Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Denmark, February 2015.
Life in plastic: it’s fantastic. Like it or not, if you were forced at gunpoint to identify Denmark’s most famous contribution to popular music, it’d probably be Aqua’s Barbie Girl. Beyond them, and possibly the Raveonettes, you’d be hard pushed to think of another well-known pop band from the country. So let me introduce you to one: Steppeulvene. Musically, they sound a lot like all the other guitar bands that were doing the rounds alongside them in the mid-sixties. The big difference was that Steppeulvene were one of the few who performed in the Danish language, which made them counter-culture heroes in their homeland (and, inevitably, doomed them to total obscurity everywhere else).
Right now in Copenhagen cinemas, you can watch a biopic of the band called Steppeulven. Thanks to my total unfamiliarity with the Danish language, it’s taken me a week to realise that this isn’t a spelling mistake. The band’s name translates to ‘Steppenwolves’, plural, while the singular form in the movie title is your first clue that it’s going to focus on one person in particular. (The international title is apparently going to be Itsi Bitsi, after one of their most popular songs, thus getting round the awkward problem that they weren’t the only band at the time to name themselves after that Herman Hesse novel.)
So rather than being the story of the band, this is actually the story of frontman Eik Skaløe (Joachim Fjelstrup). We open in 1962 as he’s being beaten up by the cops for the crime of being young and idealistic (which seems to happen to him a lot). This being Denmark, the police cells are unisex, which is how he ends up spending his first night with Iben (Marie Tourell Søderberg). Eik doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and dabbles in everything: creating a political magazine, writing a novel (with a copy of Steppenwolf conveniently lying next to his typewriter), wandering round Europe having sexy druggy experiences, and busking mediocre Bob Dylan covers to make ends meet. Through it all, he and Iben repeatedly drift in and out of each other’s orbit, until even they aren’t sure if they’re a couple or not.
We’ve all seen rock biopics before, we know how they work. Obviously, these are the life experiences that Eik will eventually draw upon when he decides to put Dylan aside and perform his own music. The surprising thing is that the gathering of life experience, such as it is, appears to take up roughly three quarters of the film. As such, Steppeulven feels less like the story of a musician’s development, and more like one of those Barbet Schroeder films of the period where young people screw listlessly in exotic locations to a Pink Floyd soundtrack. All your favourite hippy cliches are present and correct: from the drug dealer with a big black case who carelessly thinks he can fly, to the bohemian English-speaking Matt Berry lookalike played by Ola Rapace, seen at one stage screaming lines from Yeats into a campfire.
There’s lots of sex and drugs, sure, but surprisingly little rock ‘n’ roll to go along with them. From the moment Eik pulls out a notebook and scribbles the first draft of Itsi Bitsi, to the chaos of their final gig, there’s very little screentime involved. But I’m guessing that director Ole Christian Madsen (best known for Flame And Citron) didn’t want just to tell the band’s story – in fact, it looks like he already did that a quarter of a century ago, in a documentary entitled Kun For Forrykte. He’s assuming that anyone who watches this film in Denmark already knows the story of Steppeulvene, so I was probably the only person in the audience taken aback by the sudden development in the final reel. It makes for a jarringly abrupt coda, although I suspect it felt that way in real life too. Still, as a character study and a depiction of 1960s Denmark, it’s an enjoyable watch, although Madsen’s period-specific fondness for crash zooms may wear you out before the end.
These days, Denmark’s popular music doesn’t have much impact outside its home country. Its telly, on the other hand, is a different story altogether, with DR productions like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen proving massively popular internationally. You suspect that the national broadcaster, having had a couple of global hits more or less without trying, is now wondering if it can manufacture the next one deliberately. That would seem to be the thinking behind Mord Uden Grænser, which has just started showing on DR 1, and is a big enough deal to warrant being trailed in cinemas. With its multi-national locations, the globally recognisable face of Lars ‘Limmy’ Mikkelsen in the lead, and a bland English sub-title (The Team) already in place, it’s got Saturday Night Double Episodes On BBC Four written all over it. If you fancy jumping the gun before the Beeb buys it, here’s a legitimate YouTube copy of episode one. No English subtitles, but, well, now it’s your turn.
Lars Mikkelsen seems to be doing all right on Danish TV right now, but his brother Mads has the rest of the world’s telly sewn up, playing – as my colleague Marv Marsh has correctly pointed out – the best Hannibal Lecter of all time.  But it’s good to see that despite American success, Mads Mikkelsen hasn’t given up on his homeland, particularly when he’s taken time out from his Hannibal schedule to participate in a film as deliciously crazed as Mænd Og Høns.
Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) and Gabriel (David Dencik) are brothers. They’re a peculiar pair: Gabriel keeps coughing like he’s just about to spew up a hairball, which would make him the most embarrassing member of his family if it wasn’t for Elias’ constant masturbation. The bad news is, their father has just died. The worse news is, he’s revealed to them in a video will that he’s not actually their father at all. They set out on a quest to a remote island, and a decrepit farmhouse inhabited by three men with suspiciously similar harelips to the brothers. Gabriel is very uncomfortable about this, but Elias quickly settles into his new family’s routine of playing badminton and attacking each other with blunt instruments, with a side order of terrible things being done to animals. But as the house gradually delivers up its secrets, it turns out that the animals may not have been the most hard done by.
That last bit is complete and utter guesswork on my part, by the way.
Mænd Og Høns (aka Men And Chicken) is written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, who appears to have written about 50% of the films to have come out of Denmark over the last decade. (Here, you may know him best for his regular collaborations with Susanne Bier.) For one of his rare turns behind the camera, he’s managed to assemble the cast of a lifetime. Aside from Mikkelsen and Dencik, their newly-discovered relatives are played by Søren Malling (Sarah Lund’s sidekick in season one of The Killing), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Sarah Lund’s sidekick in season three of The Killing) and Nicolas Bro (the Justice Minister in season two of The Killing, and also the Official Timothy Spall Of Denmark). That’s five of the nation’s best-known actors in one place, and Jensen has a glorious time making them perform in what initially looks like the equivalent of a Five Stooges movie.
Because if you’re not able to understand the dialogue, this is a fantastically broad comedy. The stars are all made to look as unglamorous as possible using wigs and makeup, with Mikkelsen in particular given a set of curls and a tache that leave him looking like a Scouser’s nightmare. They also spend most of the running time hitting each other with things: one of the best running gags involves Malling’s character approaching other people from way off in the distance, brandishing one of the stuffed animals he uses as a weapon. But the near-constant laughs the film was getting during the screening I went to would suggest there are some pretty funny lines being said as well.
Mænd Og Høns turns out to be one of those films where the lack of comprehension of the dialogue ultimately effects your comprehension of the narrative. (It happens less often than you’d think.) There are frequent revelations of dark secrets lurking in quiet corners of the house, and the sense that the story is gradually building towards a really big one. When that final revelation comes, you’re left struggling to piece it together from the location where it happens, and the odd comprehensible word that comes through. (“Hund?”) If the film ends the way that I think it ends, then it’s a hilariously bleak capper to an exquisite cavalcade of daftness, made all the more hilarious by the way it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. Then again, I may have just misread all the signs and come up with an ending that bears no relation at all to Jensen’s intentions. And if that’s the case, then holy crap I have a film script that I need to start writing…