The Dagmar Cinema

Dagmar in Jernbanegade, 1964.
On April 14, 1952, Carl Th. Dreyer took over as manager of the Dagmar cinema in central Copenhagen, one of Denmark’s most important and prestigious first-run cinemas. The cinema had opened on 15 March 1939, but the site and locality were already well known in Copenhagen amusement life. Dagmarcaféen and Dagmarteatret had been located there since 1883, showing everything from comedies and operettas to patriotic plays

The history of Dagmar

The building housing the cinema was designed by the architects Dahlerup, Berthelsen and Chr. Kampmann. It is one of the loveliest cinemas in Denmark. During the Occupation, Dagmarhus (Dagmar House) was home to the German High Command in Denmark and the cinema functioned as a German propaganda theatre.

"And that doesn’t mean – as might be expected of me – exclusively heavy or serious films. I myself am a great admirer of good comedy films"

- Carl Th. Dreyer

After the Liberation on 5 May 1945, the British set up their headquarters in the building. On 17 June, Dagmar’s manager Hilmar Clausen, who had been driven out by the Germans, resumed running the cinema. In the years that followed, Dagmar presented a live revue in the summer, featuring such stars as Marguerite Viby and Osvald Helmuth. Clausen ran the cinema until his death in August 1951, after which the licence to operate the cinema was advertised.

Dreyer’s rivals

According to the law at the time, licences to operate cinemas were granted by the Ministry of Justice and no single person could operate more than one cinema. The licences were typically granted to filmmakers or widows of filmmakers. Furthermore, a license could be granted to a production company or an organisation with a public information objective. In those years, before the advent of television, operating a cinema was pretty good business.

From the time of Clausen’s death until Dreyer took over seven months later, Dagmar was managed by Fleming Lynge and Tage Hertel. Lynge was an exceptionally prodigious screenwriter and Hertel had been the day-to-day manager of the cinema under Clausen. As early as December, the press reported rumours that the actors Bodil Ipsen and Poul Reumert were among the applicants. Ipsen was manager of the Odeon Cinema in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district, but a first-run cinema in the city centre was clearly a prize. Dreyer was also mentioned as an applicant, as were singer Aksel Schiøtz, actor Johannes Meyer and producer Mogens Skot-Hansen. Still, these were only rumours, and the processing of applications was shrouded in much secrecy. When the Ministry announced its decision in March 1952, it was strongly criticised in Biograf-bladet, which also condemned the "unseemly dawdling" of the drawn-out application processing.

Freshly minted cinema manager

Dreyer, who was 63 at the time, hadn’t made a Danish feature since Day of Wrath in 1943, though he had directed Two People in Sweden in 1945 and later a number of short films in Denmark. In an interview with B.T., Dreyer said that this was the first time he had ever applied for a licence, though he had been urged to do so several times. "This, however, I thought was a job that could not be solved in a routine manner…." Dagmar’s artistic profile and reputation made Dagmar a singular and highly attractive cinema.

As Dreyer told the Politiken newspaper, the Minister of Justice Helga Pedersen had called him up personally and mentioned his accomplishments as a film director as the reason for granting him the license. Asked about his plans for the cinema’s repertoire, Dreyer replied that he intended to find good films:
"And that doesn’t mean – as might be expected of me – exclusively heavy or serious films. I myself am a great admirer of good comedy films." 
Clearly delighted with and grateful for the licence, Dreyer in several interviews stated that he intended to set aside his other projects and concentrate on the big job and responsibility that came with the licence. In private, to his attorney, Dreyer put it somewhat differently,
"If I get the Dagmar licence, and in turn a steady and increased income, I can start work on several developments that I cannot overcome now." 
Dreyer is likely referring to the Jesus film he was working on.

Ten days before Dreyer took over as manager, B.T. wrote about "sensational films at Carl Th. Dreyer’s Dagmar Cinema," mentioning Kurosawa’s Rashomonand Zoltan Korda’s Cry, My Beloved Country, a film about race issues shot in South Africa.

