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Scenic Scandinavia on screen

Scenic Scandinavia Cruise stops

Crossing the waters of a Viking Cruises trip called Scenic Scandinavia bore little resemblance to onscreen Nordic adventures of Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, or Travis Fimmel. Forget power plays, fearsome battles, and impressively honed bare chests. A plethora of buffet and food options on board the Viking Jupiter meant no chance at maintaining honed physiques as our ship took us to Baltic ports where our version of plunder meant taking away new experiences. We came, we saw, we never bothered to conquer anything other than an urge to indulge in a third portion of ice cream.


Vikings, 2013-2020, with Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick leaving Scandinavia to conquer new worlds. Riding a Game of Thrones wave of medieval style warriors, Vikings offers bingeworthy battles for power and plunder, with a dose of sexual adventures thrown in. Creator Michael Hirst mines written sagas of (probably) fictional legend Ragnar Lodbrok, putting in enough factual background to qualify for a History Channel premiere. Drama supersedes absolute historical accuracy for a violent, entertaining imagining of a Viking lifestyle full of CGI effects (but bereft of Game style dragons). Plotting also allows warlike behavior from strong women, probably more than reality allowed. Opening credits start action in Scandinavia, though like Game, much of the series filmed in Ireland. The show’s appeal inspired one of my friend’s relatives to name her son Ragnar after Fimmel’s muscle-bound character. Good thing she never saw the 1958 variation on the theme where Ragnar looked like Ernest Borgnine….

The Vikings, 1958 with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis fighting brutal battles in Scandinavia and England. With lust and rape adding prurient interest, producer Douglas provided titillating popcorn entertainment to conservative 1950s audiences. “The mightiest of Men” blared era posters, and the well-toned Douglas lived up to that description, a tightly-tailored tunic highlighting his broad shoulders and lean waist as he performed swashbuckling stunts in dramatic outdoor settings. Hiding his pretty features beneath a dark beard, Curtis inexplicably wears a distracting, cute pair of hot pants, though he holds his own for requisite swordplay under capable direction by Richard Fleischer. No Spartacus classic, The Vikings remains fun in an old-fashioned, mannered way. Writing about production in his first autobiography, Douglas recounts seeking authenticity from Viking experts in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Not enough artifacts remain for a definitive interpretation of fashion and behaviors, leaving many details open to artistic fantasy (like those shorts Curtis wears). Douglas also sought a realistic sense by filming on location in Norway, using its visually striking Hardanger Fjord for shots of ships built to specs from actual Viking boats. Captured beautifully by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the settings and elaborate props—from boats to villages—stand out with non-CGI richness and depth.


Another Round (Druk), 2020 with Mads Mikkelsen as a high school teacher testing a theory about processing alcohol in Copenhagen, Denmark. Director Thomas Vinterberg explores the nonsensical idea that people live with an inborn alcohol deficiency. Seeking the perfect balance, Mikkelsen and his group of bored teachers regularly drink restricted amounts, discovering the process initially makes them feel a whole lot better at work. But then…. Mikkelsen, so good in many roles like Hannibal Lecter, centers the film with his nuanced performance, while Vinterberg earned a directing Oscar nomination for his deft balance of tone and style, lighter than the duo’s previous work in The Hunt. The director’s moment on stage came with Another Round’s Oscar for best foreign language film. Set jetters find locations at Copenhagen Harbor, Esplanaden/Nordre Toldbod; Restaurant Denmark Hotel & Restaurant; and Aurehøj High School in Gentofte.

Babette’s Feast, 1987, with Stéphane Audran cooking a spectacular meal in Jutland, Denmark. Simple on the surface, Babette’s Feast offers a smorgasbord of items to digest, from the impact of art to conundrums of religion to Danish culture and French cuisine. Stemming from a short story by the great Danish writer Isaak Dinesen, the film boasts international flair. Using a French woman as title character, Dinesen set her short story in Norway but wrote her piece in English and first published it in the American magazine Ladies Home Journal. With his Oscar-winning interpretation of Dinesen’s piece, Danish director Gabriel Axel added some Swedish funding and actors to the mix. He further enhanced universal appeal by filming with simple techniques so that nothing cries out the release date, giving a fresh sense decades after the film’s release. His choice of restrained music enhances that sense with traditional hymns and opera popular during the story’s 1871 setting. Axel maintains Dinesen’s voice through narration that captures her literary skills, a storytelling energy she displayed telling her own adventures in Out of Africa. In Babette, Axel moves action to Denmark’s Jutland for its stark backdrop of clouds and gray He mutes action and emotion so pacing rolls out like a slow stream, following its course in a natural manner. His cast suits the tone perfectly, with Audran a marvel at revealing emotion while trying to hide it. Playing the former chef of the first great epicurean restaurant in Paris, she stares in muffled shock as Danish locals show her how to make soup from boiled bread and ale, a glop that resembles something a sick person might leave in a toilet. Babette later rectifies this by preparing (spoiler alert?) the title event, a challenge for foodies to resist salivating as each dish progresses. “The food film of food films,” says Pricilla Parkhurst Ferguson, author of Taste: Triumph of French Cuisine, and during the film’s initial release, many art house venues partnered with restaurants to offer the movie’s menu as best they could. For me in Reno, this meant a viewing at the Keystone Cinema in the M.G.M. Grand Resort Casino followed by dinner at its Café Gigi. The meal remains memorable, and no reptile died in the process since we ate mock turtle soup. Set jetters might not find a similar feast near the film’s sites, but they can locate the film’s church at Mårup in Lønstrup. They can also check out Vendsyssel, some 120 miles north of the region’s tourist district in Århus, which ironically ranks as a gastronomy center these days.

