“What would I use as a metaphor for the best part of my life if there were no longer any sweets?”

—Yoko Tawada translated by Susan Bernofsky  



No holiday in Copenhagen is complete without a visit to a traditional Danish pølsevogn, or hotdog wagon. As a vegetarian teenager beginning to study Danish in the early 1990s, I vividly remember the smell wafting from the pølsevogn on every street corner or town square as I backpacked across the country. The red-coloured sausages wobbling from each end of the distinctive hollow white-bread buns, the gherkins, the double layer of onion garnish (both fried and freshly chopped), the mustardy mayonnaise called remoulade squirted the length of the pølse from yellow plastic bottles, sometimes alongside a squiggle of red sauce—all this was emblematic of a culture and a language that was as strange and foreign to me at that time as the thought of eating meat.

It was many years later that I found myself ordering from a pølsevogn on Copenhagen’s grand Rådhuspladsen (Town Hall Square). It was around 3 a.m., and my tipsy and ravenous companions were astonished that I had no idea that such a thing as a vegetarpølse existed. The vegetarian pølse: the perfect metaphor for a culture I have spent almost three decades chewing over, absorbing, knowing that I’ll never really taste the real thing.

A grill bar near Lergravsparken metro station in Copenhagen.

As an aficionado of Danish cinema, I had long known that the country enjoyed two “golden ages” of film: a productive period in the 1910s, dominated by erotic melodrama, sci-fi and other popular genres, that were exported to the world, and the late-1990s flowering of Dogme 95 and high-quality middlebrow fare. Nonetheless, I was surprised to learn a few years ago that mid-twentieth century film in Denmark was notable not just for the long career of the illustrious director Carl Th. Dreyer, but by another hidden history of cinema: the kulturfilm, or informational film. Hundreds of short films were made between the 1930s and the 1960s, commissioned by government ministries, charities and other organisations on topics as diverse as public health, medieval architecture, housekeeping, science, and silversmithing. Such films were made to inform and persuade rather than to entertain, but many of them fulfilled their function precisely by being diverting, amusing, or beautiful. They were seen in cinemas, in public, and in private screenings by Danes, and they were exported around the world—aoften in multiple foreign-language versions—as a means of marketing Denmark as a progressive and productive country.

Though Danish bacon may be the country’s most famous product, in the years after World War II, considerable quantities of 16mm film were distributed across the globe. And sometimes these two exports overlapped. In the light of a portable projector or cinema screen, audiences at home and abroad learned about pig farming and slaughter, about the resulting bacon and pork, their by-products in science and industry, and the cooperative institutions and new technologies used to ensure efficiency and cleanliness. The pig industry, then, functioned as an emblem of a modern and egalitarian Denmark.

Oddly enough, the first film ever produced by the organisation that would oversee this informational film production, Dansk Kulturfilm, focused on Copenhagen’s meatpacking district. Kødbyen (Meat Town), filmed by schoolteacher H. Andersen in 1936, unflinchingly shows the slaughter and processing of a variety of livestock in the Danish capital’s purpose-built, efficient facilities [view the film here].  There is no record of the film ever having been screened in schools or exported; it simply disappears from the  company ledgers, perhaps because its documentary approach to the last moments of the animals was too raw even for audiences of the time. Today, the Kødbyen area is a cluster of trendy restaurants and bars - an unmissable part of any foodie’s Copenhagen holiday.

More sophisticated is documentarist Theodor Christensen’s two-part informational film about the by-products of the pig industry, made at the tail-end of the German occupation of Denmark (1940-45) as one of a number of films showcasing Danish industries. Elvira - et svin efter døden (Elvira - a Pig after Death) demonstrates how different parts of the pig in the slaughterhouse become essential raw materials in a range of products and medicines: pancreas glands are used in insulin production, bones are cooked down into gelatine. The film juxtaposes production of  traditional sausage medisterpølse with the use of guts in tennis racket strings. And all of this is mediated by the departed Elvira herself, her carcass shown in the dehairing machine amongst a montage of veterinarians, butchers and scientists. Looking through Theodor Christensen’s papers, I was amused to find his own doodle of Elvira (see below). More interesting was the film project’s working title in his notebooks: Hele Danmarks sparegris, literally “all of Denmark’s piggy bank.” There is a pun in the word “sparegris” that suggests that to use every part of the animal was to be frugal, mapping graspable family finances on to the national scale, and one anthropomorphised pig on to the six million creatures which, the film tells us, were farmed in Denmark every year to end up in sausages, fishing bait and lipsticks. A kind of mid-century “nose to tail” principle, perhaps.

Christensen's doodle of Elvira.

Christensen's doodle of Elvira.

In August 1952 at the Edinburgh International Documentary Film Festival, audiences could see not one but two Danish films about pigs. Theodor Christensen had made another bacon-centric film called The Pattern of Cooperation (1952), this time with voiceover by a British sports commentator for the international market. As its title suggests, this 23-minute film traces the Danish tradition of managing agricultural production on a cooperative basis. Foreign audiences from Canada to New Zealand responded warmly to the film’s humanistic sketch of the idealism of real farmers. Christensen himself conceived and planned the film as part of the tradition of Danmarksfilm, or films mapping the nation and its culture. As such, The Pattern of Cooperation emphasises the movement of delivery vans and agricultural goods across the country and beyond; the spin and gleam of an individual milk churn or the journey of an egg to the breakfast table are as much a part of the collaborative fabric as the farmer’s pencil across his accounts ledger. In one draft of the screenplay, Christensen and his co-writer Svend Methling comment on how the individual farmer and his livestock stand as metonyms for a much more far-reaching pattern:

The film seeks to depict the co-operative movement in great circles, like a cycle that completes itself not just once, but again and again [...] Humanity is a worn-out word, but in this visually rather uncomplicated film, the interest is held by the tension between the human on the one hand and all the larger matters on the other: foreign trade, society, parliament, democracy, history. In the face of these great issues our only tool is the individual; the film’s tension and resolution is thus created by showing again and again, circle after circle, that the individual—farmer or co-operative—does not act as a bottleneck, but, perhaps surprisingly for many, contributes greatly to progress towards solving the “great” problems of the day.

