A look into making a “most accurate” film
Director Erik Poppe used unprecedented royal access to get The King’s Choice just right
Norwegian drama The King’s Choice (Kongens nei), directed by Erik Poppe (Hawaii, Oslo; A Thousand Times Good Night), focuses on a three-day period in April 1940, during which King Haakon VII of Norway had to make a critical decision: to resist the Nazi occupation and possibly die or to accept Germany’s conditions and avoid bloodshed. The Oscar-shortlisted film has already been a critical and commercial success in Norway and is finally playing in theaters across the U.S. In a phone interview with The Norwegian American, Poppe reveals how he was able to create a very personal and detailed portrait of a king, what the Norwegian Royal Family thought of the film, and the current state of Scandinavian cinema. Here are the extracts from my interview with the well-loved Norwegian filmmaker.
Julia Andersen: The King’s Choice is very different from your previous films. Why did you want to tell this story? In general, what makes you decide to want work on a script and a film?
Erik Poppe: I wanted to tell a story from outside my own small universe, my own experiences, because my former movies have been based on my life and elements from my life… I felt that the story about King Haakon is interesting and has not been told on screen.
Also, at the moment, not only in the Unites States but also in Europe, I see there is an issue regarding our political leaders and leaders of the States and how they are dealing with provisions. The story about King Haakon captured my mind as a story of someone rising up for his people in a way that he was willing to sacrifice himself and his family for what seemed to be the best for the people, and that was the story I wanted to emphasize.
Last year, when we screened this film for American audiences, I felt how they experienced the story… People were affected and really moved… They were talking about our leaders today: “Why don’t we have leaders like that?” I thought it was important to remind people out there what we can expect from our leaders.
JA: People who enjoy films based on true events will be surprised to learn, like I was, that most characters in the film were real people, including the so-called good German Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) and Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), who is alive to this day. Can you tell me a little bit about the research you’ve done to learn about these characters and make them so detailed? I was also wondering how much of the dialogue between Prince Olav and King Haakon was based on actual encounters.
EP: Sure. Well, I put together a group, and we looked through every type of written material, including diaries, that were dealing with what was going on for the last six months up to these three dramatic days. I was interested in everything and everyone who could give me an idea what was going on at the time.
It was important for me quite early in the process to make a choice that limited what this film was supposed to be about. I wanted to cover the perspective from the king and that was the main perspective in the film. I also wanted to show the German side. By discovering the story about this German ambassador, I saw a brilliant perspective and not too well-known [story about] how desperate he [Curt Bräuer] was in trying to avoid a war…
I went into the National Library, and we were allowed to read through the king’s diaries and everything else. We read through more than 17,000 pages and then I started to look for people who were still alive, who could remember anything.
My most important witness to the king and how he was was actually Princess Astrid, who is still alive. In the film, you will see, there are two young girls and a boy. The boy today is King Harald and the girls are his older sisters. One of them is Princess Astrid, the youngest one. She was nine years old at the time. But her memory is amazing. She could tell me every small detail, everything I wanted to know about her grandfather, and about her father of course, the Crown Prince Olav, and how they were discussing things, their temperaments, the type of language they were using… She brought in all sorts of details on his health condition, and also the fact that he was actually a quite lonely man, [living] by himself in a castle downtown Oslo… His relationships with his grandkids were amazing… For whatever reasons she gave me all this information; we were sitting in the royal castle for two days. I had to double-check [the information] she gave me with a lot of other people, but I found out that her memory was amazing and her details were so important. They were a part of the final research that put all of this together.
I have been studying in the past 20 years who King Haakon was. He has now eight biographies published about him, and they became my quite important sources. Finally, I was allowed to look through everything that I wanted inside the Royal Archives, which normally isn’t that open.
JA: That’s an incredible access you had, and the resources…
EP: Absolutely. The idea was that I didn’t want to fictionalize; I didn’t want to put it in a setting where we said: “Listen, we are going to make a movie”… Because this story seems to be dramatic enough, and King Haakon seems to be interesting enough, so the big bonus would be that we actually tell the story; we tell about characters as they were. We would go into different moments, discussions, arguments as they were.
European historians are really hard when it comes to historical movies. Every time. I was like: “Okay, how can we try to make this work even for them?” What we are proud of today is that they have named the film as the most accurate description ever in modern history when it comes to the level of details. So of course we are very happy with that.
JA: Did most of the filming take place in Oslo? Where were the palace scenes shot?
EP: The palace scenes were actually shot inside the Royal Palace, probably the first time in European film history that a film was able to shoot inside the palace. We even shot it while the king was in his office, the room beside. It was extraordinary.
The film opened up with a huge open-air screening inside that huge park… Royal Palace called me and asked if I would mind to have an open-air screening a week before opening in the cinemas to celebrate the king and queen’s 25th anniversary as king and queen, to share it with the people. I was positive to that. We ended up screening the film, and more than 13,000 people showed up and were seated on the grass in front of this huge screen. And just before the screening was about to start, the king, the queen, the crown prince, and the whole royal family came walking through the mass of people and sat down beside me, just in the middle of all these people, and watched the film. That was an enormously emotional moment, especially for the king.
JA: Scandinavian filmmakers are becoming more and more prominent in various festivals. There are three (Joachim Trier, Aki Kaurismäki, and Ruben Östlund) in this year’s New York Film Festival alone. Is there a sense of talking about Scandinavian New Wave?
EP: I would say yes, it is. It started with Nordic Noir, Nordic crimes in TV series and movies, and now it’s opening up for directors from Scandinavia in general. We have never in our history been so established and so popular when it comes to getting offers.
JA: What are some of your favorite recent Scandinavian films that you could recommend to the readers of The Norwegian American?
EP: The Square by the Swedish director Ruben Östlund, which received the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. It is remarkable. It is something different. I would say some of the Danish TV series, like The Bridge, are really strong. My colleague Joachim Trier has made remarkable movies as well. I am very proud on behalf of them and on behalf of our whole community in a way. I think we do make really great and strong pieces of material right now. We probably have never been this strong before.
The King’s Choice was released to U.S. theaters on September 22, 2017. Check your local listings for showtimes.
Julia Andersen is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a Columbia University graduate and has a particular affection for Scandinavian films.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.