A Beautiful Life, 2023 with Danish singer Christopher discovering the music business in Denmark. Recycling a couple of plotting elements from CODA and A Star is Born, writer Stefan Jaworski formulates a story taking advantage of the lead’s proven talents. Like the girl in CODA, Christopher’s character Elliott works in fishing but longs to sing. And like Lady Gaga, Barbara Streisand, and Judy Garland, Christopher/Elliott goes on stage as a nobody whose voice saves the day. A talented performer in real life, Christopher handles his musical duties well under direction by Mehdi Avaz, who coordinates big stadium scenes along with smaller settings in a studio where songs get tweaked and perfected. Avaz also benefits from impressive visuals, both in Danish settings and with his handsome star. Curly blond hair and a lean, chiseled chin help, along with frequent excuses to remove his shirt and reveal a chest that looks like it hardly ever leaves the gym. Though comfortable on screen, Christopher never quite overcomes the limitations caused by making sense of Elliott’s character since he rejects the kind of help most wannabes would kill for, plus stomps around in tantrums that serve little purpose other than extending drama. Forget nuance and subtlety, both in acting and script. But the project provides other pleasures, including beautiful images found in Frederikshavn, Århus, and vistas from Copenhagen’s Round Tower along with exterior shots of the Amalienborg Palace.

Dancer in the Dark,2000 with Björk blindly singing, dancing, and sacrificing for her son. Björk plays a character whose actions annoyingly defy logic, but she puts audiences on her side with magnetism and charisma that schooling can’t teach. Childish mannerisms and a pixie grin show the kind of golden heart that inspired writer-director Lars Von Trier to make a trilogy of films about noble women. Also influenced by happy movie musicals and turgid melodramas for Dancer, Von Trier concocts the story of a Czech immigrant named Selma whose many troubles include the need to raise money for surgery so her son will not face the same debilitating condition she experiences at work—hiding her worsening sight in order to keep her job. The darkness in her world brightens through song and dance—through old movies she watches, in the community theater Sound of Music production where she plays Maria, and via daydream routines she imagines happening around her. Her hopes come from upbeat movies but her life resembles a convoluted melodrama, choices that move director Von Trier away from his cinematic roots as co-founder of Dogme 95, a movement to simplify filmmaking including use of a handheld camera, natural lighting, real locations, and sound from actual sources. With Dancer, Von Trier maintains a shaky camera and bleached look for the most part but shifts to smoother moves and saturated colors for the musical numbers that spark Selma’s life. Already an established recording sensation, Björk makes singing a form of acting, powerfully revealing Selma’s feelings and dreams. Björk later put Dancer in movie history as an Oscar contender for the song “I’ve Seen It All,” showing up in a swan dress and leaving a trail of eggs behind her. Generating a shocked response at the time (well, Joan Rivers dissed it), the dress became a legend and part of exhibits at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Von Trier remains outrageous in his own right, arguably the most influential director to come from Copenhagen, where he filmed some interiors for Dancer. Sweden provided other locations, standing in as the story’s Washington state setting. Frequently working in the English language with renowned actors like Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, and (in Dancer) Catherine Deneuve, Von Trier’s most renowned movies rarely seem quintessentially Scandinavian. Arty, yes. Happy, no. Though not part of his ”Depression Trilogy” (featuring the titles Antichrist, Nymphomaniac Vol 1 & 2, plus Melancholia), Dancer suits the downbeat tone that Von Trier relentlessly explores in his body of work. Included on some lists of best-ever musicals, Dancer won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes.

The Danish Girl, 2016 with both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander qualifying as the title character. Redmayne plays one of the first people to undergo transgender surgery, with Vikander winning a supporting actress Oscar as a woman experiencing the emotional roller coaster of watching her lover transform into someone else. Following the “inspired by a true” story routine, the movie looks at Gerda and Einar Wegener, two artists living in Copenhagen during the 1920s. The couple view themselves as equals, though dynamics change when Gerda loses a model and Einar steps in, putting on the delicate and intricate wear of a Jazz Age flapper. Unlike, say Arnold Schwarzenegger, the slight, high cheeked Redmayne looks natural in dresses. A wig and make up help, but the actor’s expressions and gestures complete the picture; he moves like a cat rubbing fur against a satiny surface, ready to purr and go to kitty heaven. Einar’s desires extend beyond simply wearing clothes, and Lucinda Coxon’s screenplay from a novelized biography by David Ebershoff brings up the era’s added complications including minimal medical knowledge. Director Tom Hooper retains the restraint he used for his Oscar winning turn with The King’s Speech, another story involving a supportive married couple from a long-ago era. Copenhagen provides suitable period locations, while props and costumes help The Danish Girl flow with gorgeous fabrics in golden hues for frames that appear painted by artists. The look and conflict of the film bind together in a wistful fashion, mixing beauty and sadness for a love story that is more about compassion than passion.The Danish Girl Locations - Movies Locations (

