Trine Dyrholm (left), Magnus von Horn, Carmen Sonne

Scandinavian Films Fly Norse Flags at Cannes

Scandinavian films have a long history at Cannes, and this year the lineup is especially strong, with two films in the main competition (“The Girl With the Needle” and “The Apprentice”), and two others (“Armand” and “When the Light Breaks”) in the Un Certain Regard section.

Swedish director Magnus von Horn’s film, “The Girl with the Needle,” is a fictionalized crime-horror based on a real Danish baby-killer case from the 1920s.“Just like science-fiction can tell something about our society in an exaggerated way, I believe that this film does the same,” says von Horn from the Nordisk Film apartment in Cannes. “But we use the past and the world of the period of World War I in Copenhagen to tell a partial version of a society that we can find today. That was very important to me.”

The film focuses on a poverty-stricken young pregnant woman, Karoline (Vic Carmen Sonne), who has been abandoned by her wealthy lover and employer. She feels forced to give her child to Dagmar (Trine Dyrholm), who promises a bright future for the child.

“To me it is very much about how someone like Dagmar could exist and what was the hole that she filled?” says von Horn. “She did not go and kidnap babies. The mothers gave her the babies and what does that mean? It means there was no other alternative for them.”

For von Horn the current pro-choice debate makes the film relevant. The Swedish director lives in Poland, which has very strict abortion laws.

“Today in Poland, it is very difficult to get a legal abortion,” he explains. ”And if you don’t have a choice, you start looking for alternatives somewhere else in a shadow society and these alternatives become illegal and sometimes dangerous and that very strongly reflects what is happening in the film. Of course, it depends on the country because in Denmark and also in Sweden, we strongly believe in pro-choice. But it is not like that all over the world.”

For Danish actor Dyrholm, Dagmar was also much more than a one-dimensional monster.

“I obviously do not want to defend her actions,” says Dyrholm. “But I want to invite the audience into understanding the inner chaos of her struggles. I think she really believes that this has to be done with all these unwanted children. (The real-life Dagmar Overbye was convicted of murder and died in prison at age 42 in 1929.)

Dyrholm is not afraid of playing unlikeable characters.

“For me acting is about exploring the women. Because this is also life. There are also women like that. I think it is important to dig into all nuances and all kinds of human nature.”

It is Dyrholm’s second time in Cannes. In 1997, she attended with Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration,” which went on to be nominated for a Golden Globe.

“I was so young and I was so impressed by everything,” recalls Dyrholm. “Now, I am more experienced but you cannot take away the magic moment of being here and walking the red carpet. I was very moved.”

“The Here After,” von Horn’s first film, premiered in the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes in 2015; his second film “Sweat” was selected for 2020, which was cancelled because of Covid. For von Horn, it was overwhelming to screen at the Grand Théatre Lumiere.

“It is extremely thrilling and stressful,” says von Horn. “I was nervous about how the film would be received, but it is an amazing experience. It has a certain protocol that makes the viewing of the film into something more. It really puts cinema on a pedestal.”

Also in the main competition is “The Apprentice,” from Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi.

He recalls the press conference for “Melancholia” (2011) when Denmark’s Lars von Trier said he understood Adolf Hitler, “and it got worse and worse and nobody could save him,” says Abbasi.

“But there is some truth to that in that these are all human beings. The most despicable monster you can think of, the most reprehensible person in history also liked a dog or fell for somebody or was nice to somebody at some point.”

“The Apprentice” was written by American journalist Gabriel Sherman and is a Danish co-production. It follows young playboy Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan) and gives the audience a glimpse of the creation of the newsmaker whom the world knows today.

“For me, if there is an ideology for the movie, it is a humanist ideology. It is about taking these people who are hated or loved down to earth and deconstructing this mythological image into earthly human beings and with that comes understanding.”

“This is really not a movie about Donald Trump,” concludes Abbasi, whose film “Border” won Un Certain Regard in 2018 and whose “Holy Spider” was in the main competition in 2022. “This is a movie about the system and the way the system works and the way the system is built and the way the power runs through the system and Roy Cohn (played by Jeremy Strong) was an expert in using and utilizing that system and he taught Donald Trump,” played by Sebastian Stan.

Stan says about his research: “I guess we all have certain codes and certain principles. it just depends on what they are. I guess it’s relative to everybody.”

For more on “The Apprentice,” click here.

The classroom drama “Armand” represents the debut feature from Norwegian writer-director Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel, the grandson of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman, royalty in the world of cinema. 

“I do feel that the expectations are higher and they are more demanding in a way,” Tøndel tells the Golden Globes at the Nordic House in Cannes. “You have to prove that you are also something. Fortunately, I did not feel it when I made the film. Then, I am truly my own person. I hope also that people see that and that for every film I make I will be further away from being called The Grandson.”

He’s on his way to fame in his own right: On 25 May, “Armand” won the Camera d’Or.

The film is about actor Elisabeth (Renate Reinsve), who has been summoned by the headmaster (Øystein Røger) of her 6-year-old son’s school. Armand is accused of having had a fight with classmate Jon and his parents Sarah (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Anders (Endre Hellestveit) have called for the meeting. As the film progresses, the truth about what happened becomes more blurry and audience perception of the characters constantly shifts.

“The movie plays around with how little information we use to judge someone,” says Reinsve. “It is a prejudice about actors that one does not know if they are sincere or if they are manipulative. Sometimes you don’t know if this is true and even Elisabeth is not sure.”

It is only three years since Reinsve took home the best actress award for Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World.” She says, ”It is very emotional to be back.”

As for “When The Light Breaks,” a coming of-age film about grief that takes place in one day, Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson says, “We wanted to touch people’s heart and make a realistic portrait of a person, who is grieving and the people around her. We wanted them to feel a sense of reality and the time frame forced us to this.”

In the film, young student Una (Elín Hall Halldórsdóttir) has her world turned upside-down when the news of her lover’s  traffic accident reaches her. Diddi (Baldur Einarsson) is one of the casualties and Una and her friends are forced to deal with a new reality.

“It is the first wall that these young people are hitting in their lives and they are learning how they should be dealing with that. All of a sudden, they realize that they are not invincible.”

Rúnarsson, whose “Volcano” (2011) played in Directors Fortnight, is thrilled to be back.

“So many of the cinephiles of the world come here to discover the newest thing that will dominate the art house cinema for the coming years,” he says. “It is a special place.”