauty – and I won’t listen to anybody
say they aren’t artworks – and deserve to be analysed
as such in their own right. As with most signatures,
these are pretty illegible, but the one in the middle
is Carl Dreyer, one of Denmark’s great auteurs. He was involved in about
a dozen short informational films, really to make money,
in the 1940s. But his fame abroad
was also exploited very much to give the films greater circulation. Then we’ve got a very illegible,
splotchy signature. This is Theodor Christensen. I’ll be showing you
clips from his films and I would describe him as
a short or documentary auteur, an absolutely wonderful
and underrated filmmaker, who celebrated his centenary
this year, but has been largely forgotten,
even in Denmark. Another example
would be Ingolf Boisen and we’ll see an extract
from one of his films. He’s interesting because
he was one of these nodes in the cultural network of Denmark, who knows everybody
and makes things happen. He was extremely interested
in technology and travelled all over the world
making films. A very interesting man. This is the material I work with. It’s not sitting in a room
glamorously watching films. Most of the time, it’s going through
old, tea-stained documents, trying to work out who paid for what and what controversies
arose along the way. I’m going to go through
a few concrete examples, because none of this really makes
sense unless you look at
the films themselves. We are starting with one of these
old, tea-stained documents. These are a typical kind of document
that I’ve been going through and they show… On the left, we’ve got the most hired, the most requested films
in Statens Filmcentral’s list between 1952 and 1953. On the right-hand side, a list of
the same films in stock in ’59 to ’60 and the number of times
they were borrowed. I kept seeing this film title,
How a Brick Is Made. It appears in the top 50 films all the way through until 1960, so I thought, this must be
an absolutely fantastic film, How a Brick Is Made. Hundreds of people every year
hired this film and 50 people at a time might have
watched it, so I was very excited. I paid quite a lot of money
to get it digitised. And if I now let it play
in the background behind me, – because there is no sound,
it’s still using intertitles in 1940 – you’ll see it’s very difficult
to understand why it was so popular
for such a long time. It’s just describing
the different stages in the process of making bricks. We’ve got people working,
but there is no personal interest here. There’s a lot of interest
in the machines, but this is just a very workaday
run-of-the-mill film. There’s nothing really artistic
about this at all. And yet, it stayed in function and it was seen by lots of people
for about 20 years. This tells us two things.
One: there is no accounting for taste. We have to remember, these films were used
in ways that were quite unexpected. Secondly, there is very little
I can tell about how ordinary people
reacted to these films. How they received
and understood them. I can’t interview people
who saw this film the 1940s. I could, but it would be
quite difficult. So there are lots of gaps
in the story. This next example
is by Theodor Christensen. He is the one I just described as
something of a documentary auteur. And this is in 1942, so it’s a couple of years into
the German occupation of Denmark. I’ll play it
and then explain the context and I think you’ll see
that this is somewhat different. You saw about a third. It’s three minutes long,
very much flashing the information up and it was distributed in cinemas. Imagine, you are with your date,
it’s 1942 on a Saturday night and you’ve got to get through
the public information films before you get the romantic drama. So they have to be really good. They have to be funny, they have to
make excellent use of music and they really have to
distract your attention. This film was made
as part of a recycling campaign. Not for environmental reasons
as we would recycle today, but in order to keep Danish industry
going during the occupation and to keep people in employment. And you see how we segway from
an interest in the individual workers over to this idea of half a million
Danish workers in unison and everything is very heroic. He was extremely good,
Theodor Christensen. Now, that quantum shift between
the brick film and the recycling film is actually down to the establishment
of another institution, and this is the third
in my triumvirate. The Government Film Committee. And this was set up
within the first year of the occupation to coordinate filmmaking
to maximise employment. So for precisely this kind of film. But they were lucky enough
to secure the services of [unclear], who was both
interested in film himself, but also
an extremely good administrator. Under the Government
Film Committee, this kind of filmmaking
went from strength to strength, and we can see Dansk Kulturfilm
and the Government Film Committee as sister organisations. The money from the government
came through the committee and Dansk Kulturfilm
kept making the films. But this institutional history
is really just for me to geek out over. It’s not of any particular importance. This sea change during WWII though,
attracted attention. And what you start to see,
immediately after the WWII, is British newspapers taking notice
of the Danish film movement. “Denmark has
a thriving film movement today.” This is the Scottish film pioneer,
Forsyth Hardy, and he describes
how he has visited Denmark and seen this amazing change,
and describes the history behind it, and praises the Danish filmmakers
