Once upon a Time

(Carl Th. Dreyer, DK, 1922)

Once Upon a Time, adapted from a national-romantic play by the Danish writer Holger Drachmann, is set in a fairytale past. The jolly old king of the rococo land Illyria lets his beautiful, but capricious, daughter have her way in all things. She not only rejects every suitor who comes to call, she also has them executed. Only the Prince of Denmark, happening by on his travels with his faithful sidekick Kaspar Røghat, has such a way with words that the princess lets him live, even while as she spurns him, too. Back home in the woods of Denmark, the prince meets a mysterious old man who gives him a magic kettle. Disguised as a pauper, the prince tricks the princess into letting him into her bedroom. Alerted by Røghat, the king comes charging in and banishes his daughter. She is now forced to live with the pauper in his cabin deep in the woods. By and by, her disposition softens and she learns to love him – so much, in fact, that she chooses him when she gets a second chance to marry the prince; fortunately, they are one and the same.

The film is an attempt to craft a Danish national film after the recipe presumed to be behind the success of the great Swedish films: working from a well-known work of literature and using nature as a backdrop. Schnéevoigt’s shots of Danish woods are terrifically atmospheric and beautiful. Personally, Dreyer thought the film lacked momentum, perhaps because Drachmann’s lyrical fairy play was unable to satisfy Dreyer’s wish for naturalistic and nuanced character descriptions. When the production ran into financial trouble, Dreyer was forced to make cuts, including the lavish market scene he had planned.

Once Upon a Time was a big success when it opened in Denmark, but apparently was never distributed internationally in any significant way. The film quickly fell out of view and was thought lost for many years. An incomplete print was found in the 1960s sadly missing the entire last quarter of the film and several other scenes.


Production company Sophus Madsen Film
Distributor  Fotorama
Censorship classification  Allowed for all
Release date and place 3.10.1922 / Palads 
Based on  A play by Holger Drachmann from 1885 (perfomed 1887), which he based on the fairytale "Svinedrengen" by Hans Christian Andersen and was first published in december 1841.

Directed by

Carl Th. Dreyer  Director 


Carl Th. Dreyer  Screenwriter 
Palle Rosenkrantz Screenwriter

Produced by

Sophus Madsen Producer 

Cinematography by

George Schnéevoigt Director of Photography 

Production Design

Jens G. Lind Art Direction 


Peter Jerndorff The King of Illyria 
Clara Pontoppidan The Princess af Illyria
Svend Methling The Prince af Denmark
Hakon Ahnfelt-Rønne Kaspar Røghat
Torben Meyer Master of Ceremonies
Karen Thalbitzer Bolette Fadebursterne
Valdemar Schiøler Linck  The Parrot Champerlain
Viggo Wiehe Schwiss
Mohamed Archer 1. proposer
Henry Larsen  2. proposer
Lili Kristiansson 1. Lady-in-waiting
Zun Zimmermann 2. Lady-in-waiting
Bodil Faber 3. Lady-in-waiting
Emilie Walbom Court Maid
Lars Madsen The Pedlar
Wilhelmine Henriksen "Doctor-Dorthe"
Frederik Leth The Charcoal Burner
Musse Scheel Head Housekeeper
Gerda Madsen

Carl Th. Dreyer



Other titles 
Der var engang (DK - original title)
Det var et gång (SE)
Érase una vez (ES)


Length/Running time 
2655 meter/75 min. (DVD)

Technical data 
35 mm - 1,33:1 - b/w - mute