The thing about the past, America’s historian David McCullough once told me, is “those folks never knew, at the time, how things would turn out.”
That’s worth keeping in mind in recreating any nation’s “storied” history, especially when it comes to World War II. As “Into the Darkness,” the first film in a planned trilogy about Denmark during the war, reminds us, there’s a lot more to it than the famous rescue of Denmark’s Jews, celebrated the world over as an example of the Scandinavian country’s innate decency and humanity. There was heroism, as well as opportunism and outright collaboration, because as McCullough says, nobody there “knew how things would turn out.”
Anders Refn, the veteran Danish editor and occasional director, frequent collaborator with Lars von Trier, brother of director Peter Refn and father to filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, gives us a stately, posh and polished bourgeois account of those years with this epic.
It’s a Danish “Downton Abbey,” with just as much money (only some of it inherited), with no noble titles and fewer servants but with genuine class warfare. There’s shooting and sabotage because there are actual life and death stakes to be dealt with every day with the enemy right at the door, and sometimes invited in for dinner and cocktails.
The story centers around the Stov family, whose fortune is tied up in their Copenhagen electronics company. We meet them on the day patriarch Karl (Jesper Christensen, a regular in the Daniel Craig Bond films) and matriarch Eva (Bodil Jørgensen of “In a Better World”) are feted at their 25th wedding anniversary.
The singing’s just finished when Dornier bombers thunder over, dropping leaflets. It’s 1940, and Germany is occupying Denmark without having to fire a shot.
The family, which includes military son Michael (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) from Karl’s first marriage, are shocked and infuriated. Over the course of this film, some members will harden that attitude, some will soften, some will wear a swastika and one will end up sleeping with the enemy.
They have questions — “Can democracy work in an occupied country?” “Will Denmark have a Nazi government?” They have lives to live, a company to run, parties to throw and swank cars to keep up. With Germany triumphant all over Europe in 1940, a fat cat friend of Karl’s might be right when he declares (in Danish with English subtitles) “The German market is the future.” Others insist “the war will be over in a year,” and plan accordingly.
As the Klov’s kids stay in school or the Army, keep playing their jazz, or dancing to it, as the parents naively assume they can help Jewish friends of Eva make their “legal” way to Sweden (arrested instead), as Karl rationalizes that he can make a go of it with Elektronika, even after losing “the English market” and without doing business with “those people,” the years-long test becomes one of principles — of morality vs. expediency, survival and comfort.
And that’s both accurate and worth chewing on, because — back to that McCullough fellow one more time — nobody knows “how things (will) turn out.”
The “Downton Abbey” comparison suits thanks to the stately pacing, populous cast and posh tones. Arguments break out over who is befriending whom, who clicks his heels for whom, who dares to bring a U-Boat first officer home to dinner and which factory employee or servant’s son is a Bolshevik. It’s all frightfully soap-operatic (“Downton,” cough cough) until people start shooting other people and bombs are planted.
The acting is sharp enough, although with so many players few get to make much of an impression.
I’m tempted to say Refn could certainly have gotten this entire five year or so history into one film. Certainly this could have been slimmed-down and sped-up.
But without the broad canvas and deliberate storytelling style, we might lose the sense of years passing, with equivocation, moral compromises and genuine doubt about where Denmark’s values and loyalties lie brought into question.
“Darkness” provides context and nuance worth mulling as we reconsider the slow path the country took towards “Denmark’s finest hour,” probably depicted in the next film. Because unlike the folks who lived through the occupying of Europe by Nazis, we know how it turned out, and how easily things could turn that dark again.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, sex
Cast: Jesper Christensen, Bodil Jørgensen, Mads Reuther, Gustav Dyekjær Giese, Sara Viktoria Bjerregaard, Cyron Melville and Kathrine Thorborg Johansen.
Credits: Directed by Anders Refn, script by Flemming Quist Møller, Anders Refn. A Samuel Goldwyn release (May 21)
Running time: 2:32