Speech to Bille August on April 2, 2003

Senior lecturer in film studies, Peter Schepelern's speech to Bille August on April 2, 2003 in Odense where Bille August received the City of Odense's Hans Christian Andersen Prize.

By Peter Schepelern - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 09 April 2003

Now that we are approaching the big Hans Christian Andersen bicentennial celebration, it may be interesting to look back on earlier festivities. In 1905, when people celebrated the 100th anniversary of Andersen's birth, a well-qualified cultural maven such as Holger Drachmann gave himself to write a little play in honor of the occasion. 

Fifty years later at the sesquicentennial, it was Kjeld Abell, who wrote a celebratory play for the Danish Royal Theater. Now, on this bicentennial, the medium of film has been selected. Such has been the development of the arts over the past century.

And now it is Bille August, the illustrious Danish artist, who will do the celebrating, not only for us but - in the name of globalization - for the entire world. This fits well with the internationalization that has become a part of Danish film in recent years.

Over time, there have been a number of attempts to tell Andersen's story on film - and I should add that, if anyone would like more information on this topic, they are welcome to attend the seminar taking place at Teaterhuset tomorrow, beginning at nine-thirty in the morning - but apart from the imaginative animated film, which Jannik Hastrup produced some years ago about Andersen and the long shadow, Andersen films have been a depressing display of the sentimental falsification of history.
Andersen was himself very absorbed by his own story, as a fairy tale and as a picture book - albeit without pictures - of his path from miserable childhood conditions to honor and recognition, a story he told many times in one way or another over the course of his life. However, previous Andersen films have had their work cut out for them to get Andersen's life to look like a movie. 

They have always had the problem of a romantic core or, rather, the lack thereof. This detail - that there was no true, fulfilled love in Andersen's life - has created problems for the film industry. It apparently also caused a number of problems for Andersen. And it is a problem of more general significance that Andersen did not fulfill himself in his life but in his art. 
Many years ago, there were a number of plans for Danish films on Hans Christian Andersen and one of Bille August's older colleagues wrote at that time: 

"The purpose of a Hans Christian Andersen film, to be sent out into the world with the blessing of the Danish people, must be to give a psychologically honest and true description of the writer's life, as he experienced it and re-experienced it in retelling, which brings the viewer into immediate proximity with the writer as a human being and a personality. The description must be simple, plain and true. No other consideration than the purely artistic and aesthetic should play a role."
It was Carl Theodor Dreyer who said this in 1939. It came to nothing at that time. And the Hans Christian Andersen films that came later - including a German film from 1941, an American film from 1952 and, recently, yet another American film from 2001 - offer this new project quite an opportunity to shine: Now is the time to pull off a credible Hans Christian Andersen film.

And there is no doubt that Bille August has all the prerequisites to lead this project to success. The expectation is a film that does for Hans Christian Andersen what Out of Africa did for Karen Blixen. That would not be so bad.  And if anyone can do it, it must be Bille August.

He has the format and he also has the experience to handle a large-scale, internationally-produced "heritage film", as they say in English. He is able to give form to great tales and make the epic spirit come alive. With his masterpiece "Pelle the Conqueror", he told a story of growing up in the duck yard while aiming for broader horizons.
Bille August must be the man to get a picture book with pictures out of Andersen and his fairy tales. Then, Andersen will be the victor and Bille the conqueror.