In its first three years under Dreyer’s management, Dagmar Bio also housed the impresario Stig Lommer’s long-running summer revue. In 1955, the press reported that, henceforth, Dagmar would exclusively be a cinema all year round. Dagmar began the year on a high note, premiering Dreyer’s own The Word, his first big success as a film director.

Dreyer ran the cinema for 16 years until his death in 1968. Upon his appointment, he repeatedly mentioned his objective to maintain and develop Dagmar’s profile and his great respect for Dagmar as an artistic cinema.

American dominance and the film blockade

Statistically, throughout Dreyer’s years as manager, Dagmar’s repertoire showed an unusually clear dominance of American films – 134 American films in all, followed by 26 British films and a smattering of other films: 12 Italian, 12 French and 11 French-Italian co-productions.

Dagmar’s repertoire was overwhelmingly American, as was the norm for Danish cinemas in those years, according to Edvin Kau and Niels Jørgen Dinnesen. The rate of American films at Danish cinemas was 65.7% in 1952-53, 64.8% in 1953-54 and 53.4% in 1954-55. The rate then plummeted to 40% and then 17%, because of the American film blockade of Denmark, after which it returned to nearly 60%. Overall, Dagmar’s profile pretty much mirrors the general American dominance at Danish cinemas. But in the years after the blockade, which Dagmar was one of the driving forces in lifting, the rate of American films at Dagmar skyrocketed.

Distributed across the years 1954-1960 – before, during and after the film blockade – Dagmar’s selection of films by country is as follows: 

As we can see, the blockade also affected Dagmar: zero American films in 1956 and just three in 1957. The number then skyrocketed in 1959 and 1960.

The blockade was a response to the big American studios demanding an increase in the rental fee from 30% to 40% of ticket proceeds. The Danish distributors and especially the cinemas resisted, referring to the amusement tax that was already squeezing the industry and driving up ticket prices. The amusement tax on cinemas had gone up from 40% to 60% of the net ticket price. The blockade was instituted in May 1955. However, as a number of films had already been put on the programme, the effects of the blockade were not really felt until 1956. The blockade created a rift among Danish cinemas, and things came to a head when Mogens Fisker, of the newly founded cinema, Villabyernes Bio, publicly proposed that he would travel to Paris and negotiate with representatives of the Motion Pictures Export Association, or MPEA, the organisation of American film studios. The united Danish front was in jeopardy, not least because it was apparent that some cinemas would not have much trouble paying the higher fee. The outcome was a split: eight cinemas, including Dagmar, followed Villabyernes Bio’s lead, signing a deal with MPEA in February 1957. In June of that year, American films were again available, at least at cinemas run by the breakaway group. The first new American film Dagmar showed after the blockade was Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones, on 1 July.

Dreyer’s choice of repertoire: American films

Taking a closer look at Dagmar’s repertoire to see what films and directors Dreyer found worthy, we note that he typically put solid American directors on the marquee. They include Otto Preminger (4 films), Martin Ritt (5), Vincente Minnelli (5), Elia Kazan (5), Richard Brooks (3), John Ford (3), Joseph Mankiewicz (3), William Wyler (3), Stanley Kubrick (2), John Houston (2) and Robert Rosen (2), as well as reprisals of films by Chaplin (4), George Cukor (3) and George Marshall (3), among others.
Broadly speaking, without going into the details of individual films, it seems fair to say that these names typically stand for solid quality films that are unafraid to aim broadly and entertain.

At second glance, more remarkable are the films Dagmar did not put on the marquee, including films by the above directors. Dagmar passed on Kazan’s masterpiece On the Waterfront (1954), about union struggles and betrayal; Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965), about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war in the Pacific; and Kubrick’s early masterpiece Paths of Glory, a World War I drama. Those two war films found other outlets, at Palads and Alexandra, respectively. It is also worth noting that the three John Ford films include none of his western masterpieces, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Those two genre films went to Saga, a genre cinema.

As for new American directors, Kubrick’s early genre film The Killing (1959) was shown at Bristol, another genre cinema, while Dagmar showed Arthur Penn’s Helen Keller film, The Miracle Worker (1962), not his narratively avant-garde, New Wave-inspired Mickey One or his drama of the American South, The Chase (1966).

