Runaway success: June 7 marked 125 years since Copenhagen’s first cinema trip

The first ever screening took place just six months after the Lumiere Brothers’ famous premiere in Paris

Danish cinema has just celebrated a historic anniversary. 

No, it wasn’t the foundation of Nordisk Film, which is widely acknowledged to be the world’s oldest producer still in existence. That came ten years later in Valby. 

It was in fact the anniversary of the first screening. History doesn’t remember what the film was, but it documents the provider and location. 

On 7 June 1896, the impresario Vilhelm Pacht provided an audience in the Panorama pavilion on Rådhuspladsen in Copenhagen with a collection of short films – presumed to be English-language productions – just six months after the Lumiere Brothers famously premiered their first productions in Paris.

So that moment when the late 19th century cinema-goers ran away from the train hurtling towards them on the screen … this was Denmark’s runaway audience moment. 

At the forefront
It’s a reminder that Denmark was at the forefront of cinema – right from the very start.

Just outside Copenhagen then, the town of Valby quickly became the home to several successful film studios, making it the Hollywood of its day.

Of course, sound had not yet been invented, meaning that Denmark could really compete without worrying about language issues. So long as a film’s subtitles were adequately translated, international viewers were willing to watch the film. Films were short, running no more than half an hour in length, offering simple plots with little character development.

In 1906, director and producer Ole Olsen founded Denmark’s first film company, Nordisk Film, with a view to making films to show in his cinema, Biograf-Theatret, which were longer than the standard fare, allowing for more complicated plots and more realistic characters.

In that first year, an allotment in Valby was acquired and it was decided that a polar bear sitting on top the globe should represent Nordisk Films Kompagni. The iconic logo remains to this day.

In that same year the first short film was produced, ‘Pigeons & Seagulls’, a two-minute reportage. Many more were to follow and the company was an instant success, ushering in what is referred to as the golden age of Danish cinema, and by 1909 other film companies started cropping up.

Psilander the star
In 1910, Viborg-based Fotorama, a direct competitor of Nordisk, released the first Danish multi-reel film, ‘The White Slave Trade’, to great box office acclaim. 

Olsen was quick to respond with his own version, essentially the first remake (Fotorama threatened legal action and they settled out of court), kickstarting a global trend for longer films with melodramatic subject matter – often with some mild form of sexual interest.

Nordisk fared brilliantly with the release of their film soon after, ‘At the Prison Gates’, which was their first production to star Valdemar Psilander, who went on to make a staggering 83 films for Nordisk in just six years. 

Due to the universal nature of silent cinema, his popularity was global. He was largely responsible for a huge increase in international sales and cemented Nordisk Film’s status as a major player with branches, affiliates and theatres the world over. 

Despite his success, however, Psilander killed himself in 1917, aged just 32.

Nielsen the siren
Nevertheless, perhaps the most famous film of this era is ‘The Abyss’. Produced by Kosmorama, it was directed by Denmark’s first great director, Gad Urban, and starred Asta Nielsen and Poul Reumert, who play two sides of a love triangle.

In the film, Nielsen’s character dumps her fiancé to join the circus to be with her lover, where she gets a job as a gaucho dancer.

Though the film established both Reumert and Nielsen as the Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet of their day, the scene of gaucho dance earned Nielsen an even greater reputation. Part of the dance required that she gyrate her hips. In addition to the hint of bondage created by the lasso, this “improper hip writhing” caused an international scandal.

‘The Abyss’ also earned Nielsen the distinction of being the world’s first erotic film star, and it is commonly thought that Nielsen is the first performer to portray what has become known as ‘the third sex’ – an erotic androgyne. This distinction places Nielsen at the beginning of a long line of such performers as Marlene Dietrich, Mick Jagger, Boy George and Annie Lennox.

After her work in ‘The Abyss’, Nielsen received international acclaim. She moved to Germany, where she became known as Die Asta. Married five times, first to Gad Urban, Nielsen appeared in over 70 films. In the 1930s, the German minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, offered Nielsen her own film studio, but she declined.

Nordisk’s rise and fall
By the First World War, 98 percent of the company’s revenue was dependent on international sales. Distribution throughout Europe became ever more complicated, and while Denmark remained neutral, a great slice of Nordisk’s pie was coming in from Germany. 

The authorities there had banned films made by the countries they were fighting against – such as Britain and France, and later the US – and so there was an opening, which Olsen was quick to exploit. By 1917, Olsen had almost 40 cinemas in Germany, plus a production house.

However, when Germany decided to nationalise its cinema, Olsen was pressured into relinquishing all German interests to the German studio UFA. His North American branch soon closed and the Russian market had been lost. Nordisk Film suffered as many abandoned the studio, including in 1922 Olsen himself.

New management came in and chose to concentrate on higher quality pictures, with a smaller output. Throughout the 1920s, Nordisk Film produced big budget adaptations of Charles Dickens’s novels and the like, nurturing many new talents. 

Among them was the great director Carl Theodor Dreyer who later left the company, finding recognition in France with his masterwork of the silent era, ‘The Passion Of Joan of Arc’. Although this period was artistically fruitful for Nordisk Film, they struggled to find their audience and in 1928 Nordisk Film filed for bankruptcy.

Fortunately, Nordisk was kept afloat by Carl Bauder, a wealthy stockbroker who took a majority share in the company. Sensationally he also won a lucrative patent for ‘noiseless’ sound projection that saw all the major American studios pay him to use the new technology as ‘talkies’ took over.

Nordisk went on to produce the first Danish language talkie: a classic crime drama called ‘Vicar of Vejlby’, which was released in 1931. 

Advent of talkies
The golden days of Danish film were quickly forgotten, as the arrival of spoken dialogue robbed Danish cinema of its international appeal, as cinema became increasingly provincial.

In the wake of sound technology, tastes were such that all-singing, all-dancing folk comedies were gaining popularity. 

At the same time, on the fringes of this artifice and farce, the documentary began to find new form – and quietly blossom. 

With the invention of sound, film-goers began to demand films in their own languages: the more widely spoken the language, the larger the demand.

It restricted the likes of Asta Nielsen and Poul Reumert to only appearing in Danish films.