A brief history of the internationalisation of Nordic cinema
August 2, 2018
I am currently working on a larger research piece titled Searching for Sugar Man - how, why and to what effect are Nordic producers turning to English language to obtain growth and sustainability for their business.
The research will focus on the modern production landscape in the Nordics, and look at the various possibilities for the producers who currently operate in the field, to grow their businesses in the future. However, as background research I have been reading a lot about the film history across the Nordic countries and thought I would write a very brief outline of my finding here - looking especially at internationalisation.
Katupeilin Takana, a Finnish film directed by Toivo Särkkä, released in 1949.
Starring my grandfather Matti Ranin and Eeva-Kaarina Volanen.
Internationalisation of Nordic cinema
The Danish cinema from its very beginning has had periods of international success. From the beginning of the silent era, Nordisk film, which was founded in 1906, has aimed films at international audiences and during the 1910s was so successful that it opened international branches in England, USA and Germany (dfi.dk, 2018). However, whereas the silent era enabled international distribution, the language barrier stymied sound films, and the sound breakthrough meant a strong decrease of the market; ’Danish cinema henceforth was almost exclusively a case for Danes.’ (dfi.dk, 2018).
Denmark’s perhaps most internationally known director Lars von Trier, was one of the first ones to endeavour into English language films, the first one being The Element of Crime in 1984. Together with the experimental film Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), it composes the ‘so-called Europe-trilogy’, providing a vision of a doomed continent. Von Trier’s following film, the Scotland-set Breaking the Waves (1996) continued with the English language and became a big international hit (dfi.dk, 2018). Von Trier’s early English language works coincide with the new Danish Film Law in 1989, which withdrew the rule that Danish films must be in Danish.
Since the 1980’s many Danish films, especially those of the Dogma tradition manage to gain international recognition and raised the stature of Danish filmmaking talent. Many Danish directors including Susanne Bier with Things We Lost in the Fire (2007), and Lone Scherfig with An Education (2009) have jumped abroad to direct English language films. However, English language has also ventured into Danish productions with early examples including Lone Scherfig's Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002) filmed in Scotland with local actors, Nicolas Winding Refn's Fear X (2003) and Valhalla Rising (2010), Thomas Vinterberg's It's All About Love (2003) and Dear Wendy (2005) as well as Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's The Island on Bird Street (1997) and Skagerrak (2003). More recent examples include Kristian Levrig’s The Salvation (2014).
In an interview on July 2018, Claus Ladegaard, the CEO of the Danish Film Institute comments that the amount of English language applications the institute receives has been growing steadily for the past five years with no end in sight. Currently, the DFI can support up to two English language films per year, but the institute is currently in a process to renew their policy regarding the matter. In the future, the institute can support English language titles but only if the project is in some way culturally connected to Denmark. Also, commercial foreign language films can be supported, but only in the minority co-production capacity, which is around 10-15% of the support that a Danish majority production might receive (Ladegaard, 2018).
The first Finnish film was produced in 1907, however industrialised film production did not start until 1919, after the independence from Russia and its subsequent civil war (Elonet.fi, 2018). By 1930’s two companies Suomi Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus achieved studio dominance, marking the beginning of the golden age of Finnish cinema that lasted until the early 1960’s (Hoikkala, 2016). During this period, some films managed to travel abroad, mainly to other Nordic countries and the USA (Elonet.fi, 2018). By the 1950s the local studio system was so proficient that, according to historian Kari Uusitalo, more films per capital, were produced in Finland than anywhere else in the world (Elonet.fi, 2018).
Regarding the international efforts of contemporary Finnish cinema, Aki Kaurismäki is by far the most internationally acclaimed and well-known Finnish director. His early work features very home-grown stories and local characters which from the surface would seem to have limited international potential. However, due to his bold auteur approach, Kaurismäki has found dedicated audiences globally. An often-used aphorism of ‘more local, more global’ indeed seems to hold true in the case of Kaurismäki. However, in his recent films, more global themes like immigration and the refugee crisis emerge.
