Film came to Denmark in 1896 when the first short films (probably British) were presented in a pavilion on the City Square of Copenhagen. Since December 1897 Danish productions, made by photographer Peter Elfelt (1866–1931), were also shown. The first film pioneer in Denmark, he made more than one hundred short films between 1897–1907—on sport, royalty, city life, and public events in the style of Auguste and Louis Lumière.
The first important Danish film production company was Nordisk Films Kompagni (now: Nordisk Film), established in 1906 by Ole Olsen. Nordisk, which has been a major player in Danish media for a century, took the lead with short, dramatic films, such as Løvejagten ( Lion Hunt , 1907), directed by house director Viggo Larsen (1880–1957), a former army sergeant. Beginning in 1910 the longer feature films appeared. The first, Alfred Cohn's Den hvide Slavehandel ( The White Slave Traffic , 1910) for Fotorama, was immediately plagiarized by Nordisk under the same title, with August Blom (1869–1947) as director. The small company Kosmorama made Urban Gad's (1879–1947) Afgrunden ( The Abyss , 1910), in which Asta Nielsen (1881–1972) plays a young woman who leaves her sensible fiancé for a reckless circus artist, whom she murders when he betrays her. Nielsen and husband Gad soon left for Germany where Nielsen, in a diversity of roles, became one of the greatest European stars because of her psychological acting style.
During the silent years Denmark produced about 1,600 fictional films (features and shorts) and over 1,000 nonfiction films, although only about 250 are extant. In the Golden Age of Danish Cinema (circa 1908–1913) Danish films benefited from the internationalism of the silent era and were seen all over Europe, especially melodramas with a social and erotic theme, such as The Abyss and in Blom's Ved Fængslets Port ( At the Prison Gates , 1911), starring Valdemar Psilander (1884–1917), the leading male star, and sensational films like the circus drama De fire Djævle ( The Four Devils , 1911). A major artist and the most innovative figure in early Danish silent cinema was Benjamin Christensen (1879–1959). His spy story Det hemmelighedsfulde X ( The Mysterious X , 1914) and the social crime story Hævnens Nat ( Night of Revenge , 1916) explored new visual styles. Although the cinematic essay Häxan ( Witchcraft Through the Ages , 1922), financed in Sweden, was a commercial failure, it is one of the most original and daring silent films in world cinema.
Nordisk's biggest production was Blom's costly and impressive Atlantis (1913), inspired by the Titanic disaster, which was a commercial disappointment. During World War I when Denmark was neutral, Nordisk made pacifist dramas, for example, the science fiction film Himmelskibet ( A Ship to Heaven , 1917). Although Nordisk had a strong position in Germany, the Berlin branch was swallowed up in 1917 when the German military decided to nationalize the film industry with the Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft). This restructuring contributed to the decline of Nordisk, which then concentrated on such costly productions as Carl Dreyer's (1889–1968) first films and A. W. Sandberg's literary adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens, including Store Forventninger ( Great Expectations ) and David Copperfield (both 1922), but without the expected international success. Only the new company, Palladium, established in Denmark in 1922, enjoyed international success with the comic team Fyrtaarnet og Bivognen (literally, the Lighthouse and the Sidecar), known abroad as Pat and Patachon (their actual names were Carl Schenstrøm [1881–1942] and Harald Madsen [1890–1949]).