Nordisk Films Kompagni 1906–1924: The Rise and Fall of the Polar Bear is the first comprehensive study of the Danish film company, Nordisk Films Kompagni, in the silent era. Based on archival research, primarily in the company's surviving business archives, this volume of KINtop describes and analyzes how Nordisk Film became one of the leading players in the world market and why the company failed to maintain this position. This volume is written from perspective of Nordisk Film as a business and organization, from its establishment in 1906 until 1924 when founder Ole Olsen stepped back. Among the many topics and themes this volume examines are the competitive advantages Nordisk Film gained in reorganizing the production to multiple-reel films around 1910; the company's highly efficient film production which anticipated the departmentalized organization of Hollywood; Nordisk Film's aggressive expansion strategy in Germany, Central-Europe and Russia during the First World War; and the grand plans for taking control of UFA in association with the American Famous Players in the post-war years.
About the Author
Isak Thorsen is Research Assistant in the Section of Film and Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen and holds a PhD in Film Studies. He contributed to the anthology "100 Years of Nordisk Film" (DFI 2006) and has written for the journals Film History, Kosmorama, 16:9, Mifune and Sentura. He is editor and author of the Danish entries in the Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Cinema (Scarecrow 2012).
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The Birth of the Polar Bear
The Birth of the Polar Bear Ole Andersen Olsen (1863–1943) is the main character in the history of the Nordisk Films Kompagni. Initially as the sole proprietor, then as director general and chairman of the board, and finally as a rank-and-file member of the board, he was one of the decision-makers in the company until his retirement in 1924. More than anything, Olsen's decisions and abilities were the determining factors of the development of Nordisk.
Olsen was 43 years old when he founded Nordisk, and the company was the crowning achievement of his business experience in organization and leadership. Compared to other business managers in his day, Olsen was atypical. In spite of a slim empirical basis and some differences in the various industrial branches, Danish business historian Per Boje has managed to pin down some common factors of Danish managers and company owners in the period 1872–1972. Danish top executives were rarely 'self-made men' and only a small percentage of them were sons of farmers or blue-collar workers. The majority had either a commercial or a technical education, which inmost cases included spending time abroad; consequently, executives of this category often brought new technological know-how home to Denmark.
By contrast Olsenwas a self-made man. He was born in Odsherred, a peninsula in the northwestern part of Zealand; his father was a carpenter and a smallholder and died in 1879, only 46 years old, but ill and broken down by alcoholism and hard physical labor. Olsen said of his childhood: "It was so squalid, miserable and full of adversity and hardship that it deserves only to be forgotten." Before his father died, Olsen was placed at the boys' reformatory Flakkebjerg near Slagelse after receiving a sentence for theft when he was ten. His academic skills were limited; Malmkjær reports that Olsen never learned to read or write. However, Olsen's grandchild has stated in an interview that Olsen did learn to read but never to write and remained dependent on others to write for him. It is difficult to determine whether some of the sparse material which Olsen left behind was written by himself; in the case of some letters from the 1890s this is clearly not the case. As the manager of Nordisk, Olsen had a secretary who took care of his correspondence, and his memoirs were taken down by the journalist Harald Mogensen, but neither of these facts serves as evidence that Olsen was altogether unable to write: it is certainly not out of the ordinary for an executive to have a secretary write his letters or for an unscholarly autobiographer to acquire the professional help of a journalist or a writer. It is temptingly romantic to think that the manager of one of the great multi-national companies was illiterate, but the truth is more likely that Olsen could read and that, to some degree, he was able to write as well. Moreover, Olsen travelled much in Northern Europe in his adult life and probably gained some proficiency in foreign languages. Joachim Nielsen, who was hired as a messenger in 1912 and did not leave Nordisk until 1957 when he was an office manager, is convinced that Olsen spoke German. So although Olsen was certainly not an average top businessman for his time, he had travelled and worked abroad like other executives. According to Boje, Olsen's entrepreneurial skills and resourcefulness are characteristics he shared with other individuals who became the driving forces behind the industrial development in Denmark. As Boje writes, "[...] these individuals all knew how to interpret their surroundings and exploit the possibilities".
Before Olsen established Nordisk, his enterprise had resulted in a series of other ventures, large and small. Among other things, he presented a peep-box with illustrations cut out from a magazine, and he embarked on various business ventures in Copenhagen before he really debuted in the entertainment industry in 1890. In the beginning, Olsen travelled around to fairs with his accordion, and before long his fairground attractions came to include a group of black people, lions and electric carousels. Olsen became a successful stallholder and made such a reputation for himself in Scandinavia that the city council of Malmoe in Sweden invited him to establish and manage a new amusement park in 1896, an equivalent of the Copenhagen Tivoli. Olsen successfully managed the amusement park until 1901, when the city council chose to close it down and Olsen, his wife and their five children returned to Copenhagen.