to high heaven. There are countless articles like this. The reason why there was
this interest in Britain in Danish filmmaking after the war was that the Danes had realised,
as early as ’44, that the end of the war was nigh, that Hitler was probably not
going to win, and that they could use film
immediately after the war as a means to market the country
as a modern, democratic land upon the liberation. They started laying plans to do that. And one thing they did immediately
after the liberation in May ‘45, was to invite at least one British
film figure, Arthur Elton. He used to work
at the Ministry of Information, just over there in the big
University of London building and he came over to help the Danes
sharpen up their act and make films that would
circulate well in the outside world. So we are back to this brochure again
from ’48. One of the things that it highlights
is a collection of films which Arthur Elton
helped the Danes make in ’47. And the brochure announces, “Back to normal,
to freedom and contact “between the peoples of the world,
that is the watchword.” And it’s advertising a series of films
under the title Social Denmark, giving a picture of care
from cradle to old age. This of course is one of the things
that Denmark actually has to sell. The Social Denmark series is about
people’s holidays and holiday pay. It’s about gardens
and homes for pensioners. There’s a film about
health for Denmark and this looks like an extremely
dubious kind of treatment, and Denmark Grows Up,
about health care for children. You’ll notice
there is a slight preponderance of healthy-looking,
half-naked Danes in these films, which I think
is probably not coincidental. The fifth film in the series
was this one, Mødrehjælpen, or Good Mothers,
by Carl Dreyer, and it is extremely problematic in terms of its gender
and racial politics. If you want to, you can see it online. It’s an example of how Carl Dreyer,
a famous auteur in Britain, was co-opted into the series
to give it more visibility. So these films went down rather well
at the Edinburgh Festival. They show a healthy attitude
of discontent with the status quo. They have a real validity for social
students in all other countries. These were taken seriously. And we have a picture
of our friend, Arthur Elton. This is taken from a newspaper
article, when he died, in Denmark. He didn’t die in Denmark,
the newspaper article is in Denmark, which remembered him as
a friend of the Danish film industry. Now, the success of the social films led to a little flurry of films,
’48, ’49, ’50, and this is well timed because this is an era
when film festivals, especially documentary festivals,
are being set up all over the world. The United Nations
has been established and with it the UN Film Board,
which also helped to distribute film and saw it as a very important tool
for global education. So, just to go through a few examples, this is a lovely film about pottery
and other craft in Denmark. I’m flagging this one up partly
because the title is in English. The original version was, like the Social Denmark films, made in English originally not Danish
to appeal to an international audience. But Shaped by Danish Hands
circulated particularly widely, not only in the UK
at a couple of cultural institutions, reaching 49,000 people in the UK,
estimates the Danish embassy, in its first year or two, but it also went on tour
around South America in a Spanish version. And most astonishingly, it was
distributed in the US and Canada by a company
called Films of the Nations, reaching, they estimate,
2.4 million viewers. This is a lot of people interested
in Danish pottery, which is, I suppose,
a saleable commodity. ’49, the year after, is the year when the Edinburgh
International Film Festival takes off and I am grateful to Mark David
Jacobs of the Edinburgh Film Guild for sending me a scan
of this guestbook. Here we have [unclear]
and Theodor Christensen, two big names
from Danish filmmaking, but we also have
a team of younger filmmakers, four of them who,
the story goes, crammed into a little yellow car and drove all the way from
Copenhagen to Edinburgh to be there to meet people,
to have their names known. At the bottom, Nick [unclear]. He was extremely happy
to be there in 1949, because he had almost lost his life
twice the previous year making one of the films that was
screened in Edinburgh in 1949. A film called They Guide You Across,
from which I’ll show you a clip. Nick was not the director, he was one
of the cameramen who worked on it and on one occasion, he was
almost run over by an aeroplane. He was supposed to be
shooting the takeoff, And was positioned
at the end of the runway. The pilot missed the cue
and ran over the camera, smashing it to smithereens and narrowly missing poor Nick. And on another occasion, he was flying
from Prestwick to Copenhagen when there was a fuel leak and he
had to stand with a fire extinguisher and let it go off
as the plane touched down, so that the whole thing didn’t explode. It’s a very dangerous
business making films. Here we have the programme of the Edinburgh International
Film Festival of ’49, where They Guide You Across
is mentioned, directed by Ingolf Boisen. I think this is a good example to show, because it was one of the most
ambitious films undertaken, both in terms of the technical aspect – they used a new kind of
sound recording, – they filmed the plane
from the undercarriage – and from another plane and so on – but it’s still interested
in the kind of detail that we saw with the brick film. How do things actually work?
