It was a bloody year. While Americans were killing each other at the Battles of Atlanta and the Wilderness, Denmark sent out its army to be slaughtered by the Germans. It seems like inconceivable hubris in hindsight, but the tiny Scandinavian country expected to win in short order. Instead, their crushing defeat sent them reeling into modernity, at least according to Ole Bornedal’s epic Danish miniseries 1864 (trailer here), which releases today on MHz Choice.
Although Bornedal is best known for genre films like Nightwatch and Just Another Love Story, he has already had a go at historical dramas with I am Dina. However, 1864 is much greater in scope and touched on still sensitive Danish national nerves. Conceived and filmed as a straight-shot eight-hour feature, it was broken up into hourly installments by Danish TV. As is usually true of sweeping historicals, both the poor and the privileged are represented, but in this case, some of them knew each other before the fateful war.
The reason Denmark was so confident at the start of the Second Schleswig War was because they had won the first one in 1851 so handily. Like many of his comrades, tenant farmer Thøger Jensen made it home to his wife Karen and young sons Laust and Peter, but his infected war wounds are an ominous site. The landed Baron’s only son Didrich also returns damaged from the war, but it his case, the stress and shame of his cowardly conduct (papered over by his father’s bribes) have corroded his soul. The Jensen brothers become a target for bullying, especially when they befriend Inge Juel, the new estate manager’s twelve-year-old daughter, whom Didrich creepily fancies as well.
In the early 1860’s liberal reformist Prime Minister Ditlev Gothard Monrad is openly campaigning for war, stoking nationalist fervor over the Schlewig question. As the matter then stood, the German-speaking enclave maintained a degree of autonomy as a Grand Duchy within the Danish state. For Monrad and the National Liberals, anything less than full Danish integration was unthinkable. However, Otto von Bismarck had learned from all the flukes and mistakes that led to Germany’s 1851 defeat, which would be quite unfortunate for new recruits like the Brothers Jensen. Even worse, they find themselves serving under the contemptible Didrich, who is recalled to duty at the rank of captain.
They will find at least two comrades who have a knack for keeping their men alive: the valiant Second Lieutenant Wilhelm Dinesen (real life father of Karen Blixen) and the leathery veteran corporal Johan Larsen. They both also take comfort from corresponding with Juel, but Peter is unaware Laust violated their unspoken gentleman’s agreement by sleeping with her. All of this family drama and national angst unfolds as a punkish teen working for a meals-on-wheels agency reads Inge’s handwritten memoir to her aged grandson.
The deeper you plow into Bornedal’s decade-spanning saga, the more it starts to click. Frankly, if half the scenes of the bratty young Jensen Brothers in short-pants had been cut, it would not have hampered plot or character development to any appreciable extent. The contemporary wrap-around segments are also quite contrived and unnecessary. However, the battle sequences are impressively mounted and the political intrigues are thoughtfully realized, thanks to Bornedal’s use of the nonfiction books of historian and series-advisor Tom Buk-Swienty as a blue-print. If you enjoy negotiating table drama, his screenplay does a nice job of integrating a good deal of Danish into the narrative without it feeling exposition-y. This might be Denmark in the mid-1860s, but it is clear how dangerous it is to relinquish control of military strategy to politicians and the press.
Pilou Asbæk (A Hijacking, Game of Thrones) might be the most recognizable cast-member, who really goes all in, wallowing in self-loathing misanthropy as the increasingly pathetic Didrich. Jakob Oftebro looks the part of the more dashing Laust Jensen, but Jens Sætter-Lassen gets the better speeches as Brother Peter, carrying them off quite well. However, the real star is the witheringly intense Søren Malling as the battle-hardened, but compassionate Larsen and the real discovery is Johannes Lassen as the fiery Dinesen.