Dansk in real life

I won’t add to the chorus of approval for Channel 4’s wisely-chosen US import Homeland, which came to a satisfying conclusion at the weekend. Mark Lawson was the latest to have to argue against British TV drama from its long, persuasive shadow in the Guardian on Monday. But for my money, The Bridge, aka Bron in Swedish, aka Broen in Danish, is even better. The latest Scandinavian import to arrive on BBC4 – following Wallander, Forbrydelsen and Borgen – it is surely the perfect encapsulation of what makes the region so fertile in terms of drama and setting. In fact, if you’ve immersed yourself in the Denmark of Forbrydelsen and Borgen, both set in Copehagen and linked by an interest in the politics peculiar to that country, you’ll have a decent head start on The Bridge (which I’ll call The Bridge rather than have to juggle the subtly different Swedish and Danish translations).

I hardly need to go over the set-up, but I will: a body is discovered at the exact halfway point of the elegant, five-mile-long Øresund Bridge, which links Malmö to Copenhagen by road and rail and thus unites two police jurisdictions in solving the crime. (The body, which turns out to be two halves of two separate bodies, has been placed there to get the attention of both, and that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot, so worry not, those who have yet to catch up, or plan to box-set it.)

It’s as if the dark police procedural of Forbrydelsen has been linked to the more brightly-lit corridors of power of Borgen, mixing social issues with a good old whodunit. In the leads, Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin create a fabulously mismatched detective duo, one that surely has legs far beyond this one case. Martin Rohde, a rotund, homely, good-humoured, rumpled maverick from Copenhagen is everything that Saga Norén, of Malmö, is not. She’s borderline autistic, socially inept, emotionally stunted, professionally by-the-book, but her powers of deduction are keen and her no-nonsense attitude (and lack of meaningful home life) ensure she gets the job done.

Unlike Sarah Lund, Saga is more overtly sexual in her leather trousers and slash-neck tops (which in the first episode she kept whipping off in the office and changing); she is seen picking up a man in a bar for functional, no-questions-asked rumpo. And yet, she is cold and efficient, and in many ways asexual. Rohde has been emasculated by a vasectomy and feels the need to assert himself sexually but he’s more of a teddy bear. I won’t say how but if there is any sexual tension between them it is subsequently defused in a very surprising way.

There’s real humour in the writing, despite the Gothic nature of the crimes, and much of this emerges in the sparring between Rohde and Norén. There’s also a lot of subtle stuff about the differences between the Danish and Swedish way of doing things – and in the intricacies of language and pronunciation. (This is a Danish-Swedish co-production, a coalition that actually pays dividends, and slices straight down the middle. I mean: can you think of a cleverer pitch than The Bridge in terms of setting out its geographical stall? Usually footage of cars going over a bridge in drama is there to provide a bumper; here, it seems vital. And it’s a beautiful bridge, especially at night against that amazing Scandinavian sky.) We’re six episodes in, with four to go, and all six are available on iPlayer, so get in there if you haven’t already.

I know “Scandi drama” is a phrase that’s tiresomely overused at the moment, and I sympathise if you’re put off by yet more Guardian-reader hype, but The Bridge drew over a million to BBC4 in its first week (more than The Killing), which is hard to argue with. I find the bendy sound of the Danish and Swedish language to be easy on the ear, and I guess I’m used to it, having previously organised my own home-schooling crash course in the works of Ingmar Bergman. About ten years ago, when his back catalogue started to come out at a rate of knots via Tartan, I eagerly got up to speed, and titles like Winter Light, The Silence and Wild Strawberries became instant all-time favourites.

