Bille August's acceptance speech

Bille August's acceptance speech upon receiving the City of Odense's Hans Christian Andersen Prize on April 2, 2003.

By Bille August - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 09 April 2003

First of all, I'd like to thank the City of Odense, Mayor Anker Boye and the Hans Christian Andersen board for this distinguished award.

I am very honored, because Hans Christian Andersen, as a storyteller of genius, is absolutely one of my greatest heroes.

Like so many others, I grew up with Hans Christian Andersen; he forms a great part of my cultural and literary heritage. As a child, I identified with his characters and, to that degree, had my sense justice stimulated. The starting point for Hans Christian Andersen was children. It was the beginning of everything and, in this way, he built up his entire world from human beings in their most basic, incipient form.

He gave his characters - often, animals or toys - a voice, so they could express themselves - so they suddenly had the ability to speak and be heard. And in this miniature universe, the entire psychological spectrum is spread before us. From fragility, mediocrity, vanity, arrogance, megalomania to generosity and greatness of spirit.

By taking the part of children and ordinary people, Hans Christian Andersen entered the pantheon of great writers for humanity. He could combine an ironic lightness and an effusive imagination with a harsh, merciless realism, and his ability to combine these universes make him a true master.

And now I am heading up a major film project on Hans Christian Andersen, and I am really looking forward to it. Not to keep alive the myth about him as a saccharine, self-absorbed, sentimental caricature, a deluded fool.  But rather as a serious, laboring human being. A meticulous perfectionist. A European visionary, a far-sighted man who struggled against mediocrity.

Like all other artists, Hans Christian Andersen used the creative process as an outlet for his joy and pain. And it is here I believe we get to the heart of the matter in a portrait of him. How the creative process works.

Hans Christian Andersen was a man of contradiction. Privately, he denied his social origin; he had no solidarity with the working class. He strove purposefully to become a part of the establishment. He loved power and glory. However, in his art, he was a rebel. Here, he took the side of the poor; here, he showed solidarity; here, he defended the helpless. And it is precisely this contradiction that is interesting.

He was split, he was an outsider, and he remained an observer. And like all observers, he had in equal parts perspective and isolation. However, he transformed his emptiness, his inner chaos, into an artistic order.

In his later years, his fatalistic attitude became more and more pronounced. Not only in hinting at the cruelty of fate but also at the meaninglessness of life itself. Andersen struggled with existential doubt. Do we simply pass from being to not being? Is there any meaning at all? Or can we only give life meaning ourselves? Is there meaning in the great passions? In love? The love Andersen sought all his life. Or in art? In art, he found a meaning. It comforted him and made him free. It explained for him what could not be explained.

I was recently asked what I thought Hans Christian Andersen would have done, if he had been alive today. As ambitious and hard-working as he was, I actually think he would have settled in Hollywood. It might sound awful, but he was also a vain man. The worst-case scenario imaginable is that he would have ended as a freak, like Michael Jackson, a farcical figure on the world stage insisting on being allowed to remain in the universe of children.

But I don't think so. To the contrary, I think he would have been a major supplier of stories, of film manuscripts. Because the direct, colloquial way of telling stories, which is one of Hans Christian Andersen's great strengths, is exactly what the art of film has been striving to achieve throughout time. To combine the popular, the entertaining, with the thought-provoking and profound.

And Andersen realized very early that there is absolutely no contradiction between the artistic and the popular.

But Hans Christian Andersen does not live in Hollywood, and I can't call him up, but, at any rate, I am so privileged to be able to be in contact with him for the next couple of years, in this major film project that awaits me.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Once again, thank you for this prize.