You'd be forgiven for thinking that Danish life is pretty much perfect. Not only are the Danes impossibly good-looking, they're famously civic minded, egalitarian and masters of mood lighting. What makes these Nordic role models tick? Just how perfect are their enlightened Scandinavian lives? What can other nationalities learn from the Danes' attitudes to happiness, cosiness and equality?
How to Hygge
Befriend a Dane or two and chances are you'll be invited to partake in a little hygge. Usually it translates as 'cosiness' but in reality, hygge (pronounced hoo-guh) means much more than that. Indeed, there really is no equivalent in English. Hygge refers to a sense of friendly, warm companionship of a kind fostered when Danes gather together in groups of two or more, although you can actually hygge on your own, too. The participants don't have to be friends (indeed, you might only have just met), but if the conversation flows – avoiding potentially divisive topics like politics – the bonhomie blossoms and toasts are raised before an open fire (or, at the very least, lots of candles), you are probably coming close. Atmosphere, harmony and comfort are key.
Most Danes experience hygge in the comfort of their own home, but many cafes, bars and restaurants do their utmost to foster a hyggelig atmosphere (note: hyggelig is the adjectival form of hygge). This comes with open fires or tea lights lit no matter what time of day or year, plus free-flowing drinks and comfort food served in a warm, softly lit, attractive setting. Christmas is the most hyggelig time of year.
Interestingly, the word's origin is not Danish but Norwegian. Originally meaning something along the lines of 'well-being', hygge first appeared in Danish writing in the early 1800s, and it might originate from the word 'hugge' (to embrace). Remarkably, after becoming a hot trend for lifestyle magazines and wellness bloggers around the globe in 2015–16, the term hygge was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.
The international 'discovery' of hygge has prompted the publication of a handful of books explaining the concept, plus manuals on how non-Danish hygge-seekers can create and experience it. To find out more, don some woollen socks, light a few candles, make a cup of cocoa and get comfy on your sofa (blankets and cushions essential), then take lessons from The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking. Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, so the man knows hygge.
Despite being renowned for its progressiveness, Denmark scored surprisingly low in the 2016 Global Gender Gap Index, compiled by the World Economic Forum. The index ranks more than 140 countries on their gender equality, and Denmark ranked number 19, far below its Nordic neighbours (which took out the top four spots).
Denmark does relatively well, with some impressive results (it topped the ranking for parity in the field of educational attainment), but other statistics are cause for concern, and its neighbours do better overall. You can view some gender comparisons at Statistics Denmark (www.dst.dk). Female students outnumber male ones at tertiary level, while figures released by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2014 showed the average Danish man spends 107 minutes per day on housework, in contrast to the average Danish woman's 145 minutes. These statistics gave Denmark close to top billing in terms of chore equity in the 29 countries surveyed. Danish policies, including mandatory paternal leave and postmaternity re-entry programs, have also helped shaped a society in which women can more easily balance a career and family.
Still, sexism in Denmark has not been fully relegated to the history books. One high-profile Dane all too aware of this is former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, whose well-documented love of designer labels earned her the nickname 'Gucci Helle' in the media and by some of her political opponents. While Thorning-Schmidt's detractors argued that her passion for expensive fashion undermined the core principles of her party – the Social Democrats – others pointed to the fact that her male counterparts never face the same scrutiny when it comes to their appearance.
Happy, Shiny People
There have been five World Happiness Reports published by the UN since 2012, ranking more than 150 countries around the globe by their happiness levels. Denmark came top of the class in that first report, and has scored in the top three happiest countries in each report since (in 2017, Denmark was pipped to first place by Norway).
The rankings are determined by scores in six key variables – namely GDP per capita; healthy years of life expectancy; social support (ie having someone to count on in times of trouble); trust (ie a perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life decisions; and generosity (as measured by recent donations).
In 2017 Denmark scored a total of 7.522 on a scale from 0 to 10. Fellow Nordic nations Norway, Iceland and Finland made it into the Top 5, a long way off from the US at 14 and Britain at 19.