The Department Q Series, 2013-, with Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares saving lost causes in Denmark. Using a Danish flavor, author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s successful mystery books provide the basics of Nordic Noir: the police procedural darkened by gloom of a cold setting made grimmer by crimes that go beyond the norm into twisted territory. The Keeper of Lost (Causes Kvinden i buret) sets the stage, starring Kaas as Carl Mørck, a grumpy Copenhagen detective banished to investigating cold cases found am in a set of dungeonlike basement offices. There he joins Fares to find out what really happened to a woman who disappeared five years previously. Mikkel Nørgaard directs in a simple, no-frills style that suits the modulated gray mood of Danish Noir. As for rituals of the mystery genre, Mørck and Assad take opposite approaches in their style, with one standoffish and the other warmly engaging with almost everyone he meets. The contrasts play well off each other, developing as the storyline continues. The two actors and same director worked together for the 2014 follow up, The Absent One (Fasandræberne), a bigger budgeted effort with more elaborate props like wild animals, plus expanded use of locations for manors and a boarding school. Hans Petter Moland smoothly transitioned to directing duties on 2016’s A Conspiracy of Faith (Flaskepost fra P). The usual sick, sick, sick killer (did I mention sick?) wreaks havoc, though the crimes brighten the palette in a Jutland setting that includes vast fields of yellow flowers. Director Christopher Boe stepped in next with 2018’s The Purity of Vengeance (Afdeling Q), whose compellingly lurid elements (found throughout the series) broke Danish box office record.. The film’s Danish connection explains part of the lure for the country’s audiences, though many scenes filmed in Germany. (The popular series continued with releases in 2021 and beyond using different talent). Each entry offers the pleasures mysteries offer by providing answers—though solutions and truly horrific behaviors they reveal fail to calm nerves. This, from a country with impressively high rankings on the official World Happiness Index. The ironic juxtaposition of dark doings in a bright home to happiness goes beyond Department Q in hits like 2007’s Forbrydelsen, remade as an English language television series called The Killing.

Hamlet at Elsinore,1964 with Christopher Plummer finding something rotten in Denmark. It almost sounds like Game of Thrones with “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts, of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause” as author William Shakespeare puts it (though he includes no dragons in his story, just a ghost). Hamlet’s many intricacies include the catnip of a lead role for actors on both stage and screen, ranging from Laurence Olivier to Simba the Lion King (well, sort of, his uncle Mufasa shares the biggest Hamlet link). Plummer more than holds his own in the pantheon of screen Hamlets, his lean, athletic frame dueling well and moving gracefully, his rich voice cradling delicate thoughts or scaling heights in passionate eloquence. With a younger than usual spin on the role of scheming uncle, Robert Shaw makes a powerful, virile force and stands out among all versions of the story. Facing the budget of a smaller project geared for television, Director Philip Saville sought strong performers rather than the distraction of famous faces, little realizing what the next few years held for a group that also includes Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. Their faces show up in extreme closeups suited to small screen action, though the director also enjoys his freedom from stage confines by moving his camera around the interiors and exteriors of the real-life home to the royal family that inspired Hamlet. Sadly, low quality equipment lead to poor sound and fuzzy imagery. Nonetheless, Hamlet at Elsinore retains relevance for its fine cast and unique position as the only sound version to use the play’s actual setting. Saville filmed the project at Kronberg Castle in Helsingør, anglicized to Elsinore. Set jetters can easily travel 40 miles outside Copenhagen to visit the castle, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Hans Christian Anderson, 1952 with Danny Kaye amusing children in Wonderful Wonderful Copenhagen. Opening titles immediately diffuse any claims of accuracy or biopic status by calling the movie a fairy tale. An impressive trio of screenwriters—Moss Hart, Myles Connolly, and Ben Hecht—concoct the notion of Andersen as a poor cobbler whose stories detract children from attending school in his hometown, Odense. Encouraged to leave, he heads to Copenhagen where his skills help a beautiful ballet dancer. Elements from his famous fairy tales like “The Red Shoes” weave throughout the plot in such songs as “The Ugly Duckling” or through an extended ballet rendition of “The Little Mermaid.” With his natural charm and appeal to children, the mild-mannered Kaye perfectly suits the role of a likeable, non-threatening storyteller, moving gracefully and easily crooning pleasant tunes like “Inchworm” and “Wonderful Copenhagen” on colorful, studio sets. Director Charles Vidor handles choreography and musical numbers smoothly, though without the flair of Vincent Minnelli and Gene Kelly’s work on the previous year’s ballet intense hit, An American in Paris. Overall, Hans Christian Andersen provides a mild and enjoyable reminder of the author’s famed works, with titles that turn into big-screen movies of their own (think The Red Shoes from 1948, a couple of Little Mermaid versions by Disney and Frozen, inspired by “The Snow Queen”). Set jetters can find various story inspirations listed on Denmark tourism sites. Hans Christian Andersen's Denmark - VisitDenmark

The Little Mermaid, 1989 with a teenage siren risking her family’s future for a cute guy. A welcome addition to Disney’s family, The Little Mermaid put the studio back in the animation game primarily by taking a then-innovative approach to music. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who made a mark in Manhattan with their musical take on Little Shop of Horrors, designed The Little Mermaid score for performers to belt out as if they sang to a Broadway audience. Sensory splendor comes from bouncing beats, reggae influences, and animated choreography using the old fashioned “cell” process for underwater creatures dancing to the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea.” Soaring underwater with colorful fish and no need for heavy diving equipment, the little mermaid lives a dream. But then the rest of the fairy tale kicks in, a love story telling 16-year-girls they should give up everything and get married, even if it means turning their family and friends into polyps. The guy chase also requires giving up any ability to communicate, either by talking or singing, relying instead on good looks to catch her prey. Seduce him with body, not mind, a foundation of quicksand rather than rock. And then, remake it?