At the weekend, I went to the Curzon Chelsea to see Ordet on the big screen, my first taste of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the father of Danish cinema and often cited as one of the greatest directors of all time. I feel a little late to the party, but what a way to start! Ordet (The Word) is one of his later films, made in 1955, when Bergman was enjoying his first international hit with Smiles Of A Summer Night. Dreyer had made his name in the 1920s, helping to forge the medium. I must now delve into that early work – notably The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr (which I’ve always been aware of, thanks to all the history of horror books I used to devour as a boy), and what I know to be his 1940s classic Day of Wrath. I loved Ordet. It is utterly captivating; hypnotic stuff.

Based on a 1932 play, although I assume the film is set in the 1950s, it has a theatrically staged feel, with characters standing in rows, coming in and out of doors, and enunciating very precisely and slowly against flat backdrops, but it opens melodramatically on location in the dunes around a rural farm, where the haunting character Johannes (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who has gone insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ, declaims to what he considers to be a Godless universe. The rest of the Borgen family – yes, you may spot links between Ordet and the previously mentioned modern Danish culture – find themselves caught between God and science, tradition and progress, birth and death, true faith and cold, hard reality. They also come into conflict with a neighbouring evagelical Christian sect, for whom faith is grim and joyless, while the Borgens’ is about warmth and celebration. (Having said this, it’s all relative, and the Borgens are not exactly dancing around the place, flinging flowers in the name of the Lord.)

It’s mesmerisingly slow and deliberate, and everybody seems to walk at the pace of Frankenstein’s monster, and if this is what Danish theatre was like in the 1930s, I want to go there. It’s been hailed as a masterpiece, and I can see why. Not only is the subject matter profound, and heart-stopping at one crucial juncture (which I won’t ruin), but, again, there’s humour here. Surely Dreyer was anticipating a laugh from the audience when Johannes’ condition is explained by his father (Henrik Malberg) to a visitor who assumes it was “love” that sent him mad, but in fact, he explains bluntly, “It was Kierkegaard.” (It’s a gag worthy of Woody Allen.)

Unlike Peter the Tailor in Ordet, I’m not here to convert anybody. This kind of cinema is not going to be for everybody. I would understand if you found it irritating and punishing, and that you found Johannes comical – which I feel sure he’s not meant to be, and anyway, it haunted me. I just find myself with a real urge to soak up Danish culture. Denmark is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

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4 thoughts on “Dansk in real life

  1. I wanted to resist this, as I felt I was in danger of overdosing on Scandinavian drama, but made the mistake of ‘just casting my eye’ over the first episode, and that was that. Clever sods for making such a crazy plot start to seem increasingly plausible (and a bit more manageable than The Killing, which was full of more holes than a string vest, for all that it was hugely entertaining.).
    And I love the tired, bleached-out colour effect – exactly how Copenhagen seemed when I spent a November weekend there a few years ago in that dim yellow winter light.

    Very intrigued by Ordet – and if you want some reading matter to pad out that gag, try ‘The Humour of Kirkegaard’ by Thomas Oden….he wasn’t all existential gloom (but mostly.).

  2. I realise this is an old blog now, but I was behind on The Bridge and didn’t want to read it until I’d caught up. Interesting that you talk about Homeland having a satisfying conclusion, when I found it precisely the opposite. In fact, I would make a case for Homeland and The Bridge – which I consider the best TV series I’ve seen in years and years, probably since State Of Play – being exemplars of how American and non-American TV do this particular genre differently. In the case of Homeland, I got a nagging feeling with two or three episodes to go that little would be resolved, and we would be left on hold waiting for another series, and so it proved. It was like someone walked into the writer’s room three-quarters of the way through the process and told them they’d been recommissioned, so start working on those loose ends now. With The Bridge, however, you could tell that this was going to be a unified whole, that it would resolve, that everything would make sense. Not only did that lead to a much more gratifying finale, it made the episodes leading to that finale considerably more gripping.

    • Having now seen the end of Homeland and The Bridge, the latter is streaks ahead. (No spoilers.) It has leapfrogged Borgen as my favourite Scandinavian TV drama. Thank God there’s a second series, albeit I don’t think we’ll see it here until 2013.

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