Already in 1923 the Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen had presented their sound system. Nordisk went into liquidation in 1928 but was re-established in 1929 with the new sound system. The first feature film with Danish dialogue was Præsten i Vejlby ( The Vicar of Vejlby , 1931), based on a literary classic and directed by George Schnéevoigt. In the 1930s, Denmark, too, was marked by depression and unemployment, but perhaps for that reason the dominating film genre was the jovial "folk comedy"—a light comedy with songs, and marked by an unfailing optimism—whose leading stars were Marguerite Viby (1909–2001) and Ib Schønberg. Outside the mainstream, Poul Henningsen (1894–1967) created Danmark ( Denmark , 1935), the seminal and controversial work of the new Danish documentary film, a description of Denmark in a lyrical style that anticipated that of the British documentary Night Mail (1936).

The Nazi German occupation of Denmark from 1940 to 1945 meant restrictions for Danish film as well as for the society in general. There was soon a ban on showing American and British films in Danish movie theaters, and censorship did not allow the realities of the Occupation to be shown in Danish films. Instead, there was a demonstrative change to other darker genres, such as Danish noir films influenced by French poetic realism. In addition to sophisticated entertainment, there existed heritage films that presented nostalgic visions of a lost Denmark. After a long hiatus, Dreyer returned with the witch hunt drama, Vredens Dag ( Day of Wrath , 1943), set in Denmark in the 1600s. With its story of torture and persecution, it was generally understood as an implicit commentary on the German Occupation. In addition, a short documentary by Hagen Hasselbalch (1915–1997), Kornet er i Fare ( The Harvest Is in Danger , 1945), became famous because it appeared to be an informational film about agricultural pest control but clearly was a witty allegory about the Nazi invaders.

A few months after the end of the Occupation, the first films about the Danish Resistance appeared, and soon thereafter, a realistic breakthrough in Danish cinema came about with films about everyday life and social problems that somewhat resembled Italian neorealistic films. Most important were Bjarne Henning-Jensen's Ditte Menneskebarn ( Ditte, Child of Man , 1946) and Johan Jacobsen's Soldaten og Jenny ( Jenny and the Soldier , 1947). In the 1950s, a number of didactic films warning the nation about alcoholism and juvenile crime appeared, but generally the 1950s meant a return to the popular, cosy style of prewar Denmark. Die røde heste ( The Red Horses , 1950), based on a novel dealing with an idyllic rural Denmark that probably never existed, by Morten Korch, a popular kitsch writer, was seen by over 60 percent of the population. The production company, ASA, made a whole series of successful Korch films (1950–1967) and also a series of more modern comedies about suburban life, Far til fire ( Father of Four , 1953–1961), based on a comic strip about a widowed father with four children. Most of ASA's films were directed by Alice O'Fredericks (1900–1968), who had started at Palladium in the 1930s and probably is the only woman director in world cinema who for several decades was a major force in mainstream cinema. Her example may have been the inspiration for the relatively large number of female directors in Danish cinema, among them Astrid Henning-Jensen (1914–2002), who made Palle alene i verden ( Palle Alone in the World , 1949), the seminal work of the Danish children's film tradition, and later Susanne Bier (b. 1960) and Lone Scherfig (b. 1959). Nordisk released the first Danish feature film in color, Erik Balling's (1924–2005) Kispus (1956), a romantic comedy set in the fashion world. Outside all the typical trends and traditions is Dreyer's religious drama Ordet ( The Word , 1955), the only one of his films to enjoy general popularity with both Danish and international audiences (it earned a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival).

b. Copenhagen, Denmark, 3 February 1889, d. 20 March 1968

Carl Dreyer is the great Danish auteur, one of the masters of the cinema who created his own dark vision of human suffering and sacrifice. However, his increasingly formalistic style and austere universe placed him very far from mainstream Danish cinema. Dreyer's work is characterized by an intense formalism with carefully planned shots and by an uncompromising search for the inner life behind the surface of reality.