Little Mermaid, 2023 with Halle Bailey giving up her natural talent to catch a guy. Despite nearly quarter of a century worth of time to enhance self-images for girls the (sort of) live action version replays the dumb teenage routine when the title character falls in love at first sight with the first cute guy she sees. On the upside, the update includes expected brilliant Disney-level computer animated sequences, along with appealing star Halle Berry, Melissa McCarthy as a tentacled witch, Awkwafina’s voice for Scuttle the northern gannet bird, and new lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda. Both Disney origin stories of The Little Mermaid spring from the mind of Copenhagen’s Hans Christian Andersen, who included it in an 1830s book of fairy tales. His version features a more wistful conclusion than Disney’s, captivating Danes so much they erected a “Little Mermaid” statue on a rock in Copenhagen. Director Rob Marshall poses Berry to resemble the statue on a rock in Sardinia, where the remake filmed. Set jetters can visit Italy, but pay homage by visiting the Little Mermaid statue, which ranks as Copenhagen biggest tourist destination. The “H.C. Andersen” walking tour provides more detail about the city and writer who made such a splash on the big screen. As for set jetting to the Little Mermaid’s original home, no one knows where to find it, though some fans think Andersen based it on Atlantis and figured the lost city lies somewhere off the coast of Copenhagen.

Torn Curtain, 1966 with Paul Newman leaving Copenhagen to defect in East Berlin. Huge expectations rising from legendary film talents like Newman, Julie Andrews, and director Alfred Hitchcock wilt like a stunted firecracker. Still, even a moderately successful Hitchcock film sparkles more than typical releases. Hitchcock energizes his projects by taking experimental risks, and Torn Curtain contains a couple. One involves freeing the spy genre from Bondage by setting untrained civilians on an undercover mission sans gadgets, weapons, and experience. The other emphasizes that compared to snappy, tidy movie deaths, real-life kills come off like a road trip with kids crying “Are we there yet?” The amateur spy angle and protracted death of a bad guy take time and patience but emphasize that reality often gets sloppy. Nothing wrong there, and the movie’s weakness comes instead from the badly designed romance between Newman and Andrews’ characters. Without hinting anything to the love of his life, Newman’s scientist plans to leave her for months or years, figuring she’ll wait at home. Well, yes, he does look like Paul Newman with that jutting jaw, those firm abs, and his hypnotizing turquoise eyes…but still. Rather than wait, his fiancé crosses the Iron Curtain (you know, the one about to get torn) because of course any normal woman would follow someone who looks like Paul Newman into a dangerous region where imprisonment or death seem like likely consequences. Once action moves beyond this questionable starting point, Hitchcock plays with some of his favorite conceits, like showing key dramatic scenes from a distance without dialogue. In another of the movie’s effective set pieces, he slowly builds suspense on a bus ride through a heavily patrolled highway. Though the scene plays well, its technical detail includes badly back screened scenery shots, reflecting the director’s occasional disregard for actual locations. Of course politics forced him into movie magic for segments in East Germany, with Camarillo, California providing a bucolic farm to visually contrast with a brutal killing that occurs there. Though unable to shoot in East Berlin, Hitchcock spent the time and money to film the story’s opening sequences in Copenhagen. Most visitors come across the city’s colorful waterfront buildings shown in the film without going out of their way. Similarly, Tivoli—where Newman and Andrews eat lunch at Nimb—makes a typical tourist stop. Set jetters and Hitch fans can catch where the director makes his cameo need only visit the lobby of Hotel d’Angleterre, whose striking exterior provides an establishing shot. The spy and Copenhagen connection continued in Hitchcock’s next project:

Topaz, 1969, with John Forsythe and other spies getting information from a Soviet defector. Springing from a Leon Uris novel loosely based on the Sapphire spy ring, Topaz proves an odd blend that often deadens compelling events. The intricacies and dangerous game playing required to get accurate information takes extensive talk plus time to explain, and Hitchcock’s original version runs well over two hours, making it his longest film. Lacking glamorous exuberance, Topaz feels more serious and less energetic than the director’s other saboteur films like Notorious. Even so, it benefits from typical Hitchcock touches like showing action from a distance, without dialogue so that gestures and expressions give the gist of action. Such a sequence starts the film, as a Soviet bigwig and his family move through Copenhagen to connect with U.S. agents. The 10-minute segment introduces the city with a skyline beauty shot, then moves through streets like Rådhuspladsen and City Hall Square with its statue of Hans Cristian Andersen. Action moves to the former Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Factory, leading to the film’s first scripted talk as a guide describes the time it takes to uphold a long respected tradition. That almost sounds like Hitchcock’s feeling about making movies.


Atomic Blonde, 2017 with Charlize Theron playing spy games in Berlin, Germany. The decadence of Cabaret’s Nazi Berlin transforms to debauched corruption for governments and spies just before the infamous Wall falls in 1989. Russians, Americans, and the British do whatever it takes to retrieve a list containing names of covert Soviet agents—and it takes a shitstorm of ruthless killing by spies including Theron as the title bombshell. Former stunt-man David Leitch guides Theron through a lethal mix of beauty, brains, and brute strength, letting her avoid stunt doubles when reasonable. Training hard to move as fast as a pro martial artist, Theron kicks, slams, and punches to sell the many shots of her giving and getting blows that would put most of us in a hospital or, more likely, a morgue. Fights, chases, and a badass heroine highlight the film, based on a graphic novel that provides clear drawings for inspiration. A soundtrack of 80s hits from David Bowie and others add to the fun and heighten garish visuals with neon lit scenes and a propensity for infusing reds into sharp black-and-white design shapes. Hyperkinetic action intensifies with rapid paced editing, except those quick-cut shots sometimes lead to plotting confusion when a twist leads to a flashbulb turn that comes too fast for quick absorption. And while witty asides pop up now and then, Theron’s spy lacks James Bond’s frequent humor or charm; the movie would benefit from more of both. The production team spent less than a week shooting establishing shots in Berlin, then went to Budapest and built extensive sets like The Wall.