So, what's the secret? According to The Happy Danes, a report released in 2014 by Denmark's Happiness Research Institute, the nation's high happiness rating is due to a number of factors, including the following:
- a strong civil society – exemplified by social cohesion and high participation in voluntary work
- a well-functioning democracy – as evidenced by high voter turn-out at elections
- a high degree of security – in part due to the welfare system
- trust – globally, only one in four people feel that they can trust others; in Denmark, that figure is three in four
- freedom – most Danes feel genuinely empowered to make changes and improvements, both in their own lives and in the communities in which they live
- prosperity – Denmark is among the world’s richest countries
- good working conditions that allow room for a balanced life
Welfare for All
When it comes to explaining their enviable lifestyle, most Danes will point proudly to their nation's famous welfare system. It's a system that remains one of the world's most generous: within it, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge. The Danish health and educational systems, for example, are free.
Even in adulthood, minds are kept active with state-supported access to Denmark's iconic højskoler (folk high schools), arts-focused schools offering courses in everything from philosophy, debating and creative writing, to dance, applied arts, cooking and even gardening. One in 10 Danish adults make use of these institutions, either to explore an interest or to simply meet new people.
The origins of the højskoler stretch back to the mid-19th century and the revered Danish theologian and political figure Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872). Arguing that a newly democratic Denmark would only succeed if all its citizens were able to partake in the country's political life, Grundtvig went about establishing liberal arts colleges for the rural poor. These schools would eventually develop into the folk high schools dotted across the country today.
Grundtvig's ideas would play a formidable role in developing modern Denmark's values of egalitarianism and civic responsibility. While class divisions do exist in Denmark, the gap between rich and poor is much narrower than it is in many other developed countries. Income disparity is also relatively narrow, discouraging the snooty judgment of less-profitable jobs.
Civic responsibility is shown in the Danes' attitude to paying taxes. Surveys show that Danes are generally happy to pay their taxes, despite a tax rate considered high by many other nationalities. As Meik Wiking from Copenhagen's Happiness Research Institute wrote for the 'Best Countries' rankings in 2016 (www.usnews.com/news/best-countries), that's due to 'awareness of the fact that the welfare model turns our collective wealth into well-being. We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life'.
Summer Highs, Winter Lows
A friendly shoulder to lean on can come in quite handy as autumn's leaves flutter to the ground and another long, gloomy Danish winter looms. It's in November that Mother Nature usually unfurls her thick winter fog over the country, extinguishing all hope of just one more mild autumnal day.
For roughly 12% of the population, that little sadness is in fact Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a seasonally triggered depression most prolific in the autumn and winter months. Whether affected or not, many Danes combat the winter blues with escapes to warmer climes, from nearby Malaga to the far-flung beaches of Thailand. They are also prolific users of sunbeds, despite health warnings. At home, however, it's hygge to the rescue as flickering candles, soft lighting and toasty catch-ups with friends turn the darkness into a celebration of all things snug. It's a Danish tradition that reaches fever pitch at Christmas, when Christmas markets, twinkling lights and hot, flowing gløgg (mulled wine) turn cities and towns into winter wonderlands.
Not surprisingly, Denmark's short, sweet summers are embraced with fervent gusto, the long nights of winter replaced by deliciously long, invigorating days. Parks become veritable seas of bronzing flesh, outdoor festivals are in full swing, and those with a sommerhus (summer house) or grill (barbecue) dust them down for another much-awaited season.
Sidebar: Low Corruption
According to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International (www.transparency.org), Denmark and New Zealand are the least corrupt countries in the world.
Sidebar: Common Names
Anne and Peter are the most common first names in Denmark today. The most common surname is a tightly fought race between Jensen and Nielsen.
Sidebar: Green Power
Danes aren't just leaders in happiness, they're also leaders in sustainability. State of Green (www.stateofgreen.com) is the country's 'green brand' – read all about its eco plans and green solutions.
Sidebar: Happiness Research Institute
Get the low-down on Danes' happiness and hygge in official, scientific form from reports published by the Happiness Research Institute (www.happinessresearchinstitute.com).
Sidebar: Happiness Report
Want to know more about the World Happiness Report, and where your country ranks? See http://worldhappiness.report/.
Sidebar: Almost Perfect?
