Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 5 & 6


Prime Minister and eminence grise

1864 just gets better and better by the episode, which makes blogging it harder and harder. There are an abundance of riches here, in all the three principal elements of the story, and the greatest difficulty is to find a way of describing what is being done without descending into endless gosh-wow.

Take episode 5, to begin with. It begins once more with Claudia reading Inge’s words, a reflective moment in her diary that once more refreshes us as to where things stand in what might be called the soap-opera strand. She loves both Laust and Peter, but is pregnant and disowned by her family. It’s Laust’s child and the concealment of their sexual relationship has caused Peter to become estranged from both, which has  separated the brothers in the stage of the War.

Claudia, who has violently lost her nose-ring in her attempt last week to con money out of the perverts in the pub, is by now fascinated by this tale, but the Baron distracts her from it momentarily by displaying to her two sabres, and showing how easy it is to determine if they have been used. One is shiny, pristine, razor sharp: it belonged to his grandfather, the traumatised, cowardly Didrich. The other is stained with uncleaned blood, chipped and blunted where it has cut into bone and metal buttons: this belong to Dinesen, who survived the war completely unscathed, the man soldiers should stand next to.

Whilst we digest the information that Didrich is the Baron’s grandfather, and recall that last Saturday he called Inge his grandmother, and muse on that will mean, Claudia’s voice draws us back into the War. It’s like an abstract of what happens, a non-cohesive account of this phase, Peter’s group have stayed behind to disable the abandoned Dannevirk, and must now run north toward Dybbol with the Prussian Army at their heels, Laust is far ahead, under Didrich’s command.

Both undergo traumas in the swirling snows that make so much of the episode look as if it is filmed in black and white. Laust loses a cannon which runs into a lake. Didrich insists he and his squad retrieve it and not leave it, frozen solid, for the Prussians. Laust has to jump into the lake, which is pitifully stupid, and which gets him nothing but a fever that seems bound to kill him. Peter’s squad is forced to confront Prussian officers. Dinesen saves them from certain death, but Peter is forced to shoot a hussar, who collapses onto his bayonet: the man hangs there, staring into Peter’s eyes.

And around them, bits of the war take place, the reality of war, of death, dismemberment and destruction, not the increasingly blind fantasy being pursued by the fanatical Mrs Heiberg and the increasingly absurd Monrad. The disowned Inge heads south with the gypsies, including the mute Sophie, whom she discovers is also pregnant, by Didrich’s rape. Inge has no idea, but Sophie’s brother Djarko knows the truth: it’s a horrifying shock that he rants at Sophie, calling her a whore, for being raped. Nineteenth century morals: so wonderful.

But in a series that’s been so resolutely down-to-earth, whose depiction of the horror of war has been admirably practical, unafraid of the truth without wallowing in gore, there’s an odd moment midway through this episode in which things start to take a strange turn, that continues to lightly brush the remainder of the hour. Inge and Laust communicate telepathically in their non-sleep, Laust sees visions, Monrad curls up on his desk like a fearful child, and Larssen sees his squad through to safety by overcoming a German squad by what is probably hypnosis (or animal magnetism, as it would have been then).

This episode ended with the beginning of bombardment, the warfare of the trenches unleashed on Dybbol. For the Danes there will be no hope.

Moving on to the back half of the series, the ‘action’ stays in Dybbol: we do not even approach Copenhagen save by morse, when the Government refuses to allow the Army to retreat further, despite the inevitability of massacre – the bombardment has extended to the town of Sonderburg as well. The Army’s new General-in-Chief has been appointed because he is a weakling who will follow orders: knowing that everyone under his command will die, he refuses to countermand the stupidity.

Inge and Sofia arrive in Sonderburg and the former finds Didrich. But the coward lies to her, telling her that both Peter and Laust are dead. In the latter case, he’s all but correct. Didrich piously explains to the coma-overtaken Laust that he’d lied to spare Inge the sight of seeing her lover like this, but then gloats about ‘looking after’ a dishonoured whore.

There’s a timely interlude where, the German’s having introduced a military band to their trenches to improve their soldiers’ morale, and wind up the Dane’s, Peter’s squad is sent out under cover of darkness to slice sentries’ throats and gun the band down. Unfortunately, success goes to Alfred’s drunken head the next day, when the band is silent: climbing out of the trench, he celebrates, but gets both hands shot off by snipers.