Genre films and more experimental fare were not part of Dagmar’s repertoire.

Dagmar’s selection of French films

In terms of French films, Dagmar’s repertoire was distinctly dominated by older luminaries: Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, Claude Autant-Lara and André Cayatte. This is even more striking when you note the conspicuous absence from Dagmar’s repertoire of the French New Wave, the history-making breakthrough that changed cinema forever. Jean-Luc Godard is not even represented, Claude Chabrol only with Landru (1962) – a story about the notorious French serial killer of women who also inspired Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux – and Francois Truffaut only with Jules et Jim (1961), the lovely and romantic story of an ultimately tragic ménage a trois. It seems fair to regard these two specific films as expressing Dreyer’s personal choice, considering his own work.

It is noted that Dreyer either did not have an eye for the New Wave’s innovations or perhaps thought that this type of film did not belong in an upscale, central cinema like Dagmar. At any rate, younger generations of cineastes in those years streamed to other cinemas, especially Carlton on Vesterbro and Alexandra in central Copenhagen.

Italian films

A similar pattern appears in the case of Italian films. Although Fellini is represented with  (1963) and Il Bidone (1955), Antonioni is represented only with his English production, Blow-Up (1967). The bulk of Dagmar’s Italian films were by directors of the older generation like Luigi Comencini, Alberto Lattuada and Vittorio de Sica, who in this period typically worked in the comedy genre, inspired by Comencini’s success with Pane, Amore et fantasia (1953). These were films that delivered the goods by way of stereotypical depictions of Italy and Italians.

Seven Danish films in 16 years

Only seven Danish films were deemed worthy by Dreyer. Two he directed himself. In addition were Henning Carlsen’s masterpiece, Sult (Hunger, 1966), and his next film, Mennesker mødes og sød musik opstår (People meet and sweet music fills the heart, 1967), two issue and discussion films about today’s youth, Ung Leg (1956) by Johannes Allen and En blandt Mange (1961) by Astrid and Bjarne Henning-Jensen, and Hagen Hasselbach’s odd comedy, Panik i Paradis (1960). However, this choice of Danish premieres might also reflect the fact that Danish production companies had their own cinemas and obviously did not want to run their films anywhere else. At any rate, as is the case with a great deal of the rest of Dagmar’s repertoire, these are semi-serious discussion films about specific issues.

Obviously, it is not fair to draw any radical conclusions based on a choice of repertoire that was subject to all sorts of restrictions in terms of films offered, available partners, consideration for the cinema’s profile and reputation, etc. Nonetheless, judging from the films he selected, Dreyer can hardly be said to be a cinema manager who marched to the beat of his own drummer. He was not one to seek out new currents and directors, and he did not take risks on presenting the new art cinema that, during his years as cinema manager, was setting new standards for what films could be. That includes the new French directors and the Italians, the whole big wave that also washed over Sweden, in Bo Widerberg’s films, and Eastern European films, in the work of directors like Jiri Menzel, Milos Forman and Duzan Makavejev. Indeed, as cinema manager, Dreyer was not, as might have been expected, only one for heavy or serious films. Nor did he aspire to gain a profile as cinema manager that matched that of him as an uncompromising, headstrong and singular film director.

When Dreyer died on 20 March 1968, the licence to operate Dagmar was advertised anew. The decision this time fell to the newly founded Ministry of Culture, not the Ministry of Justice. The press reported on a new multitude of applicants, including, again, Mogens Skot-Hansen, now chief executive of the Laterna Film short-film company; the film directors Jørgen Roos and Henning Carlsen; as well LO, the Danish Federation of Trade Unions, and AOF, the Workers’ Adult Education Society. The ministry’s decision continued the tradition begun with the choice of Dreyer 16 years before: the licence went to an important feature-film director, Henning Carlsen.

In 1972, the cinema licence system was abolished in Denmark.

Note: This survey of Dagmar’s repertoire is based on premiere protocols kept by the Danish Film Museum, which are now part of the DFI’s collections.

By Dan Nissen | 11. August