Excluding the works of Aki Kaurismäki, ten years ago Finnish films did not travel abroad (Rossi, 2018). Some of the first filmmakers to show interest towards more international stories were AJ Annila with a Finnish-Chinese kung-fu film Jade Warrior (2006) and Jalmari Helander with Rare Exports (2010) an adult fantasy film about Santa Claus. However, only films like Iron Sky (2012), a Nazi sci-fi film set in the moon, and Big Game (2014) starring Samuel L. Jackson as a US president stranded in Finland, really set the tone for internationally oriented Finnish films.
Petri Rossi, the Head of Production and Development at the Finnish Film Foundation, expects that the Foundation will see even more projects that are clearly aimed at the international market. Rossi believes that the change of generation is partially the reason – younger filmmakers are naturally more interested in global stories.
Industrialised film production commenced in Sweden around 1910s. After a short period of great popularity, the so-called golden age of Swedish cinema with lavish productions mainly based on literary adaptations, domestic film production almost vanished in the mid-1920’s only to gain success again in the form of sound films. In the 1930s the local industry moved towards integration with vertically integrated companies gaining dominance, including Svenska Bio and AB Svensk Filmindustri (currently known as SF Studios) (The Swedish Film Database, 2018) (SF Film, 2018).
Similarly, to Denmark, the introduction of TV in the 1950s created such a threat to the local film industry that calls for public support became frequent. Finally, in 1963 a subsidy system was established and is still in place today.
Sweden has throughout its film history produced international talent, both in front and behind the camera; from classic Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman to contemporary actors like Alicia Vikander and Alexander Skarsgård, with enough star power to single-handedly carry blockbuster titles like The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and Tomb Raider (2018). On the directorial side, Sweden’s most internationally known director remains Ingmar Bergman, while contemporary exports include Lasse Hallström (Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) and Tomas Alfredson (The Snowman, Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).
Additionally, Swedish intellectual properties like Henning Mankell’s Wallander series as well as Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium series has sparked foreign remakes with the BBC producing a TV-series of Wallander and Columbia Pictures producing a $90M version of The Girl and the Dragon Tattoo (2011) directed by David Fincher.
Kristina Börjeson, the Head of Film Funding at the Swedish Film Institute says that the Institute aims to finance a broad spectrum of films, and so far, this has included a number of films where the English language is dominant. Even though the institute does not have a clear policy regarding the matter, Börjeson mentions that the films that acquire funding from the institute should have ‘a Swedish DNA’, either in the form of the story, the director or source material.
A recent English-language film supported by the institution was Lisa Langseth’s 2018 drama Euphoria, starring Alicia Vikander and Eva Green as estranged sisters taking a mysterious trip together. Although from the surface the film does not have many Swedish affiliations, Börjeson mentions that in the case of Euphoria, the funding was a question of supporting one of Sweden’s most prominent directors in her efforts to make a bigger budget film, as well as financing a female director and a female story.
Börjeson also mentions immigration and the new film-making generation from an immigrant background that also has its effect on the kind of films produced in Sweden.
Sweden is a country that nowadays looks very different compared to ten years ago. We have people from all over the world in Sweden, and of course, some of them make films. With the population living in Sweden right now, of course, there will be films in Sweden that are spoken in another language. So, we cannot be protective that way.
1920’s marks the beginning of professional film production in Norway. Norwegian films have throughout been met with high local acclaim, and Norwegian cinema has been described to have always been in opposition against aggressive imports, Swedish in the early days and US films in more recent times (Iversen, 1998).
However, also American films were popular in Norway, and the advent of sound strengthened the US presence in the market. Regardless, Norwegian films persisted widespread acclamation and production was booming, inciting many historians to name the late 1930’s as the Golden Age for Norwegian film production.
After a period of creative resistance to the Hollywood style in the 1960s and 1970s, in the 1980’s many Norwegian film productions created international interest and the attitude among the industry shifted towards the global market. The first example of such films was Orion’s Belt (Ola Solum, 1985) which due to its big budget was created by partnering with foreign investors. In a following year the internationalisation of Norwegian cinema comes into a crossroad, with Ola Solum’s 1986 film Turnaround, with no Norwegian language, being denied state support (Iversen, 1998). In the late 1980’s the creation of action-oriented titles with international ambitions gain further momentum as well as heightened interest from local and foreign investors due to their international appeal (Iversen, 1998). This phase received the nickname ‘helicopter period’ due to many of these films emphasising action and special effects.