Cabaret, 1972 with Liza Minnelli and Joes Grey reflecting the divine decadence of 1930s Berlin. With the rare achievement of turning a Broadway hit into a hugely cinematic experience, choreographer and director Bob Fosse restricts dance and music to a stage but sends the performances’ relevance into real locations and situations. Brilliant editing shows the seepage, with scenes like joking slaps for a musical number cut in with Nazi storm troopers beating citizens. Other numbers take unexpected turns leading to a finale when the song “Cabaret” loses its bouncy jolliness and becomes a sad realization of lost dreams. Though he created sets in Munich for the story’s central Kit Kat Klub, Fosse extensively used locations throughout Germany including the city that inspired the plot, Berlin. Loosely based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Cabaret’s events come from a time and place lacking stable cultural and political norms. Divine for those exploring sexual freedom, the region’s economic and power upheavals allowed the rise of a dictatorship that went beyond decadent. Fosse never pulled punches on unsavory elements, creating unsettling imagery and juxtapositions that might prove too offensive for cancel culture enthusiasts who flourished decades later. Fosse’s integrity led to a stunning and powerful film, aided by Minnelli and Grey’s total embodiment of their roles. The actors and director won three of the film’s eight Oscars, a record for a movie that failed to net the statue for Best Picture (tough when you go up against the first Godfather). Set jetters can find a memorable film location at S_Bahnhof on Bleibtreustraße at Savignyplatz where Minnelli’s Sally Bowles suggests screaming to the sound of passing trains as a cathartic way to release inhibitions. The movie also features the Charlottenburg, Tiergarten, and Templehof neighborhoods.

Gunpowder Milkshake, 2021 with Michelle Yeoh and an action team treading into John’s bailiWick. Gunpowder and milkshakes should mix with surprises, but this conglomerate from writer-director Navot Pupishado blends so many familiar ingredients that it almost feels bland. This despite beautifully lit, fanciful production design and the movie’s highlight, an inventive teaming of genre favs. What a great idea to mix the pre-Best Actress Oscar winning Yeoh, Black Panther’s Angela Bassett, Game of Thrones’ Lena Headley, and The Haunting of Hill House/Bly Manor’s Carla Gugino together! Their screen careers exude enough pull to challenge any giant magnet. Less effectively, lead Karen Gillan—grown up from her little kid days in Jumanji—shows erratic charisma as a hit woman working in a world populated by assassins out to get one another for little reason other than the firing of guns and splattering of blood. Not a bad idea for fans of John Wick or The Kingsman, and Gunpowder Milkshake entertains on that hyper-violent, vacuous level. Besides featuring a terrific group of women, the movie’s neon lighting glimmers memorably on stylized sets to create a striking, unnamed metropolis—Berlin, as it turns out. Set jetters find a real Milkshake site at Berlin’s Messendame Underpass, a familiar city location found in Atomic Blond, The Bourne Supremacy plus entries in the Hunger Games and Captain America franchises) Milkshake also features the Bode Museum, whose distinctive rounded front serves as exterior of a library enclave for page-free books housing high-powered weapons. Berlin visitors easily spot another of the film’s locations at Mohrenstraße and Taubenstraße in Mitte, near Gendarmenmarkt Square.

One, Two, Three, 1961 with James Cagney transporting a capitalistic product to East Berlin. With a tornado’s rush through action, Cagney delivers his lines like a machine gun used by one of his Thirties gangsters—exactly the pace director Billy Wilder sought for the farcical Cold War satire he wrote with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Few match Cagney’s skill and understanding that the crazed style includes nuance, which co-star Horst Buchholz fails to demonstrate in an overdone turn playing a handsome young communist. Other cast members make up for Buchholz including Arlene Frances using offhand, sly asides, and the movie contains enough of the Wilder-Diamond brand of humor (Some Like it Hot) to inspire laughs—if the shouted dialogue doesn’t first induce a headache. The edgy style jabs at former Nazis denying their past but unable to resist clicking their heels. Soviets, on the other hand, can’t refuse the materialistic joys of Coca Cola, described by Cagney as one of the “blessings of democracy.” During production, Wilder found himself on the bad side of a phone call from Joan Crawford whose husband ran the competition, so the movie’s final gag includes Pepsi. Coke-Pepsi wars continue decades later, and U.S./Soviet relations keep shifting in temperature, so One, Two, Three provides views of the day with Wall-free footage. Inconveniently for movie makers, the Berlin Wall went up during production and changed dynamics. Since locals could no longer easily cross from one side to the other, the plot lost currency upon release, and the movie proved a rare box office dud for Wilder, fresh on the heels of his 1960 Oscar win as best director of The Apartment.

Run, Lola, Run (Lola Rennt), 1998, with Franka Potente racing through Berlin. Writer-Director Tom Tykwer got a mental image of a red haired woman moving fast and transformed his “that looks cool” image into a groundbreaking film whose tendrils moved on to other projects like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. Using a “time warp” plotting device, Tykwer pulls a Groundhog Day twist with a story that repeats itself in several versions. All three start the same as Lola gets a phone call and zips out her apartment, down one of those European, Vertigo set of winding stairs, out the door, and through a courtyard to raise 100,000 marks and get them to her slacker boyfriend in 20 minutes. Not much to go on, but Tykwer jazzes it up with editing cuts that burst like a camera’s flash unit, moving so fast he has time to insert little stories for passing faces, showing the irrelevant things that happen to them next. As he hoped, his leading lady provides an indelible presence with her crimson mop, a pair of green paints, and lavender tank top adding a suitable cartoonish quality to the lightweight piece. Called on more for posturing than acting, Potente’s appeal later moved her on as Matt Damon’s love in the first two Jason Bourne movies. A good runner, Lola makes a confusing tour guide of Berlin since movie magic rather than reality provides her race course. Locations include Lola’s apartment at 12-14 Albrechtstrasse, the Deutsche subway station, the Spar grocery store near Tauroggener Strasse, and under the brick arches of Oberbaumbrücke (which also appears in Unknown and 2016’s Jason Bourne.