The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth is a very readable exploration of the myths and stories behind the 'Nordic miracle'.
Sidebar: Work-Life Balance
According to the OECD Better Life Index (www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org), Danes have a better work–life balance than any other country surveyed.
Is there a more design-conscious nation than Denmark, or a more design-obsessed capital than Copenhagen? One of the country’s most inspirational qualities is its love and mastery of the applied arts. Along with its Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark has had a massive influence on the way the world builds its public and private spaces, and on the way it designs interiors, furniture and homewares.
Denmark's architectural portfolio is rich and eclectic, graced with the millennia-old military precision of Trelleborg, the medieval curves of Bornholm's round churches, the Renaissance whimsy of Helsingør's Kronborg Slot, and the rococo elegance of Copenhagen''s Marble Bridge.
On the world stage, Danish architecture has shone especially bright since the mid-20th century, its enlightened, innovative approach to design pushing boundaries and enjoying accolades across the globe.
Among its deities is Arne Jacobsen (1902–71). An innovator in international modernism, the pipe-smoking architect pioneered Danish interpretations of the Bauhaus style. Among his celebrated works are the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, the functionalist town hall he designed for Aarhus (with interiors by Hans Wegner), and his Kubeflex prototype summer house at Kolding’s Trapholt museum, all of which encapsulate Jacobsen's masterful sense of proportion.
Equally famous is Jørn Utzon (1918–2008), whose work reflected the organic trend within modernism. Creator of the World Heritage–listed Sydney Opera House, constructed in the 1960s, Utzon famously incorporated elements as wide-reaching as Mayan, Japanese and Islamic influences into traditional Danish design. In Jutland you can admire Utzon's work in Esbjerg and Skagen, but the best place to visit is the Utzon Center in Aalborg. This impressive design and architecture space was the last building designed by the celebrated architect before his death in 2008.
Utzon is not the only Dane to design an architectural icon for a foreign city, with Viborg-born architect Johan von Spreckelsen (1929–87) responsible for Paris' cubelike, monument-cum-skyscraper La Grande Arche. Completed in 1989, the building's ability to balance the dramatic and the unorthodox with a sense of purity and harmony epitomises the aesthetic of many contemporary Danish creations. Among these is Henning Larsen's award-winning The Wave, a striking yet soothing housing development in Vejle, Jutland, sculpted like giant white waves.
An even more recent example is Denmark's National Maritime Museum in Helsingør, a concrete and glass complex ingeniously built in and around a former dry dock. The museum is the work of prolific firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), whose groundbreaking creations also include the Copenhagen apartment complex VM Bjerget (Mountain Dwellings), a stepped, pyramidal structure with a clever configuration that gives each apartment a sense of spaciousness and privacy more akin to detached suburban abodes.
BIG's latest creations include the whimsical Lego House in Billund, celebrating all things Lego inside a fun edifice designed to resemble stacked bricks, and Tirpitz, an inspired museum inside a WWII-era bunker and tunnel under the sand dunes on the west coast of Jutland. Special mention must go to Amager Bakke, a still-under-construction waste-to-energy plant in Copenhagen that will feature an artificial ski slope and hiking on its roof.
Functional, humanistic, organic and sympathetic are all adjectives that might be used to describe the defining features of classic post-war Danish architecture, best embodied in the work of architects such as Jørn Utzon and Arne Jacobsen. Their usually restrained take on modernism has been superseded since the 1990s, often by a much bolder, brasher, even aggressive type of building.
Here are a handful of Copenhagen’s most iconic modern buildings.
Radisson Blu Royal Hotel (Arne Jacobsen) Not content with merely creating a building, Jacobsen designed every item in the hotel, down to the door handles, cutlery and the famous Egg and Swan chairs. Room 606 remains entirely as it was on opening day in 1960.
The Black Diamond (Schmidt, Hammer & Lassen) Completed in 1999, Copenhagen’s monolithic library extension offers sharp contrast to the original red-brick building. While the latter sits firmly and sombrely, the black granite extension floats on a ribbon of raised glass, leaning towards the harbour as if wanting to detach and jump in.
