1864 BBC 4 iPlayer.
The Germans always win. I’ve spent eight hours on a Saturday night watching the clock wind down – and you got it, the Germans won. They won so decisively against the Danes that their king, in defeat, tried to join the German Confederation. The Machiavellian Bismark joked with his Emperor that they didn’t speak German, and anyway the Danes were a sour lot and soon they’d been turning their defeat into a kind of victory. But this is to jump the gun.
In the first episode the Laust and Peter’s father returns to South Funen to work the land. It’s 1851 and although he’s been injured in the three-year war against Prussia who had attempted to annex Schleswig into their nation, but had been unsuccessful. The Danes had been the victors sowing the seeds of nationalism and jingoism that were to grow arms and legs later. Into the closed world of peasants and aristocracy comes Inge, daughter of the estate manager, who runs the land holdings for the baron up at the big house. Inge is a tomboy, Adam and Eve, and the catalyst for change. Didrich, the baron’s son, has also returned from the war against Prussia, an officer, but not a gentleman, his rank has outfaced his cowardice and disgrace. His frog-like face arrogant manner and his attempts to seduce Inge whilst she is still a girl identifies him as the baddie.
War, of course, is the real villain. 1864 is narrated through Inge’s dairy. She tells of her great love for Laust and Peter, and equally them for her. She exchanges heated kisses with both, but with the former she had a bastard child.
The modern back-story is told by Claudia, an outsider like Inge, who refuses to play the game and conform, whose brother a soldier has been killed in another pointless war in Afghanistan. Severin, the old man she tries to take nurse and take care of in the big dilapidated house that was once the Funen estate, loved Inge and wants to re-hear the story of that time. Claudia finds through the narrative that they are related. She has inherited the gypsy blood of Sofia, who was raped by Didrich and had a son Peter, the same name as her great, great, great, grandfather and one of the two great loves of Inge’s life.
The road to war is marked by Macbeth, or more precisely Lady Macbeth played by the acclaimed theatre actress of the time, Johan Louise Heidrich, swapping blood-red hands with the future Prime Minster Monrad. The declaration of war against Prussia, when it comes, is celebrated across Denmark. Laust and Peter are swept away and forced to enlist. Didrich tries to winkle his way out of it, but he too is caught in the jingoistic net. All from Funen are sure to meet up again. It’s all about honour or such naff notions of nations that has modern resonance.
As Auden put it “When Statesman Gravelly Say, ‘we must be relistic’./ The chances are that they’re weak, and therefore, pacifistic,/ But when they speak of Principles, look out, perhaps/ Their generals are already pouring over the maps.”
The principle here is that the citizens of Schleswig should speak Danish, should be Danish, even though they speak German. The great bulwark against German expansionism at Dannevirk cannot be breached, will not be breached. It is abandoned by the Danish generals as indefensible.
Monrad and the king demand a greater sacrifice of the young. Dybbol with its connotations of damnation cannot be breached, will not be breached. It’s 1864 and we know the denouement will be bloody as Jaws after a shipwreck.
One of the great characters in this is Johan. He has seen the first war against the Prussians and is involved in the second war against the German Confederation. He can see so much more, what will happen in the future. A messianic wanderer that has attached himself to Laust and Peter and their colleague’s wellbeing. Johan can kill or cure, but even with his foresight, he cannot save the unsaveable Laust from the wandering soldier that will ultimately kill him.
Didrich, of course, survives. His lies live on and he marries his great love Inge, telling her the Laust and Peter are dead. Peter returns from the grave and claims little Laust from the orphanage where he has been held in an act of spite.
I love Danish drama such as this. This is the bones. Put the flesh on it and watch it yourself. What’s eight-hours in your life?