Olsen brought capital home from Sweden as result of this venture. A note in the newspaper Dannebrog from 1899 reports that Olsen "last summer had a net income of about 60,000 kroner" from the amusement park. (In order to get an impression of the relative value of Danish kroner, see Appendix 1.) However, what Olsen did after his return and until 1905, when he opened the cinema Biograf-Theatret, is not clear. Possibly, he opened a shop with "Benicia diamonds" in Østergade.
Olsen's career as a film producer benefited from the experience acquired in his years as a travelling performer, a stallholder and an amusement-park manager. There are several similarities between fairground attractions and film; both are about processing an idea into an entertainment commodity and both involve a public demand for constant renewal. An idea may be said to be spent once it has been turned into an act or a film, and new ideas or variations are needed. Moreover Olsen had formed an impression of what sort of entertainment people would pay for and knew that it would not do to disappoint them, if he wanted them to come back for more. Furthermore, Olsen had acquired leadership skills and a knack for organization.
After working all over Scandinavia, moving on to an international market was an obvious progression for Olsen. The artistic environment and "the travelling folk" have always circulated internationally; circus, fun fairs and highly profiled opera performances all belonged to the small ensembles who offered live, transnational entertainment before the advent of film.
"I've always been interested in being a pioneer when something new emerged", Olsen recalls in his memoirs, and the technological novelties and advances of his day did not deter him. On the fairgrounds, Olsen had performed with an x-ray machine through which the customers could see their own bones; x-ray technology was a brand-new thing in 1895. That same year Olsen invested 4,000 kroner, at that time a small fortune, in making his carousels electrically powered. He made an impression by being an amusement-park owner with a telephone installed in his caravan and by being one of the first car owners in Malmoe. In 1898, Olsen was among the first in Sweden to show motion pictures. "The thing wasn't ripe yet, the public wasn't really interested", Olsen later wrote about the motion picture shows. In the light of Olsen's enterprise and enthusiasm for new technologies, this new medium – film – was an obvious choice on which to embark.
Olsen recounted that he saw motion pictures at the first public viewing in Denmark at Pacht's Panorama in the Town Hall Square, Copenhagen, on 7 June 1896. Initially, film was presented as a novelty at variety shows or as an attraction in travelling cinemas at fairs, and ten years would pass before film made its mark as an entertainment in its own right.
Gerben Bakker divides the history of the early film industry into three phases. In the first phase from 1890 to 1895, the basic and necessary technology was developed. The phase from 1895 to 1905 was when films were publicly shown in travelling cinemas, it was not until the third phase, 1905–1910, that films were shown in permanent cinema houses, a development that launched international growth in the film industry. Many companies were established and a film-distribution network was created in the industry in this third phase.
Photographer Peter Elfelt, a Danish film pioneer, in both film-making and development of equipment, tried in vain to establish a cinema in Denmark, first with Hafnia Panorama in 1899, then with Kinografen in 1901, but no one succeeded with a cinema before Constantin Philipsen established Kosmorama in September 1904. Kosmorama in Østergade, Copenhagen, could seat about 150 people. Philipsen had also tried to open a cinema house in 1902, but the time was not yet ripe for this new medium, and he had to close it down after a short while due to the lack of audience demand. In the subsequent years, things had changed and new habits were formed that shaped public demand for entertainment.
On 5 April 1905, Olsen invited an audience intoCopenhagen's second cinema, Biograf-Theatret at Vimmelskaftet 47. Olsen himself called Biograf-Theatret a "non-stop theatre"; there was no fixed schedule; people walked in and out of the cinema as they pleased. A show at Biograf-Theatret lasted somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes and featured four to five short films. A programme consisted of various genres or types of film, most often a newsreel or a documentary, a drama and a comedy.
To the public, Olsen appeared as the manager of the cinema, but Biograf-Theatret was in fact a corporation, and Olsen's partner was Niels Evald Jacobsen le Tort. Le Tort had worked as amagician and had toured with Olsen. He had also presentedmotion pictures in Stockholm for a brief period in 1901. It appears from the Copenhagen Trade Register that Biograf-Theatret was a private company with a capital of 24,000 kroner. The board of directors were Olsen and le Tort, both with the right to sign for the company.
