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Henning Carlsen: A Remembrance

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Henning Carlsen, the Danish film director, died on May 30 shortly before his 87th birthday. I first heard of Henning Carlsen in the early 90s when I was teaching a course on the fiction of Knut Hamsun and wondered if there were a film based on his novel, Hunger. In fact, there was and it was directed by Carlsen in 1966 to international acclaim. A kind of mediation between Carl Dreyer (whom he admired immensely) and Billie August, I found Carlsen's work to be decidedly literary especially for someone who dropped out of school to work with the Resistance. Though he had been directing since the early '50s, he gained international recognition with the feature, Dilemma based on Nadine Gordimer's novel, A World of Strangers, which garnered the Grand Prize at Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in 1962.

Through a rather convoluted set of circumstances, I contacted him about obtaining a copy of Hunger which he graciously and promptly sent. Since then I have screened the film countless times and each time I truly marvel at the artistry with which he directed the film and the unfettered allegiance to Hamsun's narrative; however, we didn't actually meet until he came to the United States in 1992 to collaborate on a script with Buck Henry based on Vonnegut's novel, Jailbird. Unfortunately, the film never got made, but we went out a couple of times and I enjoyed his persona since Carlsen had that kind of personality that was cantankerous in the most pleasing way. Never disingenuous, the white beard and glasses should not have led one to believe that he was Santa-like. To the contrary, he could, on occasion, be very un-Santa-like. I found that out one evening in 1996 while staying with him and his wife, Else, in Copenhagen.

After dinner in a dining room the walls of which were painted in magnificent circus-like surrealistic frescoes by the Danish painter, Jeppe Eisner, we chatted about the recent film of his, Two Green Feathers, based on Hamsun's novel, Pan. Somewhat animated, he was seriously talking about the lack of United States distribution for the film. Trying to be supportive, I mentioned that I had seen it being screened at several film festivals in the United States. As I recall, that particular statement sent him into a mild frenzy. Flushed, he then proceeded to decry the ways and means in which United States distributors controlled how foreign films were screened in the States which was totally contrary to any presumed Santa-like nature. Of that there was no disagreement, and one could tell that for Carlsen, as for many other European directors, the U.S. monopoly on what got distributed and seen and what did not was clearly vexing for him.

The last time we met was in 2004. Once again, it was in Copenhagen and he was eager for me to read his new script, Springet (I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now) which he was submitting for funding through the Danish Film Board. Immediately after breakfast he sat me down next to him and we began to go through the script together page by page on an Apple monitor that seemed inordinately huge. But with Carlsen one had little choice. If he said sit down and listen to the script, one sat down and listened. His directness was something I admired about him. As he translated the entire script, I carefully took notes and at the end I gave my opinion which, in fact, he politely dismissed. You see, Carlsen was always cordial in his own Carlsenian way. One couldn't take dismissals personally. His character was forthright. Perhaps, that's part of the Danish character. That is, to be frank about something which should not, but often is, associated with rudeness.

It must have been several years later that Carlsen emailed me in order to send me a DVD of Springet and wanted to know if I could get him an address of Garcia Marquez's agent since he wanted to obtain the rights to Memoria de mis putas tristes (Memories of My Melancholy Whores) and he knew I taught at García Márquez's film school outside of Havana. As I recall, García Márquez's agent was Carmen Balcells who pretty much handled anyone who was anyone in Latin America and whose reputation was that she was not an easy person to deal with. I mentioned that to him and with his typical Carlsen aplomb dismissed it by saying, "That's probably because they're Americans." Once again, I couldn't really disagree with him. Apparently, Balcells didn't suffer fools and Americans lightly, but Carlsen was neither.

Dutifully, I contacted María Julia Grillo, the director at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV, who graciously and promptly sent me García Márquez's address which I forwarded to Carlsen after which I heard nothing. It was Carlsen's last film and in retrospect in many ways, I think his best. I recall a Variety review by Jonathan Holland in which he wrote the "business will be slow for an item whose sexual politics will be just too retro for many to handle." But who else was better suited than Carrière (81 at the time) and Carlsen (85 at the time) to tell the visual narrative of a 90-year old man who didn't want to die without experiencing true love. The argument that not enough of García Márquez's "magical realism" was "transferred to the screen" doesn't account for the manner in which Carlsen directed the film. I never had an opportunity to ask Carlsen to comment on that review, but had I done so I'm certain his answer would have been, "If he's never adapted the film then what in the hell would he know about it." Those of us who knew Henning Carlsen will miss him.