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Danish cinema throughout history

Last updated 4 April
Denmark's history of filmmaking dates back to 1897. Today, a wide variety of quality onscreen drama, comedy, and documentaries come out of Denmark. 

Although Danish films became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1990s, the local industry had been thriving for a century before that.  Danish directors were at work as early as 1897, when Danish cinema pioneer Peter Elfelt made the documentary Travelling with Greenlandic Dogs.  Elfelt also made Denmark's first feature-length film, The Execution, in 1903. 

In 1906, the Danish production company Nordisk Film was founded, and it soon decided to dedicate itself to making full-length feature films for export. Its success made Denmark a centre for filmmaking in Europe and launched the career of Asta Nielsen, Europe's first female movie star. By the 1920s, the Danish director Carl Dreyer had emerged as one of the greatest directors of silent pictures; his drama The Passion of Joan of Arc has been called the most influential film of its time.

As sound films became more popular, language barriers made Danish film less suited for international export. Most Danish films from the 1930s-1980s were light comedies, with a few notable exceptions like the film noir directed by Danish actress Bodil Ipsen. In the 1960s and 1970s, erotic films from Denmark started to gain the attention of world audiences. 

The Danish Film Institute was founded in 1972 to provide state subsidies for selected Danish movie projects. In 1989, it broadened the definition of films it would support, a development that laid the foundation for a revival of Danish film. 

The "Dogma" filmmakers
In 1995, four ambitious young film directors made a  “Vow of Chasity”, committing themselves to truer and simpler filmmaking. They believed that Hollywood's dependence on big-budget, special-effects movies had weakened the art of cinema. A radical change was needed. 

The four film directors were Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. Together they created and signed The Dogma Manifesto, an artistic initiative that was the basis for several Danish films that became popular all over the world, particularly Vinterberg's The Celebration and von Trier's Dancer in the Dark.


Learn more about Danish Film Directors 


The Rules of Dogma

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice-versa.

3. The camera must be handheld. Any movement or mobility attainable in the hand is permitted.

4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6. The film must not contain superficial action.

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.

8. Genre movies are not acceptable.

9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.

10. The director must not be credited.

Did you know

The state-subsidised Danish Film Institute (DFI) supports the production of about 20 Danish-language feature films and 20 Danish-language documentaries every year.

From "Babette's Feast" to contemporary Danish film

Gabriel Axel's 1988 film Babette's Feast, which was set in rural Denmark, was the first Danish film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.

The next year, Pelle the Conqueror, directed by Bille August won the same prize, as well as the Golden Palm in Cannes. 

Since then, seven Danish films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language picture award, including Susanne Bier's 2011 film In a Better World, which won the award.  

Babette's Feast was also the first of ten Danish films to be nominated for Best European Film at Cannes. Denmark has won that prize twice with films by Lars von Trier, including Breaking the Waves in 1996 and Dancer in the Dark in 2000.

Today the most active Danish directors include Nicolai Winding Refn, Susanne Bier,  Thomas Vinterberg, Nikolaj Arcel and Martin Zandvliet. In 2020, "Another Round" by Thomas Vinterberg became the fourth Danish film to win an Oscar.

Read more about Danish Film History from 1896-2019.