Tár, 2022 with Cate Blanchett as a conductor demonstrating a sticky mix of talent and hubris in Berlin. The Berlin Philharmonic’s association with great recordings of works by Austrian composer Gustav Mahler provides a logical link for main character Lydia Tár to live and work in the German city. A character to both despise and admire in a city that once featured portions separated by a wall, Tár claims two different apartments as home. Throughout his film, writer/director Todd Field fills Tár’s portrait with this type of carefully thought out detail, symbolic or real, small or grand. The movie gets its grandest push from Blanchett’s bravura performance, filling her bespoke suits with the entitled ease of a ruler whose power comes from proven and celebrated genius. Perfectly pinpointing a milieu that wants to both worship and destroy its icons, Field eventually sends Tár into a series of almost surreal events that take aim at cancel culture. Some incidents seem so extreme I wondered if Tár really experienced the last part of the film or just overdid it with the metoprolol she chugs like candy. (Research lists paranoia and hallucinations as rare but possible side effects but the script itself offers no clue). Taken at face value, the finale throws in ironic twists since (mild spoiler alert) Tár gets a comeuppance but not for the right reasons—all part of a message about cancel culture. Slow and talky during its nearly three-hour run, Tár earned key Oscar nominations (best picture, director, actress among them) for featuring ideas that stick around long after the end credits. Set jetters to Berlin see some of Tár’s surroundings at the Karly-Marx-Allee, in the Savoy Berlin (standing in for Manhattan’s Carlyle), and East German-Socialist architecture in the Mitte near the city center’s theaters and museums. With no Berlin concert halls available for extensive filming, the production team moved to Dresden for many scenes.

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), 1987 with Peter Falk helping Bruno Ganz transform from angel to human in Berlin. Wim Wenders’ meditation on humanity offers little for the action film fan who wants explosions, car chases, gunfire, and sex scenes. Instead, a pair of starkly attired, invisible angels wander through their city, hearing the random thoughts of people and sometimes providing a comforting touch that makes life easier. Because they operate in a world absent color, the angels fail to grasp the world’s fullness, a lack that tugs on one, especially when he falls in love. Absorbing these plot dynamics requires careful viewing of imagery, not surprising since Wenders started filming his ideas before the writing team completed a screenplay. Without such usual requirements in place, the well-respected Wenders earned enough trust from backers and talent to move forward on his dream of filming a celebration of Berlin, the city where he made his first movie. In the documentary The Angels Among Us, Wenders says he wanted characters who traveled to all corners of the city—perhaps firemen or mailmen--but switched gears when he noticed a plethora of angel imagery in expected and unexpected places. Among the expected: Victoria, standing atop the Tiergarten’s Victory Column. Yes, technically she qualifies as a goddess, but her wings suit the story and make for indelible visuals as Ganz sits on her shoulder and surveys the city. Striking in its conception, the image represents just one of many capturing a full range of black, white and grays by legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan, famed for another classic fantasy-romance, the 1946 take on Beauty and the Beast. Leisurely, poetic, and esoteric, Wings of Desire hit a chord with audiences and inspired both a sequel (Faraway So Close with a U2 song) and a big-budget U.S. variation called City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. The idea of a winged figure walking around town shows up in 2019’s Berlin, I Love You entry into a series of movies serving as romantic postcards to various cities (Paris, New York, Rio). Despite inclusion of impressive stars like Helen Mirren, the various short stories that make up the movie feel fragmented, and the Wings of Desire reference only serves to remind that other films better serve the city than Berlin, I Love You.

Gritty Gdańsk

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012 with Jessica Chastain hunting Osama Bin Laden on an obsessive trail that includes Gdańsk, Area 51, and Pakistan. Groundbreaking, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow followed the gritty style of The Hurt Locker with another look at modern warfare in a project that earned nominations as Best Picture and for Best Actress. This time the forces come in smaller-sized groups as Navy Seals home in for a final attack with actors trained make operations look as real as possible on a set built in Jordan. The story starts a decade earlier after the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks as U.S. agents get a potential lead after a lengthy torture session. Playing a composite character who starts the process in a refined, hopeful manner, Chastain transforms into a bulldog unwilling to let go of the scent despite a series of setbacks that include changing political processes and higher up’s fears of risk taking. Director Bigelow heightens the sense of realism by avoiding glamor spy antics of James Bond, foregoing flashy, fanciful shots. Yet she builds suspense with carefully planned chases and a final set piece that recreates a believable sense of what the Seal force experienced during the raid on Bin Laden’s safe house. Using aerial views and other images of the house, production designer Jeremy Hindle created a “practical” set that excluded movable ceilings and walls that allow for directorial trickery. This enhances Zero Dark Thirty’s documentary feel, opening it to both acclaim and disapproval. The movie’s high level of real feel left it open to criticism when fiction comes to play—which it had to since many facts remain unknown and open to interpretation. Too much torture? Perhaps. Changed names? Of course. Compressed timelines? Sure. And then from the locations corner, some Gdańsk enthusiasts in Poland balked at the city’s portrayal as a site for C.I.A. black ops. In contrast, another secretive operation took place in my home state of Nevada (the scene filmed elsewhere) but no locals seemed to mind, perhaps inured to decades of assuming the place stored remains of space aliens.