Operaen (Henning Larsen) It seems to be the rule that any large commissioned public building must be marked by the word ‘controversial’ and the opera house (completed 2005) is no exception. While its squat exterior has drawn comparisons to a toaster, the maple-wood and Sicilian marble interior is a triumph.
Royal Danish Playhouse (Lundgaard & Tranberg) Completed in 2008 and facing Operaen, the award-winning Skuespilhuset is dark, subdued and elegant. Its glass-house design includes a projected upper floor of coloured glass, a playful contrast to the building's muted-grey, English clay bricks.
Den Blå Planet (3XN) Denmark's National Aquarium made quite a splash with its spiral, whirlpool-inspired design. Hitting the scene in 2013, its gleaming silver facade is clad in shingles – diamond-shaped aluminium plates designed to adapt to the building’s organic form.
Furniture & Interiors
As wonderful as Danish design-focused shops, museums, hotels and restaurants are, the very best place to see Danish design is in its natural environment: a Danish home. To the Danes, good design is not just for museums and institutions; they live with it and use it every day.
Visit a Danish home and you’ll invariably find a Bang & Olufsen stereo and/or TV in the living room, Poul Henningsen lamps hanging from the ceiling, Arne Jacobsen or Hans Wegner chairs in the dining room, and the table set with Royal Copenhagen dinner sets, Georg Jensen cutlery and Bodum glassware.
Modern Danish furniture focuses on a practical style and the principle that its design should be tailored to the comfort of the user. This smooth, unadorned aesthetic traces its roots to architect Kaare Klint, founder of the furniture design department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.
In 1949 one of Klint’s contemporaries, Hans Wegner (1914–2007), created the Round Chair. Its fluid, curving lines made it an instant classic and a model for many furniture designers to follow, and helped establish the first successful overseas export market for Danish furniture. A wonderful array of Wegner-designed chairs is displayed in the Tønder Museum in the designer’s home town.
A decade after Wegner’s Round Chair, Arne Jacobsen created the Ant, a form of chair designed to be mass-produced, which became the model for the stacking chairs now found in schools and cafeterias worldwide. Jacobsen also designed the Egg and the Swan; both are rounded, uncomplicated upholstered chairs with revolving seats perched on pedestal stands.
Danish design prevails in stylish lamps as well. The country’s best-known lamp designer was Poul Henningsen (1894–1967), who emphasised the need for lighting to be soft, for the shade to cast a pleasant shadow and for the light bulb to be blocked from direct view. His PH5 lamp created in 1958 remains one of the most popular hanging lamps sold in Denmark today.
The clean lines of industrial design are also evident in the avant-garde sound systems and TVs produced by Bang & Olufsen; and in Danish silver and cutlery design generally. The father of modern Danish silverwork was the sculptor and silversmith Georg Jensen (1866–1935), who artistically incorporated curvilinear designs; his namesake company is still a leader in the field.
Despite the large shadow cast by the modernists, a new generation of Danish designers are making their mark. While some remain influenced by the heroes of the 1950s, others are challenging their hegemony, with fresh designs that are often bold and irreverent. Among the latter is prolific designer Thomas Bentzen (b 1969), whose whimsical furniture and lighting hum with an almost animated personality.
Four Legs Good: Classic Danish Chairs
Labouring with an almost fetishistic obsession, the great Danish designers such as Arne Jacobsen could spend long, angst-ridden months, even years, perfecting a single chair. Still, the results made the world sit up straight; in the 1950s Time magazine even devoted a cover to the phenomenon. There are dozens to choose from, but some of the classics follow.
The Round Chair (Hans Wegner) In 1950, US Interiors magazine put the chair on its cover, calling it ‘the world’s most beautiful chair’. It became known simply as ‘the Chair’, and began making high-profile appearances such as the televised 1960 presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy.
The Ant Chair (Jacobsen) Perhaps the most (in)famous chair in the world, thanks to the 1960s Lewis Morley photograph of call girl Christine Keeler (from the British Profumo Affair) sitting on one.
The Egg Chair (Jacobsen) This represents the essence of jet-setting 1950s modernity. Jacobsen designed the Egg Chair for the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel.
