When Dreyer made his first short film for Dansk Kulturfilm, he had been on involuntary hiatus from filmmaking for more than 10 years. From 1942 to 1949 he directed eight shorts and was in involved in the pre-production of another five.
The term kulturfilm (culture film) originates from a German tradition. Ufa in 1918 started a "Kulturfilmabteilung" that produced information films for distribution alongside the usual cinema repertoire. A sharp distinction was made between objective educational films for classroom use, Unterrichtsfilm, and more freely interpretive Kulturfilm for public information and propaganda purposes. The term did not acquire a negative connotation until after World War II.
The founding of Dansk Kulturfilm
Founded in 1932, Dansk Kulturfilm was inspired by the fascistic agendas of German and Italian film systems (LUCE). However, in the parliamentary reading of the bill for the new Danish Film Act that became effective 1933, these agendas were softened by Danish social-democratic cultural policy (inspired by the AOF, the Workers Education League, founded 1924). Thomas P. Hejle (1891-1952), an educator who had founded Dansk Skolescene (Danish School Stage) in 1924, was put in charge of Dansk Kulturfilm.
Before 1934, Dansk Kulturfilm did not include representation from circles of users of film. Its economic foundation was supplied by a provision in the Film Act of 1933, stating that proceeds from Filmcensuren (the Film Censorship Board) could be used to fund public information and culture films. Funds that would otherwise have been paid by the film industry to the state were now allocated to the funding of film purposes. This arrangement was amended in 1938 with the founding of Filmsfonden (the Film Fund), which would collect considerably greater revenues from entertainment taxes on cinemas. Until the Film Act of 1964, these revenues financed Dansk Kulturfilm, Statens Filmcentral (a distribution entity founded in 1938) and Ministeriernes Filmudvalg (MFU, the Ministerial Film Committee, emerging in 1944 out of the so-called Beskæftigelsesudvalg (Employment Committee) of 1941 for the explicit purpose of producing short state propaganda films for theatrical distribution).
Partnership and organisation
The Occupation spurred the production of Danish short films modelled on the German Kulturfilm scheme. In 1941, Denmark’s short-film scheme was organised directly under a state Kortfilmudvalg (Short Film Committee), consisting of Hejle (representing Dansk Kulturfilm and Statens Filmcentral), two representatives of Filmsraadet, representatives of the Justice and Foreign Ministries, plus Fællesrepræsentationen for Danske Biografejere (the Joint Representation of Danish Cinema Owners). They would have a partnership with invited representatives of the film industry, initially Nordisk Film, Palladium, ASA, Dansk Films Co. and Turistforeningens Filmudvalg (the Tourist Board Film Committee). The companies produced short films to be screened before certain Danish features at cinemas. Daily production management was put in the hands of Mogens Skot-Hansen (1908-1984), an ardent cineaste who has head of section at the Ministry of Education.
Dreyer makes his first short
Carl Th. Dreyer made his debut as a short-film director with Good Mothers (1942), working from his own script, 10 years after his last film, the French-German Vampyr (1932), and 17 years after his last Danish film. Ebbe Neergaard, Dreyer’s most tireless promoter, narrated the film, which was considered one of the better Danish propaganda films. In 1947, the MFU had the film adapted into an English version that was included in Arthur Elton and Skot-Hansen’s Social Denmark series, five films introducing the Danish welfare state to its former allies. Even so, no new short film assignments for Dreyer were immediately forthcoming. On the other hand, the producer Tage Nielsen preserved Palladium’s production license by hiring Dreyer to direct a feature for the studio, Day of Wrath (1943). Dreyer was the perfect seal of cultural quality, and the Ministry of Justice let the studio keep its production license, which allowed Palladium to screen its films in its own first-run cinema.
Dreyer’s problematic water well film
After his Swedish fiasco in 1945 with the feature Two People, Dreyer returned to Skot-Hansen’s patronage at Dansk Kulturfilm. In 1946 (with Preben Frank Film), again working from his own script, Dreyer directed Water from the Land, attempting to jazz up a heavy agricultural subject. Henrik Malberg narrated as an overbearing and slowly comprehending, aha-whistling Copenhagen city slicker who, aided by experts, gains insight into farmers’ unsanitary well conditions and recognises the advantages of establishing local waterworks. Concerned that the film would hurt agricultural exports, the Ministry of Agriculture, via a powerful Ministry Justice head of division, Vilhelm Boas, had the film shelved and it was never screened to the public.
Dreyer’s collected short film production
In 1946, Ib Koch-Olsen (1914-1993), state radio programme director, was named production manager of both Dansk Kulturfilm and the MFU. The same year Hejle retired as director of Statens Filmcentral and was succeeded by Ebbe Neergaard (1901-1957). From the film industry, Koch-Olsen hired Carl Th. Dreyer, Jørgen Roos (1922-1988) and Søren Melson (1916-1984) for Dansk Kulturfilm/MFU as contract directors, screenwriters, directors of photography and editors.
Dreyer’s first one-year term, starting in 1947, coincided with his ongoing negotiations to realise his Jesus film project abroad. All the same, the director managed to make a substantial contribution to Danish short films until 1956, directing and writing eight titles, penning three scripts for other directors, treating Otto Schrayh’s 1929 documentary, Radioens Barndom (Radio's Childhood) (for Dansk Kulturfilm and the Berlingske Tidende newspaper in 1949) and coming up with the idea for Bent Barfod’s animated film Noget om Norden (Something about the North) (1956).
At the time, Dreyer’s short films were largely considered a kind of job creation projects for the otherwise unemployed filmmaker, which is rather unfair. Dreyer’s collaboration with Jørgen Roos, who shot They Caught the Ferry (Nordisk Film for Dansk Kulturfilm/MFU 1948), revealed new dynamic aspects of Dreyer, and his collaboration with Preben Frank, who shot The Storstrøm Bridge (1950), shows an unexpected fascination with the aesthetics of modern architecture.