The influence of Danish cinema is enormous when taking into account the relative small size of Denmark. Directors like Bille August, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are household names and their work is shown throughout the world. Many of their films share a similar theme of a person or small group standing up to the status quo and subsequently being ostracized by the community for it. My understanding of the Danish culture was limited, so I could never explain why, until I ran into the Danish (and Scandinavian) cultural phenomenon called the Law of Jante.
What is the Law of Jante?
The Law of Jante is a set of rules that underline Scandinavian group thinking set by writer Aksel Sandemose in his novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En flyktning krysser sitt spor, 1933), which takes place in a narrow minded village whose people live by the following rules:
These rules summarized the Danish society so perfectly that they became known as the Law of Jante and were taught to Danish children from a young age. So pretty much everybody in Denmark knows about the Law of Jante, although most of them can’t quote all ten and summarize it as follows:
“Don’t think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”
A very grim rule to live by, especially considering Denmark is considered the happiest country in the world. But there are upsides to this law, according to defenders. This cultural principle keeps people humble and nice to each other. To judge someone is considered very rude.
Other people say that they hate the influence of the Law of Jante on their culture, making structural criticism very difficult. Love it or hate it, no one can seem to escape from it. This element of inescapability from group culture comes back in their cultural output and in cinema most of all.
Influence in Theme
Like I said before, many Danish films have a theme of someone or a small group standing up to the status quo, to fight the attitude that is described in the Law of Jante. A great example of this can be found in the Oscar winning film Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren, 1987) where a Swedish boy and his father move to Denmark to build a better life for themselves, only to be thwarted every step of the way by the local people. Only when the father (played to perfection by the always impressive Max von Sydow) starts speaking Danish, and thus fits the group’s criteria, does the acceptance begin to show.
A more risqué and recent example is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten, 2012) where Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a divorced man, is falsely accused of being a pedophile and the people he has known his entire life turn against him. Writer Tobias Lindholm explains in an interview with Dutch television that he wanted his protagonist to be athletic and handsome to make him stand out from the rest of the village. He explains that If Lucas looked like Quasimodo then that could be interpreted as the reason for not liking him. This is of course true, but there is also another explanation for Lindholm’s desire to make the suspected child molester an attractive man. By making him handsome he fails the Law of Jante by default, giving further explanation to the sudden anger in the village. Could it be that the nice and friendly Lucas was a bit too attractive, too successful with the ladies and managed his life a bit too well? Could it be that the mere whisper of child abuse could be the stick the village needed to judge him without remorse, because the Law of Jante or not, surely they are better than a child rapist? Why this heavy subject matter in most Danish films? Lindholm thinks that the reason Danish film is so filled with incest, child abuse and death is because these subjects don’t get discussed in Danish society. Films like Festen (The Celebration, 1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and The Hunt give people a reason to talk about the issues without resulting to pointing fingers.
Influence in Style
While the Law of Jante influenced the content of Danish cinema for decades, no one could imagine how much impact another set of rules would have on the world of cinema. It’s been 18 years since Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier introduced Dogma 95 to the world. This manifest took a stand against the polished Hollywood look with its big budgets by denouncing artificial lighting, many post production tools and even the billing of the director.
These rules seem very radical, but when taking the Law of Jante in mind, most of these rules suddenly make sense. It’s basically a cinematic excuse not to make a fuss and a refusal to let someone like a director take top billing. Both directors tried to adhere to these rules, Vinterberg with his masterpiece Festen and von Trier with The Idiots (Idioterne, 1998). Later they would confess that they started the movement as another extreme and not something to adhere to. So Dogma 95 was not meant to be taken literary but it is interesting to see how much of the Law of Jante is infused in this cinematic movement.
Other directors, trying to follow the rules, struggled with its limitations. For instance Dutch Director Martin Koolhoven, who tried to make a Dogma film with South (Het Zuiden, 2004), which was to be produced by Von Trier’s production company Zentropa, but decided against it after van Koolhoven found the room given by Dogma too limited to work with. He did thank the Dogma 95 movement in the end credits, but ignored most of the Dogma 95 rules. Vinterberg also “confessed” later that he did alter the light during one scene of Festen, turning the most famous Dogma 95 film in a flawed example. Not that this detracts from the merits of the film. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading and do it now. It’s gut wrenching, but worth it.
With every action comes a reaction. Oscar winning short filmmaker Anders Thomas Jensen wrote indie hit Adam’s Apples (Adams æbler, 2005) as a counter reaction to all the misery in Danish cinema. His main character Ivan, played wonderfully by the inescapable Mads Mikkelsen, is a priest who is an incest victim with brain cancer and a handicapped son. Jensen said that he wanted him to bear all the brunt of Danish cinema of the last ten years. The greatest thing about the film is that instead of a heavy drama, it’s a comedy and a great one at that. The style is also everything that Dogma 95 isn’t with its sumptuous colours and special effects.
It’s interesting to see how literature can classify a society to such a degree that it seems the rules are set in stone. So great is the influence of the Law of Jante that it can be felt around the world through the successful cinematic movement Dogma 95. Does the Law of Jante explain everything about Danish cinema? Of course not, just like it doesn’t explain everything about Danish culture that also embraces what they call hygge, a warm and inviting atmosphere with food and drink, enough to counter the Law of Jante and some of their grim and dramatic films.