The Panton Chair (Verner Panton) After helping with Jacobsen’s Ant Chair, Panton went on to do great things in plastic, the most iconic being his Panton Chair.
Nxt Chair (Peter Karpf) Beech plywood moulded into angular planes is the defining characteristic of this striking design, which took 30 years to reach production. It helped spawn the Voxia line, which is still going strong.
The Danish Architecture Centre (www.dac.dk) is a brilliant source of information about new architecture, innovation and urban development in the capital. Its website offers downloadable podwalks for archi-buffs, as well as information about its guided walking tours in Copenhagen.
Sidebar: Design to Improve Life
INDEX: Design to Improve Life is a Danish-based nonprofit organisation that works to promote design and design processes that have the capacity to improve the lives of people worldwide. Read more about its inspiring work at www.designtoimprovelife.dk.
With stores in major Danish cities (not to mention across the globe), design firm Hay (www.hay.dk) is a well-known showcase for contemporary Danish designers, among them Thomas Bentzen, Hee Welling and Lee Storm.
Feature: Kaare Klint
While modern Danish design bloomed in the 1950s, its roots are firmly planted in the 1920s and the work of pioneering Danish modernist Kaare Klint (1888–1954). The architect spent much of his career studying the human form and modified a number of chair designs for added functionality. Klint's obsession with functionality, accessibility and attention to detail would ultimately drive and define Denmark's mid-20th-century design scene and its broader design legacy.
Literature, Film & TV
Like so many Danish forays onto the world stage, Denmark’s contribution to Western culture has been in inverse proportion to the country's size. From fairy tales to philosophy, the written word has felt the Danes' impact. In more recent times, minimalist film-making practices and Nordic noir stories on the page and the small screen have caused widespread ripples and garnered legions of fans.
The Golden Age
Dubbed the 'Golden Age', the first half of the 19th century saw Denmark flourish both culturally and economically. Among the writers of the period were two icons of the Danish literary legacy: Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75), whose fairy tales have been translated into more languages than any other book except the Bible; and noted philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), considered the father of existentialism.
Once upon a Time...
As well as single-handedly revolutionising children’s literature, Hans Christian Andersen wrote novels, plays and several fascinating travel books. Stories such as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling have been translated into over 170 languages and are embedded in the global literary consciousness like few others.
Andersen infused his animals, plants and inanimate objects with a magical humanity. His antagonists are not witches or trolls, but human foibles such as indifference and vanity, and it’s often his child characters who see the world most clearly. The result is a gentleness that crosses borders and generations. His work is said to have influenced Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and innumerable modern-day authors.
Andersen was born in Odense, the son of a cobbler and a washerwoman. In his autobiographies he mythologised his childhood as poor but idyllic. His father died when Andersen was 11, and Andersen left for Copenhagen soon after, an uneducated 14-year-old on a classic fairy-tale mission: to make his fortune in the big city. He tried and failed at various occupations until he eventually found success with his writing, initially with his poems and plays, and then his first volume of short stories.
A neurotic, sexually ambivalent, highly strung hypochondriac, Andersen lived a troubled life. It may go some way to explaining why he was such a restless nomad to the last. Andersen’s collected works (156 in all) include poems, novels, travel books, dramatic pieces and three autobiographies. Succumbing to liver cancer, Andersen now rests in Copenhagen’s Assistens Kirkegård.
Around 1870, a trend towards realism emerged in Danish literature, dubbed the 'modern breakthrough'. Focused on contemporary issues, the movement's leading figure was Georg Brandes (1842–1927), a writer and social critic who called passionately for a style of literature designed to spark debate and challenge societal norms. Among those who achieved this was Jens Peter Jacobsen (1847–85), his novel Marie Grubbe being the first in Denmark to deal with women's sexuality.
Another realist was Henrik Pontoppidan (1857–1943), who won a Nobel Prize for Literature (shared with compatriot Karl Gjellerup) in 1917 for ‘his authentic descriptions of present-day life in Denmark’. The prize would be given to Johannes Vilhelm Jensen in 1944, his historical novel The Fall of the King acclaimed as the best Danish novel of the 20th century in 1999.
