1864: New Danish Historical Drama Spurs Heated Public Debate.


Originally published October 24, 2015


Ib Bondebjerg

”This Sunday Danish public service station DR broadcast the first of eight episodes of 1864, the most expensive drama production in Danish television history so far. Ib Bondebjerg reports on the production, reception and debate of the series.”

When DR launched the first episode of 1864 it immediately reached success with the viewers. 1.7 million viewers followed, a share of 67%, which brings the series on level with other recent DR-drama productions like The Killing and The Legacy and well above Borgen, which opened with 1.1 million, but reached the same level as 1864 in later episodes. The Sunday 8-9 pm slot for DR drama-productions seems almost untouched by the digital development and new platforms: the viewers love national drama and follow each production and episode intensely, expressing their wives on the social media. Since September 15 more than 4.500 tweets relate to the series, and comments in newspapers and other online sites have been plenty.

But apart from the immediate viewer success and interest, two other aspects are worth mentioning. The series was funded in a rather unusual way by a special decision backed by the former Liberal-Conservative government and backed by the nationalist, popular party Dansk Folkeparti. 100 million Danish kroner (€13.4) was set aside especially for a DR drama production dealing with important aspects of Danish national history. It is not normal for governments to order specific drama productions, so there was a certain air of political interference in the independent decision processes of DR.

However, after a process of open bids for this project, DR decided to go for a project directed and written by Ole Bornedal, but inspired by the Danish history professor Tom Buk-Swienty’s historical bestselling books on the historical events in 1864, a year and a war in which Denmark lost a large part of it’s land to Germany. The series in eight one hour episodes is produced by Miso Film, who will also produce the 150 min. long film 1864. The total cost of the production of both the film and the series is 173 million kr. (€ 23.25 million). In a Danish context this has been seen by some of the newspapers as extremely expensive, and the price per minute (360.416 kr., or € 48.400) has been mentioned by the Danish Tabloid Ekstrabladet as extravant (13/10, 2014). But historical drama productions are costly and the series has 470 scenes, is shot on 36 locations, 155 actors are involved, and 2000 (statister), not to mention the huge costs for creating the right locations.

The historical events in1864 are crucial in Danish history and is seen as a both human tragedy where many Danes lost their lives in a hopeless battle against a superior German power. By most historians this event also marks the end of what now seems as national folly, a political kind of hubris by the national dreamers in politics at that time. The was a time where Denmark ruled both parts of Sweden, Norway and also the regions now belonging to Germany. The series 1864 is a story of political nationalism, of an idea of being Danish, which then was and have ever since been contested by other political ideas and ideologies.

So in dealing with this traumatic, national event, 1864 touches upon the interpretation of Denmark and the concept of Danishness that has deep historical roots, but also on a very tense debate in today’s more globalised and European Denmark. In the series, Ole Bornedal has stressed this connection between past and present, by a contemporary frame, in which the historical past is mirrored in contemporary Denmark. In this way the series does what all good historical series do in different ways: they show us that the past matters, both on and individual and collective level. The past is somehow part of the present, history is alive, and can tell us something about who we are and where we come from.

That history matters is very clear from the reception of the series and the heated debates, even before the series first episode has been shown, and long before anybody has seen how the series will develop. Some historians and some politicians has been very eager to pass a verdict here and now. Historians have attacked the series for not been historical correct, for making a caricature of some of the politicians in the series, and especially representatives for Dansk Folkeparti have been almost morally upset by the series and the combination of a historical and contemporary perspective. They see it as a leftist attack on those that defend a certain concept of nationalism and Danishness.

Words like manipulation and falsification of historical facts have dominated debates in newspapers, on radio and television and social media. Some of those taking this position in the debate have even indicated, that by broadcasting this kind of drama, they are paving the way for the end of DR and for privatisation (Mads Holger, Berlingske Tidende, 13/10, 2014). But other voices have defended the series and the way it constructs a both historical and contemporary narrative. The other big Tabloid newspaper in Denmark, BT, together with the broadsheet paper Politiken, have both called the first episode of 1864 ‘a passionate master piece’ and ‘ a breathtaking, spectacular historical narrative’. More liberal-conservative papers like Jyllands-Posten  and Berlingske Tidende, have on the other hand eagerly supported the historical and political critique by talking about a biased left wing narrative.

Like in the real battle in 1864, the opponents for and against 1864 are deep down in the trenches firing at each other. This is a national, historical drama really creating a heated public debate. In the meantime we wait for the next episodes and for the smoke to go away.

The series however, unless we see a drop in popularity with the viewers in the following episodes, seem to be a popular success. It thus follows in the footprints of the Danish invasion we have already seen with other drama productions from DR. The series also follows the pattern of increased co-production with support from among others: SF Film, TV2 Norway, 4 Fiction, Arte, ZDF, Nordic Film and TV Fund and EU Media. The series has already been sold to more than 10 countries, besides the Scandinavian countries also France, Germany and England, and it seems that the Weinstein group is interested in buying it for the US market. Both the series and the film thus seem to have strong international potentials, despite the very specific national theme of the film.

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