Bright Lights Film Journal

Porno to the People: The Danish Revolution That Liberated America

“Tease was out, honesty was in.”

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Few Americans remember, but forty years ago Denmark passed a revolutionary piece of legislation that brought an end to image (film and publication) censorship and branded the country as the most liberated society on Earth. (Take that, Sweden!) American film historian Jack Stevenson, a resident of Demark for 17 years, looks back at the chain of events that led up to this groundbreaking legislation, what the end result was and how it impacted sexual culture in America and brought a de facto end to film censorship there. (Stevenson’s book, Scandinavian Blue, is to be published by McFarland in early 2010 and this text serves as a kind of condensation of some of its broader themes.) – Ed.

That the 1960s was a ground-breaking chapter in Danish history goes without saying. Concepts pioneered at the time such as sexual liberation, gender equality and collectivism have had lasting impact. “Cultural warriors” on both sides of the ideological divide are still today arguing about the legacy of this pivotal era. As witnessed by all the anniversary reappraisals of 1968 that filled the Danish press in 2008, the ’60s is still very much in the public consciousness.

Danes are less aware of the impact their “revolution” had in foreign countries where one specific event, the abolition of censorship in the summer of 1969, quickly led to Denmark being hailed as the most sexually free society in the world. The news was carried to every corner of the globe by newspapers, magazines and especially film. Soon a host of documentaries, literary adaptations and erotic dramas were promoting the mythology of Denmark as ground zero of the global sexual revolution on the movie screens of the world.

This idea of Denmark as a carnal paradise was accepted more readily in America than almost anywhere else, and a handful of movies that are scarcely remembered today ended up taking God’s Own Country (as Danes call America) by storm.

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That Nordic folk were open-minded in sexual matters was not a new concept in the Anglo-Saxon world. This idea went back to the early ’50s when Swedish films like Hun dansede en sommernat (One Summer of Happiness, 1951); Sommeren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953) and Ogift Fader Sökes (Unmarried Mothers, 1953) lit up the screens of art houses and drive-ins alike. Through the ’50s and into the ’60s the stereotype of the sexually liberated Swedish blonde became firmly entrenched in American popular culture.

Denmark’s belated contribution to the cause of film freedom came in 1959 in the form of a drama entitled En Fremmed Banker På (A Stranger Knocks, 1959). Set during the occupation, it featured an act of intercourse (obscured by clothing) in which the woman reached climax, and while not a particularly big hit in the U.S., it was to have major impact on the laws governing American censorship. As Amos Vogel writes in his landmark work from 1974, Film as a Subversive Art, “the entire plot pivots on an act of intercourse, during which the woman accidentally discovers the vital clue to the film’s mystery. The complete absence of nudity and total relevance of the scene to the plot posed an impossible problem for the American censors, and led, upon appeals against its prohibition, to the abolition by the Supreme Court of the entire system of American state censorship in 1967. This development later contributed in a major way to sexual permissiveness in the American cinema.”

The first film to test the limits of this new permissiveness was also Danish: Jeg – en Kvinde: (I, A Woman). Produced by the prolific Peer Guldbrandsen, it was based on Siv Holm’s (aka Agenthe Thomsen’s) best-selling book of the same title from 1961 and would become the first true Scandinavian blockbuster of the ’60s. Shot in the summer of 1965, the Danish press dubbed it the most daring movie ever filmed on home soil, “half pornographic.” When it opened in Denmark on September 17 of the same year, it was ridiculed by reviewers but proved wildly popular with the public. Its review in Variety caught the attention of American distributor Radley Metzger, who flew to Copenhagen and purchased world rights for a paltry sum. He went on to sell the film to 35 separate territories, and profits from the picture allowed him to launch his own filmmaking career. (Guldbrandsen would be derided for years by pundits in the Danish film world for making one of the worst deals in film history.)

This tale of a single woman who insists on having a free sexual life without commitment provoked endless scandal in America where shows were stopped by police in several states and theatre employees were jailed, despite the fact that the U.S.-released print had the four raciest scenes censored out of it. Dragged into court in various cities, the film was invariably cleared by juries. To the dismay of moralists and the film establishment, it went on to play in many “respectable” theatres. It set box office records, becoming the most popular Danish film to date and redefining how female sexuality was depicted in film.