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel), 1979 with young David Bennett playing a boy named Oskar who refuses to grow big during turbulent times in Gdańsk, Poland. Even before Nazis invade his Polish hometown, Oskar sees bad traits in adults and magically avoids growing large in this award-winning adaptation of a key novel by Günter Grass. Coming to terms with and making sense of horrors before and during the Nazi invasion of Poland proves understandably difficult, so Grass moves into the surreal and symbolic to reflect events, predating Oskar’s birth to a rape in potato fields and moving forward to sexual deceit, drunkenness, and other unappealing qualities in the people around the boy. The situation grows worse, and Oskar ultimately describes fellow residents as “a gullible people who believed in Santa Clause—but Santa Clause was really the gas man.” Despite his insights and ability to avoid the outer surface of adulthood, Oskar proves no more noble than grown-ups, dallying in his own illicit liaisons and eventually wearing the Nazi uniform. Difficult to admire as a person, Oskar operates as a creature of his times; like most stories set during war, The Tin Drum proves justifiably uncomfortable to watch, though director Volker Schlöndorff offers outstanding visuals and a strong sense of large-scale production values for recreating a Nazi rally, key battle, and flight aboard period trains. And while Oskar remains a cipher, he looks perfect in the guise of Bennett, whose growth disorder gave him more performance perspective than his size indicates. Given that Oskar’s mental growth eventually includes the mental mindset of a teenager, scenes include what looks like a little boy engaging knowledgably in sexual gymnastics, which led to a lawsuit when Oklahoma banned the film. The rest of the world proved more amenable, and the movie won both a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar as best foreign language film. Though produced and largely filmed in Germany, the story retains its original setting in Grass’s hometown Gdańsk (spelled Dansig in English subtitles) and the production team managed to capture real city locations despite Soviet filming restrictions. Set jetters spot the Gothic spires of St. Mary’s, the third largest Gothic brick church in the world.


A Hedgehog’s Journey,2016 with a hedgehog avoiding a creepy shadow on Mariehamn in Finland’s Åland Islands. Filmmaker Michael Stormbom’s 7+ minute short aired on regional television according to the Internet Movie Data Base, which lists it under projects filmed in Mariehamn. The short also streams on YouTube, where viewers discover that the real animal looks kinda cute but lacks the action energy of anyone in the Sonic Hedgehog franchise.


Autumn Sonata, 1978 with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann having it out one night in Sweden. Never one to present a laugh-fest, Director Ingmar Bergman looks into the soul of a mother-daughter combo full of cries, whispers, and angst. The premise requires talk, silence, watching, listening, and pondering the aftermath. Bergman the actress plays a professional concert pianist whose career takes her on the road away from family and motherly duties. Ullmann portrays the resentful daughter, settled in a warm home but dissatisfied with what came before. “How perfect” seems a logical response since both stars in their own lives pursued wildly successful careers that often took them away from their children. Yet each woman flailed against aspects of director Ingmar Bergman’s script, insisting it comes from a man’s vantage about his own issues, feelings of neglect from his mother plus distant relations with his eight children. Despite their disagreements with script and acting styles, the actresses delve into their characters, finding emotional truths and leaving actions open to interpretation. Both deserved best actress Oscar nominations, though only one resulted. It went to Bergman, whose legendary, superstar status eclipses Ullmann’s by quirk of fate rather than quality of work. Bergman and Bergman, represent Sweden’s biggest contribution to the world of cinema, though ironically, Autumn Sonata filmed in Ullmann’s home country, Norway.

Bergman Island, 2021 with Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth disagreeing about the country’s master director in Sweden. In a Marvel dominated universe, relationships can break up over arguments about the best entry in the franchise. With cinephiles, the films of Ingmar Bergman fertilize similar fodder, at least for the central couple in Mia Hansen-Løve’s ode to movie making legends and their followers. Roth and Krieps play directors, he both older and more successful than she. Business takes them to the Fårö Island home of Bergman for Roth to lecture while Krieps finds other diversions, much in the Swedish master’s style. Hansen-Løve’s script provides extra empathy for her women characters yet adds an element of understanding for the men so that the film offers insights into human behavior. It also demonstrates results of Bergman’s legacy in Sweden. Just as in the film, set-jetters can really take a “Bergman Safari” around Fårö, though non-cinephile visitors might prefer to simply ride a bike amidst the beautiful countryside shown in the film.

The Square, 2017 with Claes Bang facing challenges from Elisabeth Moss and the art world in Sweden. Satire often comes with painful barbs, and laughs include cringes in Ruben Östlund’s character study of human shallowness. Encouraging people to enter an exhibit’s square boundary, a museum’s lofty goal proclaims, “Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” Yet both in and out of the square, people behave abominably, repeatedly refusing to help one another—or worse, starting altercations. Bang, as the museum’s chief curator, exemplifies moral disconnect, proclaiming noble hopes while causing harm and neglect. As in his Force Majeure and Triangle of Sadness, Director Östlund comes up with memorable visuals, embodied by a performance art piece with a man behaving like an ape at a formal dinner. Full of ideas, many from his own experiences, Director Östlund runs his story well over two hours and demands both attention and patience from viewers. An Academy Award nominee as best foreign language film, The Square took top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Though the Stockholm Palace serves as inspiration for the movie’s museum set, jetters will find most of the film’s locations in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg.

Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 2009 with Noomi Rapace confronting Nordic Noir in Sweden. Hitting international best seller lists assured screen attention for Steig Larsson’s books that emphasize the darkness in Nordic Noir—and in his Swedish homeland. Brutal rapes, horrific torture, Nazi obsessions, an unsolved mystery, and serial killing fill a story the author originally called Män som hatar kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women. Larsson put a man in the lead, a journalist named Mikael Blomqvist from Millennium Magazine (which explains why the series also goes by The Millennium Trilogy). Audiences, however, focused on his antidote to misogyny, the title “Girl” a.k.a. Lisbeth Salander, whose skills as genius hacker reap retribution for herself and others. Salander acts like a David to the world’s many Goliaths and star Rapace shows toughness formed by scar tissue. Carrying a big chip on the shoulder of her tiny, anorexic frame, Salander bears the title marking and other Goth accoutrements. Brains and computer knowledge put her in league with Michael Niqvist as Blomqvist, and the duo’s unraveling of a cold case remains completely compelling under director Niels Arden Oplev, using well-framed images to introduce a family tree whose branches sprout like a tangle of weeds. The metaphorical weeds help cover a couple of plot holes that might otherwise seem obvious for the “locked room mystery” that lies at the plot’s core. The mystery’s solution delivered, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo needed no sequel. But sequels make money, and Larsson wrote two follow-ups that went into production for television immediately after Oplev finished the first screen entry. Daniel Afredson helmed follow-ups called The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which along with the first film aired as a mini-series in Sweden and eventually screened in United States theaters. A fan of the first book and film, I read and watched its sequels with reduced enthusiasm since events shift to a convoluted and contrived backstory for Salander rather than the first’s broader look at society. An annoying cliff hanger finale for the second film followed by too much talk in the last one’s trial scenes come off as gratuitous extensions rather than enlightening elaborations. The same goes for an add on by a different author after Larsson’s death called The Girl in the Spider’s Web, despite suitable casting and acting by Claire Foy. Set jetters can learn about book and movie locations in Stockholm, where guides conduct Dragon related tours three times a week. Stockholm’s Sodermalm district shows up in the first film.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2011 with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara speaking English and repeating the Nordic Noir adventures of Noomi Rapace in Sweden. A big budget helps The Girl’s redo look more impressive than the original, not necessarily making it a better film, but providing an impressive separate identity. Auteur director David Fincher, whose background in North American noir includes Se7en and Zodiac, puts his visual stamp on the project. Fincher benefits from cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who highlights shadows and silhouettes for a much richer look than found in the starker, early films. Shooting characters in profile works particularly well as Mara first arrives on screen, removing her motorcycle helmet to reveal an elaborate porcupine-mohawk hairstyle. Along with cinematography, music adds to the movie’s impact (and cost). I especially like the opening credits using Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” with its pounding beat and screams that suit the story on a couple of levels, including its setting in “the land of ice and snow” and fields that “whisper tales of gore.” Having money to hire a superstar like Daniel Craig adds box office cache, joined by supporting players Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgård. Despite Craig’s James Bondian status, the best role goes to the title character, an impressive creation in every iteration. Earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Mara’s hacker genius feels colder and scarier than Rapace in the earlier version. Mara’s Lisbeth might mean it as a scare tactic when proclaiming “I’m insane,” or perhaps she just wants to tell the truth. The harder edge and a few plot details stand apart from the first version without changing the basic thrust so that each film holds up well on its own. Though everyone speaks English, the remake takes place in Sweden and includes recognizable locations like the Stockholm Court House.

Let the Right One In, 2008 with vampire Lena Leandersson looking for a life partner in Sweden. Considering how many normal people find it hard to deal with cutting edge technology and the shifts it causes in just a decade, consider the difficulties forced on a vampire facing centuries of change. Writer John Ajvide Lindqvist set his imagination to work on the concept with a contemporary bloodsucker in his novel turned screenplay, including such topical issues as bullying. Bullies, he notes, should not ply their trade on vampires, though he presents this idea with no humor and lots of cringeworthy violence. Director Tomas Alfredson effectively visualizes Lindqvist’s concepts of a sad, nasty, and very bloody world, made more unsettling because the violence comes from kids. Perhaps more than vampirism, Let the Right One In explores extreme loneliness and gains extra heft from a wistful sense of longing for basic—though not necessarily human—connection. Alfredson maintains the book’s setting of Stockholm’s Blackeberg suburb, a monotonous and bleak mass of apartment blocks built to meet large community needs in the 1950s. Some of the movie shot there, though Örnäset stepped in for most filming. A United States remake moved events to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Summer with Monika, 1953 with Harriet Andersson frolicking in Swedish sun. Showing his flair for delving into real life anguish, director Ingmar Bergman creates a wistful piece about the fleeting nature of freedom from responsibility. So goes my respectful description of the breakout film by a cinematic master; back in the 1950s, marketers in the United States edited the film and retitled it Monika: Story of a Bad Girl, emphasizing that the title character runs around naked. For less than a minute, but quite a deal for a stodgy audience who believes Father Knows Best. The schlock version undercut the film’s true sensibility but played strongly enough to open international gateways for Bergman’s other projects like The Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander in the arthouse circuit, a tonic for audiences ready to challenge bourgeois values. Monika itself serves as a type of gateway film fo

r Bergman, leading him to further explore stories focusing on women’s emotions. It introduces the wonderful Andersson to his tribe of regular players (she made ten other films with him); she imbues Monika with petulance, sexuality, defiance, and regret that Bergman captures in the movie’s most famous shot, a long take where Andersson stares directly at the camera. Bergman moves his camera to catch action in a natural manner, heightened by a soundtrack featuring simple accordion music. The director enhances reality by shooting on location, his black-and-white film stock capturing striking contrasts of rock and water on the island of Ornö, where Monika and her boyfriend (played by Lars Ekborg) make their summer escape. Stockholm also fits in the story, with one character happy to return and proclaiming, “It’s a damned pretty city we live in.”

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