Saturday SkandiDrama: 1864 – Parts 7 & 8


                                                                                             The cast of 1864

And so it all ends, far too soon. Eight episodes for something this ridiculously good, with actors and writers of this capacity is far too little, and whilst the Second Schleswig War was not one of Europe’s major conflagrations,. the political aspects at least could have been built up over another two episodes without any sense of over-inflation.

Indeed, in the first half of this final week, they could perhaps have done with a more detailed approach, the politicians’ refusal to see the reality of the war, and their continued resistance of negotiations in London being conducted in silence as Claudia reads from Inge’s book (it seems a waste of James Fox’s talents that he should be limited to a silent, head-in-hands at Danish intransigence shot, not to mention Nicholas Bro’s increasingly disturbing portrait of Monrad as a hollowed-out man.

Episode 7 was almost all about the massacre of the Danish army. Monrad berated a woman praying that she shouldn’t lose her third and last son to ‘this mad war’, Inge gave birth and was spirited away from the collapsing front by Ignazio, but everything else was the battle and the massacre, and death and destruction, portrayed with a cold, hard-eyed but never melodramatic approach that was astonishing in its attention to detail.

As to the people: Didrich, permanently drunk, abused Peter, telling him of Inge’s pregnancy, news that turned him back into a brother determined to find his twin, But Didrich would be the cause of Laust’s death, after all Johan’s attempts to save him: Laust was shot, several times, trying to bear the wounded, Didrich away from the battlefield, which was what the poor madman was trying to do for himself when he was wounded: Peter witnesses his brother’s death and is captured and sent to an Austrian field-hospital, for shell-shocked soldiers.

So the final episode was all about the fall-out, a procession of fates, both big and small, at first fleeting, but finally joining up as Peter returned to an Estate and people greatly changed by the War, and set about restoring life to all around him, save Inge.

There are others who endure a greater fall, his defiant refusal to accept reality undercut by his German King’s complete surrender, and application for Denmark to be accepted in the German Confederation. To Monrad, it’s treason, to Bismark ridiculous. Mrs Heiberg drops him casually, and an overt madness, the family curse, claims him.

But to Inge is it all delivered, full force. She returns with her baby, to the ‘forgiveness’ of her family, still thinking Laust and Peter dead, and calling her baby Laust. Johan, delivering carefully pasted together letters from the dead, brings Laust’s last message, an exhortation to live and love without him that is beautiful, but which Inge’s mother burns without her seeing. She is left with no option but to marry Didrich, though the ‘bastard’ isn’t to be part of the deal. And Peter’s return rends her into screams of pain for which he is proof, after the screams of the battlefield.

But Peter marries silent Sofia (who discovers her voice after Johan touches her throat) and takes parentage of her baby, Peter. He claims little Laust as his own son, with a gentleness and confidence, inspiring the orphanage boy to joy that brought tears, and led those around him into a future not unaffected by the War, but built instead on a refusal to ever be so arrogant and stupid again. In time, Inge learns to accept her fate, witnessing Peter’s calmness, and if she never loves Didrich, she still bears him many children, who slowly turn him into a human being.

At the Old Baron’s dilapidated manor, Claudia comes a final time to read the end of Inge’s diary. She’s nearly come a cropper, trying to sell Baron Severin’s stolen jewellery, but the experience leads her to return with tearful apologies, only to be further shamed by the fact he knows: he is not blind, after all. But it’s too close to the end for enmity: he makes her wear both jewellery and a stylish red dress for one final meal.

The final page comes, and with it the revelation that though this diary has been Inge’s words, it has been written down by her loving grandchild, Severin. Claudia’s delight at learning this is mixed withthe shock of discovering that the Baron has died as she read this final page.

And 1864 ends, like that, no further explanations or truths, leaving us to puzzle out whether this experience will be the salutary effect for Claudia that her growing interest in another has hinted. If there’s been a weakness in the series, it is in this contemporary strand, which has perhaps been undercooked, but I have had too good an experience with this series, been through too many emotions to carp at a single thing, whether it deserves it or not.

It should have been longer. There should have been one more double bill, one more Saturday night on BBC4 to savour. I should have been able to live with this for more than 22 days. Glorious Danish TV.

 

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.