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“I think that we could do with leaders like Haakon VII today”

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Erik Poppe • Director

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- BERLIN 2017: Cineuropa sat down with Norway's Erik Poppe, director of The King’s Choice, which is screening in the Panorama section of the Berlinale

Erik Poppe • Director

The King’s Choice [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Erik Poppe
film profile
]
, produced by Paradox Film, was the highest-grossing feature film in Norway last year. While its Oscar dreams may have been dashed, the WWII drama screens in the Panorama section of the 2017 Berlinale. This latest offering from Norwegian director Erik Poppe comes eighteen years after Bunch of Five, Poppe’s directorial début, was shown here at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1999. The King’s Choice is based on the book by Alf R. Jacobsen, which narrates the events of three decisive days at the moment when Norway was first forced to contend with the invading Nazi forces. Haakon VII, King of Norway since 1905, was approached by the Germans with a proposition, or, rather, an ultimatum. They ordered him to abdicate. Capitulate or stand firm: the choice was stark.

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Cineuropa: This pivotal episode in Norwegian history took place in 1940.
Erik Poppe:
 Yes, it began on the 9th of April. I do wonder what the response of the German public will be to this reawakening of the past.

It’s a rich and complex story…
It is, but I tried to stick to what I needed to do to tell the central story. We certainly follow the King very closely as the events unfold, but I also hoped to find some balance — to introduce another perspective, an extra point of view that showed another side. That’s why I was interested in the figure of the German ambassador, Kurt Bräuer, who desperately tries to prevent the outbreak of war. He finds himself up against Birger Eriksen, the Norwegian colonel in charge of the military operations, and as viewers we witness this clash between a soldier and a diplomat.

The descriptive details are very precise.
They add to the veracity and the suspense of the story, and help it to develop in a believable way. We sought out background information and did a lot of research. I managed to talk to eye witnesses; some are very elderly now, but their accounts were invaluable. I also involved some historians who were sceptical about the project — I let them read the script, watch various scenes and check all the details to their hearts’ content. I was also keen to film in the places where these events really took place, using original props and accessories as far as possible. For example, we were able to shoot the snow scenes in Skaugum, the official residence of the crown prince of Norway. These scenes were filmed by the director of photography John Christian Rosenlund, just like all the others.

The King’s Choice also depicts a personal drama
That’s right. It’s the story of a father and a son, of a family forced to flee their home. Among the many sources I drew on for the film, I was lucky enough to meet on several occasions with Princess Astrid, Haakon’s granddaughter and the sister of Harald V, the current King of Norway. We can see them in the film as children. Reliving the past was a very emotive experience for her. She helped me round out the details of personality and behaviour, which was extremely useful, especially for the scenes where we see Haakon and his son, the Crown Prince Olav, played by Anders Baasmo Christiansen, discuss their roles and what they believe to be the calling of the King, and where it becomes clear that they have very different ideas.

Did you feel at all tempted to idealise a little, to paint a more flattering portrait?
I tried to avoid highlighting only the positive aspects of the characters. I didn’t want to portray the King as a superhero; I wanted to show him in a more realistic way, as a complex character. I never hid my intentions from the royal family. So, we discover that Maud, Haakon’s wife, who died a year and a half before the beginning of the war, was quite a cold and unsympathetic woman. Because I was determined to remain true to the real story, I met with the children and grandchildren of soldiers and local people. Most of them were keen to be extras, and I found it very moving to watch them engage so wholeheartedly in the filming. The film owes them a lot, and I feel that it belongs to them just as much as it does to me and the rest of the team.

Haakon finds himself in the horns of a dilemma. Is this a political choice?

To begin with, he has no political role whatsoever, but the Norwegian government is faltering and, in the end, is completely powerless. The institutions around him begin to disintegrate bit by bit, and then collapse. At that point, Haakon finds that he is all alone, with a tough choice to make — he has to examine his conscience. If he gives in, no lives will be lost, but Norway will be forced to suffer Nazi occupation. The film is also the story of a leader who has to face up to his responsibilities.

Can we draw comparisons with what is happening in the world today?
In light of what we see happening around us — Brexit, the new US government or the rise of populism — I think that we could do with leaders like Haakon VII today. He was a man for whom honour and sense of duty were more than just nice words; he was committed to preserving democracy even if it cost him his life. He made an enormous sacrifice, and that’s one aspect of the film that audiences have been particularly moved by.

(Translated from French)

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