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, April 2016.
In a recent episode of the sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, two Swedish detectives visited the eponymous New York police precinct. At one point, they boasted about how they’d be incapable of writing Monoglot Movie Club: “Everyone in Sweden speaks English. We also speak Norwegian, Dutch, German, French, Russian and Finnish. But not Danish. That is a garbage language for garbage people.”
True, it’s an exaggeration for comic effect. But there’s something about the random letter combinations and phlegm-gargling timbre of Danish that does seem to set people off. So let’s focus on the positive side instead. Specifically, let’s look at a pair of recent Danish films with one thing in common – if you take the time to analyse their titles, there’s some interesting wordplay going on.
That’s certainly the case with De Standhaftige, which is possibly the most Danish title you can imagine. Because before this film came along, the most common usage of the word ‘standhaftige’ was in the title of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, Den Standhaftige Tinsoldat. Yes, that one. Unfortunately, if you find that out after you’ve seen the film (as I did), the movie plot falls apart in your head as you spot the cheesy parallels between the Andersen fairytale and the gritty contemporary drama we have here.
Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is a Danish soldier serving in Helmand Province in 2009, up to the point where an encounter with an IED takes both of his legs off. Back home in Denmark, he’s in hospital trying to come to terms with what’s happened to him, but has a lot of anger he needs to work through. In therapy he meets up with ballet dancer Sofie (Cecilie Lassen), who’s looking after her sick mother. She’s got legs! And they work really well, too! Oh, the irony. Sofie gives Thomas a few pilates tips to help get some feeling back into his stumps, which inevitably turns into something else.
It’s that inevitability which, despite making the film relatively easy for me to follow, ends up being its downfall. Given the synopsis of act one above, you can probably work out the ups and downs of the plot from there. The long dark night of the soul involving booze, video games and a gun: the dance rehearsals where nothing seems to come together until the opening night. But there are bursts of inspiration here and there where the plot goes off the expected path. The safety markings on a Copenhagen station platform triggering a buried memory: the predictable sex scene enlivened by a shot of Thomas’ trousers sliding onto the floor with his legs still in them: and a demonstration of how being a double amputee somehow makes shoplifting easier.
Director Lisa Ohlin gets good performances from all the cast, with Mikkel Boe Følsgaard especially convincing, aided by some CG work to erase his legs: though after a while you realise that Ohlin’s effects budget probably wasn’t that big, and most of the time she just shoots him from above the waist. But acting aside, it’s rather predictable stuff, all the way up to what feels like an ambiguous conclusion (although it might not be, I can’t be sure). Not many films explore the grey area between PTSD and modern dance, and there’s probably a good reason for that.
A brief video intermission before we move onto our second feature, and this will require some necessary bad language. Most viewers of TV shows like The Killing and The Bridge will be comfortably familiar with the phrase ‘fy faen’, which is commonly interpreted as Denmark’s equivalent of ‘for fuck’s sake’. It’s a solid oath with a couple of chunky fricatives in it: why would you need to borrow swears from other languages? And yet, during the height of the argument scene at the centre of De Standhaftige, there are several distinct uses of ‘fucking’ in the middle of otherwise Danish sentences. It appears to be a usage that’s moved into the mainstream. In the supporting programme that ran before the film, the word also turned up in an Ikea advert (listen closely around 30 seconds in)…
…and in a teaser for Denmark’s number one single at the time, Forgabt (Jeg Fucking Elsker Dig) by Medina. The title may be asterisked out in the YouTube video description, but it’s loud and proud in the onscreen titles, in the chorus and – see image at top of page – in the adverts on the side of Copenhagen buses.
Back to the movies for Flaskepost Fra P, directed by Hans Petter Moland, whose title suggests that Danish might be the only language that’s come up with a single word to get across the concept of ‘a message in a bottle’. We see that message in brief glimpses in the pre-credits sequence – written by a young boy confined to a dark, watery dungeon, desperately trying to get his cry for help out into the world before his captor returns. Years later, the bottle ends up in the hands of the police, specifically Mørck (Nicolaj Lie Kaas) and Assad (Fares Fares), who start analysing the message for clues. Unfortunately, the man they seek is already targeting his next victims. And you can tell from the start he’s a wrong ‘un, because he insists on speaking some other subtitled Scandi language even when everyone else is speaking Danish to him. (It turns out it’s Norwegian: your baddie for this film is Pål Sverre Hagen, making his third appearance in Monoglot Movie Club following his leading roles in Kon-Tiki and Gåten Ragnarok.)
It’s quite possible that by now, some of you are yelling directly at the screen “it’s Department Q, you philistine!” Well, it was news to me. With child abduction, nervous breakdowns, sudden violence and a droning score all in the mix, I could certainly tell that this was Nordic Noir cranked up to stadium rock levels. But I wasn’t aware that this was the third film in an ongoing series of adaptations of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestsellers about cold case investigations. The first one, The Keeper Of Lost Causes, had a UK theatrical outing: by the oddest of coincidences, the second (The Absent One) was doing a one-day run in Picturehouse cinemas on the same day as I was watching its successor in Denmark.
Flaskepost Fra P has the episodic feel of a TV show you’ve started watching a couple of seasons in: it assumes you already know the characters and their backstories. Mørck, for example, does a huge amount of brooding, even more than you’d normally expect from the genre: sometimes it feels like his partner Assad is doing most of the detective work while he’s off blubbing in a corner. I assumed that by the end we’d find out Mørck had some sort of major trauma in his past, but I suspect he probably had that trauma in one of the earlier films, and everyone in the cinema knew about it apart from me.
The first half of Flaskepost is a cavalcade of almost unrelenting bleakness, broken up with bits of jovial banter between the cops which feel jarringly out of place. But as they uncover the background of religious mania that’s got us into this mess, the plot starts to pull together. There are several tightly constructed setpieces – a ransom payment that takes place on a train, and some poorly co-ordinated witness protection in a hospital – that positively whizz along, only slightly let down by a CGI helicopter that’s fractionally more realistic than the one in Who Killed Captain Alex. The climax stretches a little too far for effect, and the explicit parallels with Seven aren’t going to do it any favours, but it seems to tie everything together in a satisfactory way.
Flaskepost has smashed Danish box office records during its theatrical run, and Adler-Olsen has at least three more Department Q novels as yet unfilmed, so I suspect this one will run and run. Although if you’re looking out for the film in the UK, be advised that the international release title is the much more tedious A Conspiracy of Faith. Meanwhile, De Standhaftige is going to be sent out into the rest of the world as Walk With Me. Maybe the Danish language has more going for it than we initially suspected.