The success of crime dramas like The Killing and Borgen has brought Scandinavian TV to an international audience. Defined by dark subject matter, bleak, beautifully shot landscapes and slow paced stories, Nordic noir has become a genre that’s a hit with viewers and critics alike. And now Danish history has been given the same treatment.
Originally aired in the UK on BBC Four, 1864 tells the story of the second Schleswig war between the Danish and the German Confederation in – you guessed it – 1864. The conflict over the fate and nationality of the Schleswig region might seem a dry topic but the catastrophic defeat of the Danes by the Prussian army still has the power to cause controversy back in Denmark. Questions about the legitimacy of the war, the portrayal of fanatical nationalism and a few historical inaccuracies have all drawn complaints, especially from the Danish right wing, but at the end of the day this is TV drama and it’s the drama that matters.
At the heart of 1864 is a love triangle. Brothers Peter and Laust both fall for the same girl, their enigmatic childhood playmate, Inge. The three children grow up on a rural estate; a pastoral idyll that’s an obvious metaphor for their innocence. Hints of darker days to come are found in the struggling veterans of the last war – the boys’ wounded father and the estate’s heir, the psychologically damaged Didrich.
I was hooked from the outset by a compelling, cinematic opening episode that avoided the clunky set up that so often plagues such ambitious storytelling. 1864 manages that rare thing – a pace slow enough to develop complex, flawed characters, as we watch them grow and navigate an increasingly dangerous adult world. The unusual relationships lend an emotional tension that lift it above cliché and give a powerful dramatic hook.
Against this love story we see directly into the corridors of power as the sequence of events and personalities that result in the war unfold. These sections, while slightly jarring in the early episodes, become increasingly fascinating, as we watch the Danish prime minister’s descent into egoism and madness and the moral dilemmas of those in command. And this is not a one-sided story. The writers have made sure to include the German point of view and, though at times a bit heavy-handed, avoid the trope of the Germans as the bad guys.
As the series progressed it became more and more spellbinding. I found myself immersed in a way that’s rare outside the big screen, or over the long haul of a weekly series. The multi-layered narrative pulls you in but it’s the rich emotional hook, provided by excellent performances, that keeps you there. Particularly striking characters were the reprehensible Didrich and the mysterious soldier, Johan Larsen, who is begging for a spin off series in his own right.
I wasn’t so convinced by the modern story line of grieving teenager, Claudia, who strikes up a friendship with the old recluse who now lives in Didrich’s manor house. He’s Inge’s grandson and it’s through Inge’s diary and letters that the story is told. I waited for this thread to matter but it felt contrived and a bit unnecessary – a distraction from the extraordinary quality of the whole. Opportunities to draw meaningful parallels with present day warfare were left hanging.
For me, the story serves as an insight into a European mindset and nationalism in a prelude that would eventually result in a much bigger conflict. But the real power is in the piece as a study of the senselessness and brutality of war. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such effecting depictions of battle as in the epic penultimate episode. Shocking, savage and emotionally draining; I’d like to think that the controversy back in Denmark shows that bringing such lesser-known stories to a wider audience is important – history has the power to move us and there are still lessons to be learned.
Katherine Clements writes fiction set in the seventeenth century. A unashamed historical drama addict, she’ll watch anything with costumes. She is editor of Historia magazine. Her novels, The Crimson Ribbon and The Silvered Heart, are out now.