This principle reaches its fullest expression in the film towards the end, when Christensen and his cameraman again visit a slaughterhouse; this time, there is no sentient Elvira, only an endless corridor of uniform carcasses moving on hooks through the factory after thorough testing for health and safety and hand-stamping as explicitly Danish produce. For the Edinburgh reviewers, familiar with Christensen’s artistry—deeply influenced by the British Documentary Movement—there was nothing incongruous about a film on cooperative bacon production competing at an international film festival. The Scotsman, for example, dubbed the film “another capable journalistic job from Christensen who enlivens his narrative with a few of the tricks that he and his countrymen love—moving cameras mounted on trucks or trains and a modernistic musical accompaniment with a satisfying amount of percussion”. The Pattern of Cooperation can be viewed in its entirety via this link, and a longer article about it can be found in the journal Kosmorama (see Thomson and Hilson 2014).

Also screening at Edinburgh the same year was a short film by Jørgen Roos, who had worked as Theodor Christensen’s cameraman and belonged to a Danish family of several filmmakers. Den strømlinede gris (The Streamlined Pig, 1951), as summarised by a reviewer in News Chronicle,  “explains, with the utmost precision and not a little wit, why and how the evolution of the Danish pig as the world’s perfect pork bearer was accomplished.” As its title suggests, Roos’ film, too, works as a paean to the modernity of the Danish pork and bacon industry, jollied along with a swing score and photography that renders porcine and human subjects with studied interest and sympathy (stills can be seen here: http://www.dfi.dk/faktaomfilm/film/da/2933.aspx?id=2933). The Streamlined Pig was one of four Danish informational shorts made in the early 1950s under the auspices of U.S. Marshall Aid. While Europe as a whole was rebuilding itself in both cultural and economic terms, the aid funded similar films in a swathe of European languages that documented and encouraged examples of good industrial practice on a national scale. A row about the alleged communist tendencies of the Danish documentarists (see Kobberrød Rasmussen 2013) led to the American sponsors officially disowning the films, but they nonetheless circulated both in Denmark and abroad, consolidating the self-image of the Danes as a progressive people applying streamlined production techniques to traditional industry.

If informational and documentary filmmaking provided detailed insight into the pig as process and product, the moving image was also put to use with the much less lofty goal of simply selling pølser to cinemagoers. A three-minute animated advertisement from 1948 furnishes an example of how medieval as well as modern mythologies coalesce in the figure of the Danish pig. Gudernes gris (The Pig of the Gods, 1948) promotes the ‘Steff’ brand of hotdog to peckish post-war audiences. Steff-Houlberg is still Denmark’s biggest pølse franchise, owned these days by the internationally recognised brand Tulip, but dating back to 1921 as an operator of snack vans and grill bars (Tulip 2016). The advert Gudernes gris is set in a cartoon Valhalla in the clouds, where hungry Viking warriors demand some kind of new fare from their cooks. The conceit relies on the Danish viewers’ knowledge of Old Norse cosmology, for the pig that stars in this particular advert is based on the mythological creature Sæhrímnir. This boar was killed and eaten every night by the gods and warriors, re-materialising the next day to provide sustenance anew. Steff pølser’s version of Sæhrímnir has an engagingly expressive cartoon face and a helpful “CUT HERE” instruction tattooed on its constantly re-generating rump. To sate the appetite of the novelty-seeking Vikings, the pig magically transforms itself from a creature of flesh and blood from which pork steaks are carved into a whirring, steaming mechanical beast, dispensing sausages from its clean metal flank. This metamorphosis, and indeed the advert in its entirety, can be viewed here.

That the figure of the mechanical, streamlined, industrialised pig can hold its own alongside a creature of Old Norse mythology for a mid-century audience speaks to the ongoing transformation of Denmark’s national narrative. The films I have picked out here represent one specific plot thread in a much broader story about how this small Northern European nation emerged from Nazi occupation as a progressive, democratic, efficient, and modern country. If, as Theodor Christensen mused in the screenplay notes quoted above, the individual is the primary tool for filmmakers to explore the great issues of the day, the individual need not be a human—Elvira and her nameless, streamlined porcine sisters stand as engaging ciphers for the kind of fusion of agrarian and modern culture that the mechanised Sæhrímnir encapsulates. This story of modernising Denmark was a story for domestic and international consumption. It was encoded on strips of 16mm film as they travelled the international film circuit, but was also wordlessly embedded in the tasty, uniform rashers of Danish bacon on the breakfast plates of the world, and in the pølser served up from Steff-Houlberg vans to peckish passers-by on all the street corners of Denmark.


Kobberrød Rasmussen, Mathias (2013): The Marshall films and the red short film gang, Kosmorama 250 http://www.kosmorama.org/ServiceMenu/05-English/Articles/The-Marshall-Films-and-the-Red-Short-Film-Gang.aspx.

Thomson, C. Claire and Hilson, Mary (2014): Beauty in Bacon: "The Pattern of Co-operation" and the export of postwar Danish democracy. Kosmorama 255, http://www.kosmorama.org/Artikler/Beauty-in-Bacon.aspx.

Tulip (2016). ‘Steff-Houlberg Fastfood’. http://www.tulip.dk/om-tulip/kontakt/fast-food/steff-houlberg-fastfood/. Accessed 12 July 2017.