People love this. Most of all,
what this film tries to do is position Denmark
as a modern nation within the context of Scandinavia. You can probably see on the ‘plane, it’s a Scandinavian
Airline System (SAS) ‘plane. But within a globalising world, you will see in just a moment, how this film depicts the UK. Very nice indeed, you’re
on the glide path, your track is good. Three quarters of a mile from the
runway, turn right 3 degrees. Half a mile from touchdown. You’re slightly above the glide path. Quarter of a mile from the runway. The runway dead ahead of you.
Look ahead and land, over. Well, [unclear], also known as
[unclear] is in Scotland. It’s nice to stretch your legs a bit. Hello, SAS Operations please. SAS, [unclear] control here. [Unclear] at 1845 [unclear]. Ok. [They speak in a foreign language] May I have your attention please? Scandinavian Airlines aircraft from
Copenhagen has just landed. We’ve had two good reports
from the weather ship out here. This more westerly one
is giving 45 and this one here
is reporting 40 knots now. International cooperation
means security. Aviators [unclear] and by studying thoroughly
reports from wheather ships, liners and other aircraft, it is easy for them to choose
the safest route over the ocean. Aviation demands
care and precision. There are no weak links. Aircraft of improved construction
are constantly being launched. Every technical development means even greater security
in the air. But security can only be
maintained by cooperation
between the nations. Cooperation presupposes
understanding Understanding means peace. You can see their how,
at the very end, the UN film board, which has sponsored the film
in the form of raw film stock and in the form of distribution insists on
getting its message across that cooperation means peace. If I may, I have one more clip,
the one I warned you about. This film is
a really successful example of how the needs of the various
sponsors are actually incorporated into a film that is coherent
and is a technological triumph. A simpler example
of how filmmakers really have to walk the thin line between making films
that people will want to watch and pleasing their sponsors comes with another film
by Theodor Christensen, called The Pattern of Co-operation. I’ve worked on this film
with my colleague Mary Hilson. There is a great example here
of how the sponsors, which would be the cooperative
movement in Denmark, really wanted the filmmakers
to show in minute detail how vets checked pig carcasses
for diseases and how they checked the quality. They really insisted on this and so Theodor Christensen,
our genius, had to find a way to make this
acceptable to viewers. I think he almost succeeded. If I play this… [Unclear] but the principle of management
is the same. Scrupulous cleanliness is observed and again, the highest quality
is demanded. Vets examine the carcasses. Uniform quality and appearance
are essential. A good slaughterhouse sticks to
the ideal of beauty in bacon. Yes. We can see how he shows what
he must show in excruciating detail but then goes straight into the idea that pig carcasses hanging in a
row are actually very beautiful. and he makes
this very artistic shot. So that’s just a few examples of these really quite complicated
production processes. If you want to read more
about The Pattern of Co-operation, Mary and I have published an
article which you can find here. There are also more clips. Less disgusting ones. It’s only left to say that the high
point of Dansk kulturfilm comes in 1960, with
A City Called Copenhagen, which was nominated for an
Academy award, an Oscar in1960
in the short film subject category. It didn’t win, but it is
an absolutely wonderful film. After that, as I said, a new film ordinance comes in. New times, new technologies
mean that the relationship between the state
and the filmmakers had to change in the 60s. So that’s really the end my project. I would just like to flash up some
of these credits and thanks while you ask any questions
you would like to ask. Thank you very much for listening. Thank you, Claire. I remember seeing some of these
in school in the 70s in Denmark. Yes. I didn’t know I was being
brainwashed by propaganda. We have time for questions,
five or six minutes. Please wait for the microphone
to come and put up your hand. Yes, we have a question