The most famous Danish writer of the 20th century is Karen Blixen (1885–1962). Starting her career with Seven Gothic Tales, published under the pen name Isak Dinesen, she is best known for Out of Africa, the memoirs of her farm life in Kenya. Penned in 1937, it was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1985. Her Danish estate in Rungsted is now a museum dedicated to her life and work.
One of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists is Peter Høeg, whose works focus on nonconformist characters on the margins of society. In 1992 he published the global hit Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (published as Smilla’s Sense of Snow in the USA and made into a movie in 1997), a suspense mystery about a Danish-Greenlandic woman living in Copenhagen.
Although the hugely popular genre of Scandinavian crime fiction seems dominated by Swedes (most notably Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson) and Norwegians (Jo Nesbø), noteworthy Danish authors are contributing to the genre.
Among them is Jussi Adler-Olsen, winner of the 2010 Glass Key award, a prestigious literary prize dedicated to Nordic crime/suspense fiction. The first of his series dealing with the intriguing cold-case squad Department Q was published in English in 2011 – in the UK with the title Mercy, and in the US as The Keeper of Lost Causes. His latest (seventh) instalment in the series is titled The Scarred Woman in English.
Another notable contemporary crime writer is Copenhagen-based journalist Erik Valeur, whose debut novel The Seventh Child won the 2012 Glass Key prize. Intricately crafted, its plot revolves around the mysterious death of a woman, an orphanage and seven unidentified orphans suspected to be the abandoned children of Denmark's elite.
New names on the scene include Thomas Rydahl, whose book, The Hermit, won the Glass Key in 2015. A fellow Dane was also awarded the prize the following year: Ane Riel's novel Harpiks won the judges over, but was not yet available in English at the time of research.
Although Danish cinema stretches back to the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Danish directors attracted a broader international audience, with a swag of trophies to prove it.
Director Gabriel Axel's Babette’s Feast (1987) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1988. An exploration of the impact a French housekeeper has on two pious sisters, the film is an adaptation of a story by Karen Blixen, whose novel Out of Africa had been turned into an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie just three years earlier.
Remarkably, just a year later, a Danish film again won Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards (as well as the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or): Pelle the Conqueror was directed by Bille August and adapted from Martin Andersen Nexø’s book about the harsh life of an immigrant in 19th-century Denmark.
The award fell into Danish hands one again in 2010 with In a Better World. Directed by Susanne Bier, the contemplative drama begins with playground bullying and takes in infidelity, bereavement, evil warlords and revenge – a plot engineered by Bier to question the cosy stereotype of her homeland.
In 2017, Denmark's (unsuccessful) nominee for the Academy Award was the well-received Land of Mine, directed by Martin Zandvliet. Its gripping storyline explores the animosity felt by Danes towards Germans after WWII, when young German POWs were forced to defuse the thousands of landmines laid by the occupying German army along the west coast of Jutland.
Directors of Note
Denmark has produced some high-profile directors, many of whom have crossed over from local Danish-language films to Hollywood productions.
Bille August Known for his literary adaptations: Pelle the Conqueror (1987); The House of the Spirits (1993), based on the novel by Chilean writer Isabel Allende; Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997), from the bestseller by Peter Høeg; Les Misérables (1998), adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic tale; and Night Train to Lisbon (2013), based on Pascal Mercier's philosophical novel.
Susanne Bier One of Denmark’s leading directors, she has made a name for herself internationally with respected local films Brothers (2004; remade into an American production with the same name), After the Wedding (2006) and In a Better World (2010). In 2016 she moved into TV with the acclaimed British miniseries The Night Manager, adapted from the novel by John le Carré.
Lone Scherfig Scherfig’s romantic comedy Italian for Beginners (2000) dealt with diverse but damaged Danes learning the language of love, and became an international hit. She also directed the dark comedy Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), a Danish-Scottish coproduction, as well as the UK films An Education (2009), The Riot Club (2014) and Their Finest (2016).
Thomas Vinterberg Cofounder of the Dogme95 movement, Vinterberg conceived, wrote and directed the first of the Dogme movies, Festen (The Celebration; 1998), to wide acclaim. Although subsequent films flopped, The Hunt (2012) won the 2013 Nordic Council Film Prize, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards.