He is rushed to the hospital, where Inge and Sofia have argued their way in as nurses. In an almost unbelievable moment, Inge and Paul literally brush shoulders, but they are turning in opposite directions, and neither sees the other.

This scene immediately prefixes the strangest moment so far: Larssen enters the closed off sector where Laust is waiting to die, straddles his chest, forms the fingers of his hand into a pyramid and plunges it into Laust’s chest, above his heart. Blood runs, Laust spasms, but Larssen withdraws a lump of ice which he first holds above Laust’s mouth, dripping meltwater from it, before dropping it in. He tells Laust that he’ll be well now, and as the pisode ends, a fully healthy Laust returns to duty.

It’s an astonishing moment, yet whilst seeming so completely inimical to what 1864 has been thus far, it does not seem wholly implausible, and I want to see where this element is going.

Because episode 6 has thrown in a twist that may yet be a derailment for the whole series. Instead of our usual start at the old Baron’s decrepit home, Claudia has gone to her home, to her mother, still pitifully mourning her dead son, Sebastien. The woman can barely function, but Claudia manages to direct her to her purpose. She believes there is a trace of Gypsy in their heritage, which her mother confirms comes from Claudia’s dad’s side. There’s an old album of photos, but these contain more than just photos, but also old letters. One that Claudia reads is about war: she is shocked that it mentions Laust. Moreover, it is signed Peter.

At the end, she takes these to the Baron. There is an old photo, of a couple, with children, a very old photo. The woman is Claudia’s Great-great-great-grandmother. We recognise her as Sofia. The Baron, being blind, asks Claudia to describe the man to him. He recognises every word but we don’t need them. Even through the full beard we’ve already recognised him as Peter. The Baron is almost crying as Claudia, still puzzled, ask what it means. It means we’re related, he says.

This I’m not sure about. More than the unbelievable, this is perhaps a moment too far to accept. But there are four more episodes to go, and I’ll await the end before I seek to judge.

It’s not the end though, not quite. The last word goes to a peace conference in London, presided over by Palmerston, who, gently but frankly, tells the Danes they are doomed to massacre. When the stiff-necked Lundby marches out, insisting that God will intervene since the Danes are in the right, the resigned Palmerston politely asks the German, Moltke, if the inevitable can be done gently. Moltke asks if he has ever heard of a gentle war.

The ungentle battle comes next week. And apparently I’ve got it wrong with my assumption of ten episodes: 1864 weighs in with only eight. It’ll all be done by this time next week.

Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 3 & 4


                                                                                   Laust and Peter at war

Oh, but this really is superb.

The 2014 Danish historical drama about a part of European history that most will find obscure continues to demonstrate that intelligent writing and first class acting are unmatchable when it comes to drama, and that it is increasingly shameful that Denmark can do this so regularly whilst the UK TV industry can only achieve anything comparable in tiny bursts of intensity, usually relating to serial killers and/or violence to women.

Two further episodes in, we are starting to get a clearer grasp on the structure of the series. Now that Peter and Laust Jensen are enrolled into the Danish Army, the two historical periods have merged (except in Inge’s opening sentences each week, harking back to their idyllic youth, now gone beyond retrieval), and the contemporary frame of the nose- and lip-ringed Claudia and the old Baron is starting to come into some kind of focus.

Let’s deal with this first. Peroxided Claudia starts off episode 3 in unsympathetic mode, chewing gum and listening to deafening modern-type music whilst stealing graveyard flowers from one grave to put on another, but then it’s off to the Baron’s place. She finds him in very hostile manner, this stemming from deep shame at having shit himself in his bed, and the camera doesn’t shrink from showing this. But, despite her disgust, Claudia actually gets down to cleaning him off and, impliedly, changing his bed and cleaning his sheets before resuming her reading of Inge’s diary (albeit with a purloined jewelled bracelet in her back pocket).

Indeed, the thoroughly modern girl is, despite herself, getting involved in the story, and particularly that of Inge and Laust. She’s desperately demanding to know the ending, do the lovers get together? The Baron’s need for sleep cuts off that spoiler, but she and we do learn that Inge is his grandmother.

Then, in the second half of this double-bill, the Baron goes off on a ‘youngsters-of-today’ rant that’s amusing Claudia until he turns to war, warfare and the basic weakness of Danish youth as opposed to the ‘real men’ of the past, forgetting until a fusillade of fucks comes from the girl that her brother has been killed on service with the current Danish Army. His contrition is real and his apology genuine, though Claudia doesn’t get to receive this until she has tried to pull a sordid scam on three creepy blokes in a pub, and got her nose busted for it.