down here please. Just to give you some exercise. Hello. Are these films shown at all in
Denmark as historical documents? No, not really at all any more. Whilst living in Denmark
to do this project, I had a kind of unscientific means
of determining that. I asked everyone
if they had seen any. A lot do remember them
from school, but these days
they are not used. They would have to be digitised and slowly they are being digitised and we’re hoping it will be possible
to digitise more of them. But the problem is,
because they’re quite technical, they go out of date very quickly. So they are of historical interest, rather than actually being
of use in education these days. I have a question. You mentioned there is
a difference between the pre-1960 ways
of funding these films and then developments since. But we all know there have been several waves
of Danish cinema since that has also received
state funding. It might be a hallmark
of this small nation. Can you tell us something
about that relationship between the small nation
and funding today? Touldn’t call it propaganda
any more. No, they wouldn’t call it
propaganda any more. You are right to connect it
to the idea of the small nation, and there’s been a lot of work on the idea of Denmark
as a small nation with quite a specific approach
to funding its cinema. It’s still the case today the short
film form receives state funding and often it’s used as a
training ground for filmmakers, the first film they get to make before they take the step up
to the feature film. But you’re also right
that since 60s, there have been several
adjustments to policy and that tends to go along with changes in
the political landscape as well. There’s a new film agreement
just out last week in fact, which we are all still trying
to absorb and understand. The previous big changes
were in the 1990s, round about the time
of the dogma movement. But is there the same interest in promoting
what we would probably call Scandinavian and Danish values, or the welfare state as we saw
in these early movies, as in promoting Scandinavian
culture through film today within the policies
that are being made? I don’t think
that comes out explicitly. What is still explicit in the policies
is the idea that Danish film should be of high quality, but it should also have
a certain avant-garde air to it. So they are not
supporting blockbusters, they supporting high quality film
that pushes the art forward. That was also the case
in the era I’m looking at. The filmmakers got, and I quote,
free hands to interpret their briefs so the films would be able to
circulate internationally as impressive films. We have time for one more. The SAS example is interesting because that’s an early example of successful
Scandinavian coorporation. Was there any cooperation
in filmmaking? Because they did work together
to produce books and things. Yes, there are
various examples of that, informal and slightly more formal. For example, there were visits from the Swedish filmmakers
to Danish filmmakers during the occupation and lots of talk about collaboration. There’s an interesting example
which was Danish-led from the mid-60s, which is called Something About
Scandinavia in English and that presents
the five Nordic nations in the form of a cartoon. It functioned quite flexibly; it could introduce
the Nordic nations to each other but it could also function abroad
to introduce a region as a whole. and there were projects where each country was asked to
make a film in a particular series. So, yes. What would you recommend? What is the best of all these
movies and when can we see it? The best ones
you can’t actually see yet. We are really hoping
they might be be digitised however, I think
that the Dreyer films which I flashed up
about halfway through, if you just google Carl Dreyer
and DFI, you’ll find the website. All of his short films
are on there to watch and also clips from his other films
and some of them are little gems. Good Mothers, definitely not, but some of the other ones are
beautiful and bear his imprint. He was better at bridges
than mothers. He was better at sculpture
than mothers. That’s a good recommendation. Off you go
to see some Dreyer shorts. Thank you again, very much
to Dr Claire Thompson.

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