Nicholas Winding Refn Famous for writing and directing the gritty and violent Pusher trilogy (the first in 1996, with later instalments in 2004 and 2005), which explores the criminal underworld of Copenhagen. His film, the US ‘art-house noir’ Drive, won him the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
And then there’s Lars von Trier…
Lars von Trier & Dogme95
Whether he’s depicting explicit sexual encounters in Nymphomaniac (2013), the apocalypse in Melancholia (2011), or framing female genital mutilation in the polarising Antichrist (2009), there is little doubt that the leading Danish director and screenwriter of the 21st century remains Lars von Trier, who continues to live up to his label as the film world’s enfant terrible.
Von Trier’s better-known films include the melodrama Breaking the Waves (1996), which featured Emily Watson and took the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix; Dancer in the Dark (2000), a musical starring Icelandic pop singer Björk and Catherine Deneuve, which won Cannes’ Palme d’Or in 2000; and the frequently difficult and experimental Dogville (2003), starring Nicole Kidman.
Von Trier is a cofounder of Dogme95, sometimes dubbed the ‘vow of chastity’. This artistic manifesto pledged a minimalist approach to film-making using only hand-held cameras, shooting on location with natural light and rejecting the use of special effects and pre-recorded music. It attracted both ardent fans and widespread dismissal, but its impact and influence on modern cinema cannot be underestimated.
Over the past decade or two, Denmark has cemented its reputation for superlative TV crime drama, characterised by gripping plot twists and a dark, moody atmosphere.
Planting the seed of success was the four-season drama Unit One. Based around an elite mobile police task force, the show won an Emmy Award for best non-American television drama series in 2002. On its tail was The Eagle, its 24 episodes revolving around a small Danish investigation unit solving everything from terrorist threats to international fraud. The show would also go on to receive an Emmy, in 2005.
Come 2007 audiences were introduced to The Killing and its protagonist Sarah Lund, a Copenhagen police detective known for her astute crime-solving abilities and love of Faroese knitwear. During its three seasons, the series became an international cult hit, screening in almost 20 countries, winning a British BAFTA Award and spawning an American remake.
Police tape gave way to spin doctors with the acclaimed political drama Borgen. Launched in 2010, the three-season hit stars much-loved Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg, an idealistic politician suddenly thrown into the oft-challenging position of the country's statsminister (prime minister). Praised for its strong female characters, the show's string of awards include a Prix Italia (2010) and a BAFTA (2012).
Debuting in 2011, Danish-Swedish crime thriller The Bridge hooked viewers from its very first scene, in which a pair of severed corpses are discovered on the Øresund Bridge, at the very border between Sweden and Denmark. Screened in over 170 countries to date, the series would also spawn American and British-French versions.
More recent productions haven't had the same impact or achieved the same cult status, but if you need a binge of Danish TV, try Dicte (2012–16), a procedural crime drama refreshingly set in Aarhus; family drama The Legacy (2014–17); or Follow the Money (2016–), a glossy but relatively ho-hum story of white-collar crime. Below the Surface (2017–) may just hit the jackpot, given that it's a terrorist hostage thriller created by some of the people behind Borgen and The Killing.
Sidebar: Hans Christian Andersen Sites
- Børnekulturhuset Fyrtøjet, Odense
- HC Andersens Barndomshjem, Odense
- HC Andersens Hus, Odense
- Assistens Kirkegård, Copenhagen
How to tackle Kierkegaard’s works? Consider starting with Kierkegaard, by Michael Watts, which gives a short biography of the philosopher’s life and family, plus tips and ideas on how to read and analyse his complex work.
Sidebar: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc
Acclaimed for its rich visual textures and innovative use of close-ups, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), by director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), was named the most influential film of all time in a list of the ‘Essential 100’ published by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010.
Sidebar: Top Danish Films
- Pelle the Conqueror (1987)
- Babette’s Feast (1987)
- Breaking the Waves (1996)
- Festen (1998)
- After the Wedding (2006)
- In a Better World (2010)
- The Hunt (2012)
- A Royal Affair (2012)
- Land of Mine (2015)