He started as a balloonist and journalist and came by coincidence into films in 1912. He wrote a number of manuscripts for Nordisk Film and also worked as editor. After his first film, the melodrama Præsidenten ( The President , 1919), he made the ambitious Blade af Satans Bog ( Leaves Out of the Book of Satan , 1920), four episodes about Satan's work in four different ages inspired by D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1918). During the next decade he worked in several countries. In Norway he shot a Swedish film, Prästänkan ( The Witch Woman , 1920), a bittersweet comedy about a young man who has to marry the old widow in order to get the job as parson. In Germany he made Die Gezeichneten ( Love One Another , 1922), alove story set in Czarist Russia against the background of pogroms, and Mikaël ( Chained , 1924) about a master painter (played by Benjamin Christensen) who becomes jealous when his young protégé falls in love with a countess.

In Denmark he made the realistic comedy Du skal ære din Hustru ( Master of the House , 1925), about a father and husband whose tyrannical attitude is changed when his old nanny arrives. Its success led to an invitation to visit France, where he made La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ( The Passion of Joan of Arc , 1928), one of the uncontested classics of world cinema. For this gripping presentation of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, he developed a new ascetic style of closeups of an almost transcendental intensity. After directing the poetic horror story Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey ( The Vampire , 1932), he returned to Denmark. Several international projects were aborted and it was not until 1943, during the German Occupation, that he again made a feature film, the witch-hunt drama Vredens Dag ( Day of Wrath , 1943).

After World War II, he wrote the manuscript for a film about Jesus and, for the rest of his life, tried untiringly but unsuccessfully to secure financing for it. He made two more films, Ordet ( The Word , 1955), based on a play by Kaj Munk about a young woman who dies giving birth but miraculously is called back to life by her disturbed brother-in-law, and the spare and slow-moving melodrama Gertrud (1964), the story of a woman doomed to solitude because the men in her life are unwilling to sacrifice work and career for love.

Dreyer's personal background is a strange drama. His Swedish mother, probably made pregnant by her Danish master at an estate in southern Sweden, put him up for adoption in Denmark and died soon after. In his work, Dreyer, born Nilsson, constantly circles around the women suppressed in a man's world.


Prästänkan ( The Witch Woman , 1920), Blade af Satans Bog ( Leaves Out of the Book of Satan , 1921), Mikaël ( Chained , 1924), La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ( The Passion of Joan of Arc , 1928), Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey ( The Vampire , 1932), Vreden Dag ( Day of Wrath , 1943), Ordet ( The Word , 1955), Gertrud (1964)


Bordwell, David. The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Dreyer, Carl. Dreyer in Double Reflection . Translated by Donald Skoller. New York: Dutton, 1973.

Drum, Jean, and Dale D. Drum. My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer . Lanhan, MD: Scarecrow, 2000.

Milne, Tom. The Cinema of Carl Dreyer . New York: A. S. Barnes and London: Zwemmer, 1971.

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Peter Schepelern

Carl Theodore Dreyer.

The 1960s was marked by the drastic decline in cinema attendance—from 1950 through 1970 admissions fell from 52 million to 23 million people—due to the arrival of TV (Danmarks Radio started regular TV broadcasting in 1951, and was a monopoly until 1988). This decrease led to new film legislation in 1965 in which state support for the production of artistic films was introduced. In the long period when movie theaters were a very lucrative business, Denmark had a licensing system by which having a license was a precondition to running a movie theater and was given as a special reward to well-merited artists (such as Christensen and Dreyer) or to production companies that produced culturally valuable films. However, the decrease in cinema attendance led to the deregulation of cinema exhibition in 1972.

Overall, European cinema gained cultural respectability during the 1960s. New artistic movements flourished—most importantly, the French New Wave and modernist films by Fellini and Antonioni. In Denmark the 1960s became a transitional period: groundbreaking New Wave films, such as Palle Kjærulff-Schmidt's Weekend (1962), about disillusion among couples in their thirties, written by the versatile writer Klaus Rifbjerg, and modernist works, such as Henning Carlsen's Sult ( Hunger , 1966), based on Knut Hamsun's novel about a starving writer in Kristiania (now Oslo) of the 1890s, appeared alongside the ever-popular folk comedy. Of particular note is Balling's Olsen-banden ( The Olsen Gang , 1968–1981) series of thirteen films, in which the population recognized itself in the unsuccessful trio of petit bourgeois criminals who, guided by their leader Egon, are always involved in fantastic heists that inevitably go wrong. As had been his practice throughout his career, Dreyer produced a film that went completely against the grain of contemporary taste, the melodrama Gertrud (1964), his last work.

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