The demand for film entertainment was big since the films were only shown for a week at the time to make room for the next one. Apart from Elfelt's sparse production, no one else produced films in Denmark, so films had to be imported from distributors abroad. Biograf-Theatret acquired films from Pathé Frères, Gaumont and Georges Méliès in France; in Britain Olsen and le Tort obtained films from The Continental Warwick Trading Company, Charles Urban Trading Company, The Hepworth Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Robert William Paul; in the USA from Edison Manufacturing Company Ltd., and in Italy from Cines and Ambrosio. Biograf-Theatret had an agreement with Gaumont and Urban for one copy of each of their new films, and the supervisor of the cinema, Viggo Larsen, also went to London to get films.
Olsen and le Tort sold or rented their films on to Sweden, Norway and rural Denmark. Olsen could sell the films to the network of contacts he had acquired in his years as a stallholder, and by distributing the films outside Copenhagen as well, Olsen prevented other cinemas in town from competing with Biograf-Theatret's films. Biograf-Theatret also sold equipment to people who wished to start their own cinema or motion picture show. It is not altogether clear whether this enterprise was Olsen's exclusively. In a letter, Olsen mentions this activity as going "through my main company via the firm Ole Olsen's Film Industry".
Biograf-Theatret became popular with the Copenhageners. In 1906, the annual income of the cinema was 116,647 kroner and 60 øre, and in the wake of the success of the first Copenhagen cinemas, more would follow. 1908 counted 16 cinemas in Copenhagen, the suburb of Frederiksberg included, and 17 or 18 in the rural areas. The development history of cinemas in Copenhagen resembles that of other Western countries; in 1905, the first Ladenkinos opened in Berlin and Hamburg, and between 1907 and 1912, the number of Berlin cinemas varied between 300 and 400.72 In the U.S. there was a "Nickelodeon boom" around 1905. In the spring of 1906 "[...] a dozen or more nickelodeons emerged in each of the metropolitan areas – New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Chicago. Within a year their numbers increased exponentially to include hundreds in New York and Chicago, and Moving Picture World estimated that there were between 2,500 and 3,000 throughout the country."
Olsen and le Tort had picked the right moment to open their cinema, which gave them a competitive advantage. They had established contacts abroad so as to obtain a steady supply of films for their cinema, which enabled them to capitalize on the resale and rental of films, as well as the sale of equipment. However, Olsen and le Tort had the recurring problem of getting enough new titles for Biograf-Theatret. This was the reason why Olsen eventually started his own film production.
In Olsen's memoirs Nordisk's first attempts at film production read like a fairy-tale: Olsen purchased a movie camera from France in early 1906, and his first long production was, by Olsen's own account, an immediate box-office hit at Biograf-Theatret, with audiences lining up to get in all the way down Strøget, the most fashionable shopping street in Copenhagen. In truth, however, things were not all that simple, as becomes evident from Viggo Larsen's recollection of this first shoot:
We had a little cameraman by the name of Bjerregaard who didn't know the first thing about motion pictures, which the rest of us didn't, either. And they tried a couple of takes [...] and then they developed it and copied it, but it was no good. However, they believed that they had gained enough experience by now. And then we shot another film in the spring of 1906.
The first shoot took place in H.C. Ørsted's Park in central Copenhagen and appears to have been the film DUER OG MAAGER (Pigeons and Seagulls, director unknown, 1906) which is the very first title registered in Nordisk's negative protocols, numbered 101. The film was screened in two parts in Biograf-Theatret on 8 January 1906 under the title MAAGERNE FODRES I ØRSTEDSPARKEN (Seagulls are fed in H.C. Ørstedsparken, director unknown, 1906) and DUERNE VED KØBENHAVNS RAADHUS (Pigeons at the Town Hall, director unknown, 1906), with the label "[Nordisk's] own production". However, the films which people lined up to see, according to Olsen's memoirs, were FREDERIK DEN 8'S PROKLAMATION (Frederik VIII's Proclamation, Ole Olsen, 1906) that premiered on 4 February, and CHRISTIAN DEN 9'S BISÆTTELSE (Christian IX's interment, Ole Olsen, 1906), shown on 19 February. The shooting of those films can be dated to 29 and 30 January, respectively, which postdates the screening of DUER OG MAAGER in Biograf-Theatret. Throughout the spring and summer of 1906, the pace of film production increased steadily, and by 15 September 1906, Olsen had shot enough films to constitute a full programme of his own productions. In the advertisement for the first programme made up of films from Nordisk it is worth noticing the highlightning of their national significance (see Illustration). "The first Danish programme", the headline states, while in the following text it is emphasized that the beautiful Danish nature is used, the actors are Danish and the subject should be to the liking of the Danish audiences. The three first films were actualities and the fourth was a comedy. Actualities as a term covers factual films and can be divided into several sub-genres: travelogues, industrial films, scientific films, sports films etc. Actualities also included newsreels that captured events of a social nature, such as state visits, parades or acts of war. The attraction of these films was that they could show places and events which most people could otherwise only read about.