Debate about erotic freedom was evolving on a more complex level in Denmark than in America, as revealed by the next significant Danish film to deal with sexual topics, Knud Leif Thomsen’s Gift, from the following year. This was the tale of an arrogant young man who insinuates himself into a well-to-do family by seducing the teenage daughter and then confronting her parents with his aggressively hedonist philosophies, a kind of “gospel of the flesh.” It was released in Denmark in late March of 1966 and imported to the States in January of 1968 as Venom. This was no plug for sexual liberation but rather a dire warning about the younger generation’s lack of spiritual awareness and addiction to pornography. Downbeat stuff, that, so the Americans just glossed over its message and promoted it as the latest “sex-sation” from Denmark – even though in its (universally) censored version there was nary a flash of bare skin. Several prominent American critics managed to see through the hype and what they saw they liked. The New York Times found its generation gap theme to be of particular interest and rated the acting first-class, while Archer Winsten, a major critic who wrote for The New York Post, declared it to be one of the best foreign films of the year. Playboy called it honest and clear-sighted, a jolt of “shock therapy.”

It had received very different treatment from Danish reviewers – close to total condemnation, in fact. But crowds were massive, drawn by the widely reported news that Thomsen had intended to incorporate actual hardcore porn into the film. This had touched off a very public brawl with the censorship board, which finally agreed not to cut out the offending scenes but to obscure them with large white Xs. Whatever its artistic merit or lack thereof, Gift managed to set in motion a wider discussion on censorship in Denmark, and ironically a film that was preaching against pornography proved instrumental in ending censorship a few years down the road.

The nuances of these issues were largely lost on Americans, who insisted on seeing sexual liberation as a simple matter of the freedom to fuck, and anyway Sweden still remained firmly branded in the Anglo-Saxon consciousness as the homeland of open-mindedness. This was thanks in large part to Americans’ notorious inability to visualize Denmark on the world map and the fact that Swedish films were much bigger hits. Jeg er Nysgerrig – gul (I Am Curious Yellow, 1967), for example, grossed somewhere between 10 and 20 million dollars in the States compared to 3 million for I, A Woman. Actually most Americans thought that was a Swedish film too, due to its having a Swedish director-photographer (Mac Ahlberg) and star (Essy Persson), and technically being a Danish-Swedish co-production. Denmark was still very much overshadowed by Sweden.

All that changed in the summer of 1969, when Denmark passed legislation abolishing censorship and threw a huge “coming-out’ party called SEX 69, a porn trade fair that attracted 100,000 paid admissions and 200 foreign journalists. Visitors wandered awestruck amongst the forest of dildoes, cascades of dirty magazines, blow-up dolls and other rubber goods Danish producers could now openly offer, while striptease “happenings” sprang to life around them.

In one fell swoop Denmark had stolen the spotlight from its neighbour across the Øresund Strait. Sexuality in Swedish films had always been depicted with naturalism (nude swims in the moonlight, winds blowing through wheat fields, etc.) or via the bleak existentialism of Bergman, most prominently on display in The Silence, and suddenly all of this felt very old-fashioned. What was suddenly modern was hard-core porn; sweaty and unapologetic with all the grunts, groans and slapping bodies intact. Tease was out, honesty was in. No matter that Sweden had been producing hard-core porn for years without a fuss; what was happening in Denmark had the feel of a revolution, and this was a rebellion steeped in philosophy and not just commercialism.

But America wasn’t quite ready for hard-core porn, and the first film to be imported after Denmark passed its landmark legislation was the decidedly soft-core Uden en Trævl (Without A Stitch), which had actually been produced in 1968. Based on the 1966 novel by the Norwegian writer Jens Bjørneboe, it starred leggy new discovery Anne Grete Nissen, who played Lilian, an erotically inhibited high school girl who hitchhikes through Europe seeking sexual experience. It was made by Palladium, which picked Annelise Meineche to direct. They were hoping she could recreate the box office magic of her 1965 hit Sytten (Soya’s 17), but Danish critics deemed it a ridiculous embarrassment to the sexual revolution, one critic even blasting it as “counter-revolutionary.” Bjørneboe was also unhappy. His book had been about open-mindedness and sexual equality, and was intended as a blow against Norwegian-style authoritarianism – and Palladium had turned it into “glad porn.”

   

Obscenity charges kept the film on ice in the U.S. through most of 1969, but in December a jury found it not obscene and, surprisingly, it was approved for release without any cuts. The uncensored version opened in January 1970 in New York at Loew’s flagship theatre on Broadway, and crowds streamed in to see it. Without a Stitch completed the trend that I, A Woman had started: soft-core films playing in respectable mainstream theatres.

Once again American critics saw things in a completely different light. Here reviewers from The New York Times to the Village Voice to The New York Post and even Screw magazine were won over by Nissen’s good looks and didn’t bother to quibble about nuances like the film’s underlying philosophy. Here, finally, was a sex film that gave the viewer his money’s worth!

Conservative Americans thought otherwise. They found the message and spirit of the film highly offensive even though it was technically a soft-core picture shot in a cheerful style. A judge in California declared that “the English language does not provide adjectives sufficient to describe the utter rottenness of this sordid product of subhuman depravity and greed that portrays every known form of sexual perversion.” Industry figures also railed against it, most notably MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) boss Jack Valenti, who called it pornographic trash unsuited to be advertised in poster display cases.