Though the soap-operaish relationship is the link between the two eras, it’s very good to see how small a role it plays. A lot happens over these two episodes, none of it dwelt-upon at unnecessary length. Though Inge puts on the front of loving both the Jensens equally, and they too agree rules that forbid either to send her letters without the other first reading them, Laust and Inge are soon going behind Peter’s back, guiltily but unstoppably. And there’s one further element: he’s got her pregnant.

Then there’s the complication of Didrich, the Baron’s son, who (in his own, dangerous head at least) also loves Inge, but is reduced to demonstrating by forcing silent Sofia, the gypsy’s daughter, to put on one of Inge’s dresses for him, and then raping her, an attack she will not reveal for decades.

Revealing her pregnancy is an eye-opener for Inge. Since it is not Didrich’s child, which would be alright, her mother disowns her and throws her out. And a letter in camp handed to the wrong Jensen brother spills the beans and leads to another disowning, Peter of Laust.

Where all this will lead is interesting from the very little amounts of attention being given to it, but I am now utterly fascinated with the picture of a forgotten war. Episode 3 deals with the descent into war, with King Frederick frustrating the Prime Minister Bishop Monrad’s insistence on war by dying, but the idiot Monrad just goes on to manipulate his successor, King Christian over the fact that he’s German-born and needs to put his people at risk of death and destruction in order to prove he really has Danish interests at heart…

The instrument of war is a new Danish constitution that claims Schleswig as part of Denmark, in breach of all the treaties signed after the Three Years War. Denmark expect support from England but in a beautifully played serio-farcical scene, Queen Victoria (the inimitable Barbara Flynn) and her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston (James Fox), England agrees that it cannot possibly send men or weapons, though it will send sympathies. And I was howling with laughter when Palmerston took time to carefully explain the complexities of the Schleswig Question (what about Holstein?!) with the exact story I mentioned last week.

The Constitution produces the desired effect: Prussia and the German Confederation declare war on Denmark. A chance to emulate the glories of 1848! Except that that’s really not going to happen, and we’re told this in no uncertain symbolic terms at the start of episode 4 when the Jensen brothers’ platoon sets off for War, singing jolly War songs, following their aged Captain on his horse, until he dies of old age in the street and the horse leads them all into a back courtyard.

Really though, the symbol runs jut ahead of the reality as the troops arrive at the great traditional impregnable fortress of the Danevirke, only to find it decrepit beyond belief, with no barracks. Oh, and their new Captain is Didrich. From there it can only get worse, and that doesn’t even happen until after the happy-go-lucky boys get to see what war is really like, with the unflinching eye of the camera ramming it all home to the audience in a totally matter of fact manner.

As I mentioned last week, Soren Malling joined the cast for this pair of episodes, as Private Johann Larssen, aka The Light Keeper. Why Larssen has this nickname is yet to be disclosed, but he’s already something of a legend, the oldest private in the Army (though he’s promoted to Colour Sergeant before the evening is over). Larssen is the Old Soldier, and I’m prepared to bet that his nickname comes form his ability to just just keep himself but his colleagues alive in war. Malling’s inner stillness and seen-it-all calm is perfectly enacted.

More next week. I am waiting  eagerly.

Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 1 & 2


Peter, Laust and Inge

It’s been a long while since there’s been any decent Danish drama on BBC4 at 9.00pm on Saturday night, but the new historical series 1864 looks well placed to make up for that drought. It may not be a crime series, but then neither was Borgen, and that was none the worst for that.

As usual, there are two episodes, back to back, and I’m assuming that 1864 follows the traditional Danish template of ten episodes, though on the evidence of the first two, a lot of ground is going to be covered and it’s going to be interesting to see if ten hours is going to be enough to complete everything that’s been started here.

For most Britons without an interest in European history, the date, 1864, will be meaningless. It relates to what the Danish call The Second Schleswig War, which will automatically trigger memories in those of us who studied History A Level in the early Seventies and who cannot help but add the companion word Holstein. We know it as the Schleswig-Holstein Question, an obscure point of complex claims about which the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, once claimed that there were only three men in Europe who understood it: one was dead, another had been driven mad, and the third, Palmerston, had forgotten the answer.