Film production was Olsen's responsibility, and the increase in production led to a break between Olsen and le Tort. On 11 December 1906, and for the sum of 10,000 kroner, Olsen took over "[...] Nordisk Films Kompagni with all its property, in Copenhagen and in Berlin, with all rights and responsibilities as the company owner". As appears from the handover contract, Olsen had acquired several properties in less than a year. These included the printing laboratory of Nordisk in Frihavnen in Copenhagen and the studio in Valby, aswell as the first foreign branch office of Nordisk in Berlin, established by Olsen on 18 November 1906. After the break with le Tort, Nordisk got its first independent address in Frihavnen, and on 6 November 1906, Olsen managed to obtain a trade license in Copenhagen, an event that marks the official birth-date of the company.
Le Tort took over the management of Biograf-Theatret and got the license of the cinema Kosmorama in the provincial town of Aarhus. Legally, Olsen was still the license owner of Biograf-Theatret, a fact which le Tort would come to regret a year later whenNordisk released LØVEJAGTEN (THE LION HUNT, Viggo Larsen, 1907). Olsen had bought two lions at Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg for the shoot. The film is about two big-game hunters and the film was shot on the small island of Elleore in Roskilde Fjord, as were, indeed, the lions. Through an organization opposed to cruelty to animals, Minister of Justice Peter Adler Alberti was informed about the project, and he prohibited the shooting of the lions. Olsen, however, went ahead with the shoot and the shooting of the animals regardless, and afterwards the footage was sent to Sweden and distributed worldwide from there. With 259 copies sold, the film became one of the company's greatest box-office hits and is counted as Nordisk's breakthrough on the international market. It did not premiere in Danish cinemas until the following year.
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Table of Contents
IntroductionThe Research TraditionThe Film Historical Tradition Approach The Structure of This Book
1906–1909Ole Olsen Biograf-TheatretOlsen's First FilmsThe International Film Industry Open and Closed MarketsFrom Entrepreneur to Modern Industrial EnterpriseThe Printing LaboratoryThe Technical Quality of the Films Colourization of the Films ActualitiesThe First Fiction FilmsThe Studio in ValbyThe Artistic QualityThe Polar Bear on the Globe Nordisk's Protection of its Films Pathé Frères and Gaumont Nordisk's Distribution Network Agents and DistributorsA Tiny Little Mosquito against a Big, Big ElephantThe Congress of Fools
1910–1914Reorganization of the Company Den hvide SlavehandelThe Dangerous AgeThe Founding of the Limited Company The Bank Syndicate"Long and Artistic Films are our Future Motto"Opposition to the Long FilmsExclusive System, Monopolfilm and DistributionThe Script Department Censorship and Self-Regulation Guidelines for Scriptwriters The Censorship Memoranda Russian EndingsNordisk's Positioning of its Films Actors and StarsAutorenfilmThe Organization of the Film Factory BureaucratizationHollywood in Copenhagen Capital GainsOlsen's Sale and Stockjobbing Expansion in the USA
1914–1917The Outbreak of World War IRussische Schreckensregimente an der Ostgrenze"Nordisk Films Kompagni Will Now Become the Biggest in the World" Fotorama Filmsbureau A/S and Swedish companiesNordisk's Expansion Policy in Germany Expansion in Russia"They Thought We Were German" Ban on Luxury Goods in GermanyThe Second Expansion of the Share Capital Aubert and the Black ListThe European Shareholding Company The Black ListsThe July Letter
1918–1924After the War Artistic Decline?New Trade Conditions The Estate after the WarThe European and the American Film IndustryThe New Production Method Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft Colosseum in FlensborgDAFCO
Famous PlayersA New, Big CombinationThe Liquidation of DAFCO and the UFACapitalMetropolteatret and FotoramaThe Depreciation of the Share CapitalThe Shareholders' GroupRecapitulationSources and Bibliography