Silje Riise Næss, a commissioner at the Norwegian Film Institute, mentions that the natural purpose of the Institute is to support Norwegian filmmakers and support creating Norwegian films for Norwegian audiences.
Language is essential to that. Of course, it is very important that the Norwegian language be present in Norwegian films. However, we are also an international country; we have many nationals living in Norway, so for that reason alone we will have films in many languages.
We have certainly supported commercial internationally oriented projects before, like in the case of Louder Than Bombs by Joachim Trier, or 1,000 Times Good Night by Erik Poppe. However, of course, we would have a problem if every Norwegian director would want to do a film abroad with no Norwegian language. So, we need to find a balance. In some cases, like in regard to the upcoming Bent Hamer film The Middle Man, the level of support from the institution has been lower.
Börjeson, Kristina. Head of Film Funding, Swedish Film Institute. Interviewed on 24/08/2018 via Skype.
Ladegaard, Claus. CEO of Danish Film Institution. Interviewed on 12/07/2018 via Skype.
Næss Riise, Silje. Film Commissioner at Norwegian Film Institute. Interviewed on 24/08/2018 via Skype.
Rossi, Petri. Head of Production and Development, Finnish Film Foundation. Interviewed on 26/06/2018 in Helsinki.
Danish Film Institute (2018). Co-producing with the Nordic countries. [online] Copenhagen, pp.4-20. Available at: https://www.dfi.dk/files/docs/2018-02/Co-producing%20with%20the%20Nordic%20Countries%202018.pdf [Accessed 31 Jul. 2018].
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1,000 Times Good Night (2013). Directed by E. Poppe. Norway/Sweden: Paradox Spillefilm, Paradox, Film i Väst, Zentropa International Sweden.
An Education (2009). [film] Directed by L. Scherfig. UK: Finola Dwyer Productions, Wildgaze Films.
Breaking the Waves (1996). [film] Directed by L. von Trier. Denmark: Zentropa Entertainments.
Dear Wendy (2005). [film] Directed by T. Vinterberg. Denmark: Nimbus Film Productions, Zentropa Entertainments.
Epidemic. (1987). [film] Directed by L. von Trier. Denmark: Elementfilm A/S.
Europa (1991). [film] Directed by L. von Trier. Denmark: Fortuna Film, Nordisk Film.
Fear X (2003). [film] Directed by N. Winding Refn. Denmark: NWR Film Productions, Nordisk Film.
It's All about Love (2003). [film] Directed by T. Vinterberg. Denmark, Sweden, UK, Norway: Nimbus Film Productions, Zentropa Entertainments, Memfis Film & Televisions, FilmFour, Zenith Entertainment.
Jade Warrior (2006). [film] Directed by AJ. Annila, Finland: Blind Spot Pictures Oy.
Louder Than Bombs (Trier, 2015). [film] Directed by J. Trier. Norway/Denmark/US/France: Motlys, Animal Kingdom, Arte France Cinéma, Bona Fide Productions, Nimbus Film Productions.
Orion’s Belt (1985). [film] Directed by O. Solum. Norway: Filmeffekt AS.
Skagerrak (2003). [film] Directed by S. Kragh-Jacobsen. Denmark: Nimbus Film Productions
The Element of Crime. (1984). [film] Directed by L. von Trier. Denmark: Per Holst Filmproduktion.
The Island on Bird Street (1997). [film] Directed by S. Kragh-Jacobsen. Denmark: M&M Productions.
Things We Lost in the Fire (2007). [film] Directed by S. Bier. USA: DreamWorks.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016). [film] Directed by D. Yates. USA: Warner Bros.
Tomb Raider (2018). [film] Directed by R. Uthaug. UK /USA: GK Films, Warner Bros.
Turnaround (1986). [film] Directed by O. Solum. Norway: Rose Productions, Major Film Productions.
Valhalla Rising (2010). [film] Directed by N. Winding Refn. Denmark/ UK: Nimbus Film Productions, BBC Films.
Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002). [film] Directed by L. Scherfig. Denmark: Zentropa Entertainments.