But advertised it was, and aggressively so. “You have never seen it photographed before!” screamed a full page in the Village Voice. “This is the first film to enter the U.S. from Denmark since its liberalization of permissiveness! Denmark – the country that had already gained a reputation of being the world’s most permissive – has gone one step further . . . American audiences of the ’70s may be astounded and shocked by Denmark’s newest motion picture, Without a Stitch, which makes I Am Curious Yellow instantly obsolete. But more so, it’s a good movie. One that American audiences will like, understand and enjoy. Women will empathize and identify with the beautiful heroine. Men will immediately love her.”

If American moralists thought nothing could be worse than Uden en Trævl, they were in for a big surprise. Ratings boards like the MPAA had less and less power to determine what was shown in theatres, and courts almost always ruled in favour of the films. The last vestiges of American screen censorship, in force since the establishment of the Production Code of 1934, were about to fall, and once again the movies responsible for this came from Denmark.

A number of American filmmakers had travelled to the SEX 69 convention, and, not content to let Danish directors monopolize the field, they had shot reams of 16mm footage from which they would fashion their own films about the sex-mad Danes. These would be tailored specifically for the American market, and most never even opened in Denmark.

Relatively chaste films like Without a Stitch were suddenly out of style as viewers demanded increasingly explicit fare. Soon hundreds of porn films were surfacing with “Danish” or “Copenhagen” in the title. Many were cheap frauds that had nothing to do with the country, but a few would turn out to be deeply influential on American sexual morality and the course of film censorship.

On June 17, 1970, The New York Times’ leading film critic, Vincent Canby, reviewed one such film, Censorship in Denmark, by Alex de Renzy. It was an explicit documentary that mixed footage of Copenhagen tourist attractions with on-the-street interviews and hardcore scenes from the city’s live sex clubs and movies. This was the first time that a major American paper had ever reviewed a movie that contained scenes of coitus, fellatio and cunnilingus – and had even reviewed it sympathetically.

Four days later Canby followed up with a larger article headlined “Have You Tried Danish Blue?” It appeared right next to a review of Rudolf Nureyev’s latest ballet, and in it Canby discussed all three of the Danish sex films then playing in New York. In addition to Censorship in Denmark, they included John Lamb’s Sexual Freedom in Denmark and Wide Open Copenhagen 1970. This coverage in America’s most respected daily paper instantly legitimized these movies and made it permissible for middle-class audiences to attend. Porn was no longer just for perverts. By contextualizing it as a Danish social phenomenon, filmmakers were able to equate porn with all sorts of deeper political and sociological rationales and to fashion their movies as serious documentaries, which would help them dodge heat from the law. Tone meant everything. Furthermore, the court cases that Lamb’s and de Renzy’s films were inevitably caught up in set precedents that helped usher in the era of hardcore as a theatrical experience.

These films conveyed to Americans the mythology of Danes as radically liberated and sexually insatiable yet somehow completely matter-of-fact about it all. Americans were only too happy to believe this, and the films also had a certain exotic allure as they were as close as most Yanks would ever get to Copenhagen, a city that many still thought was the capital of Sweden or Holland. For their part, Danes were at best only dimly aware of how they were being perceived since most of these films never played in Denmark.

In 1972, with the production of films like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat, America’s own porn industry came of age, and the country’s fascination with Danish sexuality began to fade. Danish sexploitation cinema, which lasted roughly from 1965 to 1975, was fuelled by co-production arrangements with foreign partners who hoped to cash in on the sex wave, and when Danish skin flicks fell out of fashion they stopped investing. In fact, when the two above-mentioned erotic films came to Denmark, Danes were the ones being fascinated, hailing them as far more daring and quality conscious than any Danish erotic film to date. Already back in 1970, the American porn trailblazer Mona had forced some Danes in the industry to concede that it was “far better than what has previously been seen from Swedish and Danish producers. . . . The USA is better at porno than we are.”

Denmark was to most Americans still a mythical land of liberation, but now the censorship barriers had been smashed and the yoke of ’50s repression had been cast off. By the mid-’70s, even Catholic countries like France had their own hard-core porn industries.

Yet Danish films like Jeg – en Kvinde (I, A Woman), Uden en trævl (Without a Stitch), Sonja – 16 år (Relations – the Love Story From Denmark), and Det Kærlige Legetøj (Danish Blue), and the above-mentioned films shot by American directors (which also must include Frigjorte Christa, aka Swedish Fly Girls, by the American Jack O’Connell), were critically important to America’s sexual coming of age. Unbeknownst to most Danes, and still disrespected or simply ignored by today’s Danish film establishment, these movies helped make America a much more sexually progressive society.