In Danish director Charlotte Sieling’s Margrete: Queen Of The North (Margrete den første, 2021), Denmark, Norway, and Sweden have entered into a peace-oriented union, orchestrated by Margrete (Trine Dyrholm). Ruling through her adopted son Erik (Morten Hee Andersen), the Kalmar Union, as well as a marriage being brokered with England, is threatened when Margrete’s biological son Oluf, believed to be dead, returns.
In conversation with PopMatters, Sieling and Dyrholm discuss reinvigorating the clichés of the middle ages to tell a modern story out of the past.
The questions this film raises interest us more than answers, and as much as we’d like to solve this intriguing incident, is it better that it’s left as a mystery?
Charlotte Sieling: When we were writing, we tried the approach of not knowing who Oluf was, but we realised the movie had to take a stand. If the movie didn’t say this is where the drama is, then it would become too fluffy, and because it’s a mystery, it would’ve been weak. It was a choice to be bold and I understand when you talk about questions and answers. We don’t care about answers, but in the crime story, we might like those answers.
Trine Dyrholm: Nobody knows what happened, but there are facts, and in between those our film can tell the story about a mother, queen, politician, and society. As Charlotte says, the film itself has to take a stand. It has to say we believe this was her son, but even if it’s clear about what it believes, the audience is left with interesting questions. Not many are answered because it’s a dilemma, a fateful choice that she has to live through.
What’s fascinating about history is that it’s out of our reach. We can know about events, but our imagination allows us to be curious about the private thoughts and moments of the people involved.
Sieling: It’s one of my interests in making movies – let’s try to travel somewhere and imagine something together. During the pre-production, I remember saying to the production designer and DP how I hate the Middle Ages because I often see that period as a cliché. It was a good way to start by asking if we could make an effort, so the film would have an impact. It’s a modern movie with a modern dilemma, about an old time.
Dyrholm: It’s difficult when you do historical pieces because there’s a distance. You’re interested, but you don’t know anything about it, and that’s the fascination. It can also create a distance and we worked on that here. We tried to find real people and relationships in all of these costumes and settings. Also, because it’s not a classical biopic, she’s a character that’s revealed, and it’s a big dilemma that’s both personal and political.
As we age, the emotions a character experiences, such as pain, joy, hope, and despair resonate more strongly with us. Whereas to our younger selves, these were simply dramatic concepts. This makes the experience of watching films uncomfortable because we sense and identify with realism.
Dyrholm: Art is about sharing; we can share everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. I understand that life can get more transparent, or you can feel more nuances with the dilemmas. We have existential loneliness and other existential feelings from a young age. Art is about finding these cracks.
Stories and characters can invite an audience into a moment, to encounter things that we can’t talk about, and maybe we don’t understand, but we can recognise them and feel that we’re not alone in carrying them. It’s important that art is about carrying it together, about understanding and recognising moments that we can’t talk about, and therefore we have art to discuss these issues.
When you talk about age, we can also talk about culture and differences. When you travel with a film, you realise that even though people belong to different cultures, there are those things that we all connect with. It’s existential, and it doesn’t have to do with religion, or, what you believe in, or, cultural ideas. I can have a different experience when I watch a Chinese film, but there are still universal moments I can connect with if it’s a good film. I can still understand something about a different culture. I don’t know if I’m right, but that’s what I believe in.
Cinema creates a safe space where borders are broken down and the emphasis on political, cultural, and economic divisions are neutralised. It also offers sanctuary from a society that’s seeing a rise in individualism and nationalism. We should see this as a privileged space.
Sieling: Thinking about the time we’re living in when it’s said we need a lot of money to go to war, but if we go to war and use all our money, then we don’t have a culture, and we don’t have anything to fight for. It was Churchill who said that and I’ve heard other people say he didn’t say that, so I’m now saying it on my own behalf.
Denmark, our little welfare country is a lovely place, but culture is still not regarded to be as important as it should be. It’s something you can do on Sundays. If you don’t have anything else to do, then go watch a musical.
I agree with your thought that it’s a place we need to go, to be there together and build a strong spirit, so we can be strong spiritual people. Otherwise, it’ll be two dimensional and that’s very sad.
The current tensions in the European Union, specifically Brexit Britain, is an echo of the internal tension of the Kalmar Union and the external forces trying to divide it. Margrete: Queen of the North conveys a recurring narrative of a quest for unity that’s continuously under siege from individualism and nationalism.
Sieling: One of the ideas for making this movie was what’s happening with the Union, but I also think about the Greeks when listening to you, because every generation thinks they know the most. If you look back to before Jesus Christ, there has always been unity then war.
Without comparing ourselves to Shakespeare, we chose the theme and set it across nine days – it’s not a biopic of Margrete’s whole life. We chose that way of telling her story because we thought this is the real drama. It’s almost a mythology. How can the king keep his kingdom, and what does he have to pay for holding onto power? Fortunately in our world, it was a woman, and we could tell her true story.
Dyrholm: We tried to tell a story about a woman that had the vision for peace and she burns her own son for this higher cause. It’s a metaphor for individualism, and how if we’re too nationalistic we cannot survive because we have to think bigger. Here you have a woman that put aside her own personal issues for the cause of peace.
The Union [EU] is filled with political issues, national and personal that people want out of it. If we think about being together, and holding onto our differences, but at least helping each other, instead of the opposite, it’s a powerful thought.
The world is now in total chaos, and we sit in our different countries and we’re nervous about what’s happening, and maybe we’re going back to isolation. We can sit here and talk on zoom, and watch a lot of films on the computer. What we need to do is to communicate, share, reflect and understand what life is about. It’s now more important than ever because we’re more lonely now than ever.
I just want to add that we went into lockdown two weeks after starting the film, and all of us were sent back home to isolate for three months. Then we all agreed to stay in a “bubble” in Prague, where we filmed. It was a generous and beautiful experience that all these people agreed to be in a bubble to do this film. We’d go out to buy takeaway and then go back to the basement of the hotel where we were allowed to eat together, and it made it special.
It was for the bigger cause, our film, and all the actors said yes to being there for five weeks, even if they were shooting for five or nine days, which isn’t normal. You usually go back and forth, but we talked about political issues and shared personal things, and it made a strong impact on all of us who were part of this film.