But whilst this may seem an obscure and irrelevant point of history to us, the Second Schleswig War is part of a chain of historical events that sent the history of Europe on a course to where we are now. Where the Danes had defeated Prussia in the First Schleswig War, 1848 – 51, in the Second they experienced a crushing defeat that saw the Duchy of Schleswig absorbed into the German Confederation, only a few years before the Unification of Germany under the dominance of the heavily-militarised Prussia, a Unification that would lead, in due course, to the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.

So yes, the subject might seem of little importance, it is in fact a key step in how Count Otto von Bismark manipulated the fate of Germany.

But this isn’t going to be a purely historical drama, relating the facts of the War. The first episode, in particular, divides its time between 1851, 1863 and a so-far puzzling strand set in 2014. This is because a major strand of the drama is going to centre upon the three-side romance between Inge, the Estate Manager’s daughter, and Laust and Peter, twin-but-very-different sons of Tolger, a tenant of the Baron who returns from the First Schleswig War with a suppurating leg wound that will not heal (and which kills him at the start of episode 2).

Also back from the war, physically wounded but obviously traumatised, is the Baron’s heir, Didrich. Didrich is going to be a problem, which becomes most clear as he attempts to start a seduction of Inge, who is only about 11 here.

Whilst this picture of a genuinely idyllic childhood, shadowed but lightly yet by the aftermath of a war that Denmark has won, goes on, the story alternates with the political build-up in 1863 to the Second War. This centres upon the political Liberal leader, both an enthusiast for the beginnings of modern democracy and an uber-patriot, Bishop Monrad, whose flagging energies are restored by acquaintance with the passionate actress Mrs Heiberg.

And in the twenty-first century, an unpleasant young woman, a self-centred, cynical, weed-smoking slacker who genuinely believes that the world owes her a living is pretty much abandoned unless she starts acting as a Meals-on-Wheels cum Housekeeper for a wheelchair-bound old man who is the contemporary Baron. He’s nearly as offensive as Claudia, though her self-entitled attitude puts her well ahead on points as far as I’m concerned.

The opening episode meanders composedly between these varying elements, making no effort to tie them into a structured story, confident that we will stick around to see how the pieces go together. And it’s not just the reputation of Danish drama that keeps us in place for a second episode, in which a sense of purpose does start to grow, and 1864 starts to feel like something genuinely great.

The second moves the historical action temporarily into 1863, Laust, Peter and Inge growing into young adult roles and still inseparable friends, though sexual interests are beginning to make themselves felt. In Copenhagen, Monrad, encouraged thoroughly by the now-widowed Mrs Heiberg, starts driving Denmark, God’s own, privileged country, towards a war that will unite Schleswig within the boundaries of the country and force its preponderence of German speakers to speak the holy Danish language only.

In Prussia, Bismark begins to prepare a response that will both crush Denmark and advance his plans for German Unification.

And on the Estate, the Baron acts to separate Inge from her friends, sending Peter and Laust into the Army.

In 2014, Claudia is continuing to visit the Baron, though only with an eye for stealing from him things that can be sold to provide herself and her even more offensive boyfriend with money that isn’t theirs. In a chest, she finds and pockets some jewellery before being disturbed by the present day Baron, but she also finds the book, the thick, handwritten book that is Inge’s memoirs and which is being used to narrate the series: her reading from the book underpins the narrative of episode 2 and the draw to bring her worthless ass back for episode 3.

Before which, Laust and Peter return on leave in the midst of a country dance for which Inge has donned an overlarge soldier’s uniform, and smeared her face with a greasy black moustache that draws Didrich’s eye. But instead she goes off to the woods and the shore with her two closest friends. There, stood with them in the water, she kisses Peter first, but it is Laust with whom she loses her virginity, enthusiastically. We will see where this leads.

Given that Denmark’s talent pool for actors and actresses is not very wide, it’s hardly surprising that there are a number of familiar faces on show here, fleetingly distracting you with the shadow of prior roles: Lars Eriksen (The Killing), Pilou Asbek and Sidne Babbett Knudsen (Borgen) and Nicolas Bro (The Killing 2) this far, whilst the trailer for next week reveals that they will be joined by Soren Malling (The Killing and Borgen). Not to mention a face familiar from non-Scandinavian television and a great favourite of all of us here, the wonderful Barbara Flynn.

Given the complete mess made by Fortitude in trying to put together a Skandi-influenced mysterious series, just the first two episodes alone are enough to make me wonder aloud about why Britain, with its much greater resources, can’t do anything half as good as this? I may say that again, several times, during the next four weeks.