Having made its international reputation with acclaimed crime series including Borgen, Forbrydelsen and The Bridge, Danish public service broadcaster DR has set its sights even higher with the most expensive Danish TV production to date in the form of period drama 1864.
Foregoing the lingua franca of murder mysteries that has served DR so well up to now, this new eight-part miniseries has a much more intensely regional focus as it tells the story of the disastrous Second Schleswig War between Denmark and Prussia. Fired up by nationalistic fervour, the Danes attempted to annex the Duchy of Schleswig into their kingdom in breach of treaties with Prussia settling a previous conflict 15 years before. However they were no match for Otto von Bismarck who used the conflict to help set in motion the unification of Germany, while the Danes ended up losing a quarter of their land by the time the war ended. It was a blow to the Kingdom’s self-image and imperial aspirations from which the country has arguably never recovered to this day.
Outside Denmark this conflict is little remembered, overshadowed by the ensuing events in the 20th century that it partly helped tee-up, so at first look it’s hard to say why we in the UK should be interested in a drama based on these events. And yet in terms of getting under the skin and understanding the psyche of modern Denmark, this production is far more valuable than the likes of the genre-generic Forbrydelsen ever could be.
The series begins with a fairly typical gold-tinted nostalgia-fest of a poor but happy rural upbringing in the 19th century, not unlike the way that Edgar Reitz’s 1984 TV mini-series Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany idealised a childhood growing up in the pre-war German Hunsrück. The core story of 1864 focusses on a doomed love triangle: Inge (Marie Tourell Søderberg) is the spirited daughter of the estate manager of a large farm, while brothers Peter (Jens Sætter-Lassen) and Laust (Jakob Oftebro) are the sons of one of the poor farmworkers. The boys subsequently get swept up in the wave of patriotism and join up, only to find that the Danish army is woefully ill-equipped and poorly-trained when it comes to facing the Germans. Meanwhile the baron who owns the estate where they grow up is fair minded with his workers but harsh and abusive of his only son Diedrich (Borgen’s Pilou Asbæk), a veteran of the First Schleswig War evidently suffering from post traumatic stress. A hateful pantomime villain who beats and rapes his way through the early episodes, Diedrich is subsequently forced back to the front line again now as a captain.
Away from the story of Inge Peter and Laust, the story divides its time with scenes set among the country’s ruling elite. Here the tone switches from the nostalgic romanticism of youth to an excoriating satire of the follies of the politicians so caught up in their own rhetoric about the manifest destiny of the Danes as God’s chosen people that they are blinded to the realities of war. Forbrydelsen 2′s Nicholas Bro is compellingly abhorrent as the borderline insane council president Monrad, descending to levels of farce to get the infirm King’s signature on a declaration of war before the monarch inconveniently dies. Monrad is egged on by his friendship with formidable stage actress Johanne Luise Heiberg (Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen): about to perform as Lady Macbeth when she learns that war has broken out, Heiberg takes Monrad’s hands in her own before going out on stage – ensuring that blood is now liberally splashed on both of their hands and can never be truly washed away.
Pretty much every scene set amongst the politicians is outright polemic and satire. There’s even a brief cutaway scene to England featuring Queen Victoria (Barbara Flynn) and her prime minister Lord Palmerston (James Fox) walking in a hothouse, scripted as a comedy of quintessentially English royal etiquette as Victoria dismissively explains to Palmerston why the Danes can’t possibly be expecting the British Empire to intercede on their behalf in the conflict. It’s hard to know quite who is being so deliciously lampooned in this scene – the British, or the Danes who foolishly think of them as allies. By contrast the only foreign leader to come out of the series at all well is Bismarck, who initially tries to avoid conflict but then proves determined, insightful and level-headed when its needed.
All of this makes 1864 distinctively schizoid, the two halves of the story so different in style and intent that you can practically feel the handbrake turn jerk you around as you switch from one lane to another with little warning. On top of this is a modern day wraparound story which sees young teen Claudia (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) trying to take care of the baron’s last surviving descendent who is infirm, senile and incontinent. While robbing some of the baron’s heirlooms she comes across Inge’s journal from 150 years ago and starts to read it, linking the story of war in 1864 to Denmark’s modern military involvement in Afghanistan in which Claudia’s brother was killed.
This attempt at directly linking the scathing critique of the 1864 campaign with the upsurge in patriotism in the modern day with similarly unhappy consequences is further proof of how 1864 has a very distinct message that it is determined to put across – and which did not go down very well at all with a lot of viewers when the series was originally shown in Denmark in 2014. You can see why: the nearest analogy I can think of for British viewers would be a series which depicts Churchill as a power-crazed, mentally unstable, pill-popping drunken warmonger pitted against a cool, calm, militarily astute Hitler valiantly trying to safeguard the well-being of his poor oppressed people. That would have riots in the streets of Britain if you tried it, so no wonder a good many Danes were miffed about 1864.
Still, it’s tremendously refreshing to watch a programme that takes a specific and controversial point of view and then commits to it full bore without holding back or trying to be fair-minded and meekly telling all sides equally. The end result might not be subtle, but it certainly slaps you in the face and gets your attention whether you agree with it or not. Writer Ole Bornedal also directs, and he has considerable visual panache to the point where the film has the aching artistic beauty of a Terence Malick independent film. In fact there’s something surprisingly American about the whole production, the music especially evoking some of the elegiac films about the US military with a dash of the stirring West Wing theme for good measure. I really shouldn’t have been surprised to find that it was indeed the work of Hollywood veteran Marco Beltrami.
The end result is that 1864 is very much a new kind of Nordic adventure, one that is a world away from the Noir efforts of the last decade and as a result somewhat more of an acquired taste. It has the boldness and confidence to go all-in no matter what the risk, and that’s to be commended. If you don’t like it (and not everyone will) then too bad: but Danish television is aiming astronomically high with this production, and doesn’t care who knows it.
1864 continues on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm. The DVD and Blu-ray release is scheduled for June 8 2015.