Goodbye, Mr Bond

 

Mads Mikkelsen, the deadly Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, plays a stone-cold Danish resistance fighter in an explosive war drama that has broken box-office records in Denmark even as it courts controvery, writes Derek Scally

LIKE DOGS, Bond villains are for life, not just for Christmas. Any actor who signs up to do battle with James Bond knows the rule: after being dispatched with a bon mot before the credits roll, they will spend the rest of their career answering questions about their 007 experience.

And so it is that, three years after playing Le Chiffre in Casino Royale, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen chats politely about the role that brought him worldwide attention and, hopefully, an interesting range of job offers?

"Well, Russians and vampires mostly," says Mikkelsen drily. "Luckily, it seems as if people see the Bond thing and, if they get curious, start watching the Danish stuff and then look at me differently."

Watching his "Danish stuff", it's easy to see why. In the 13 years since his film debut as a junkie in the gripping Pusher, the 47-year-old Mikkelsen has become one of Denmark's best-known actors world wide.

Largely to thank for that is the "Bond thing", which begs one last question: what did he think of Quantum of Solace?

"I haven't seen it and I have a feeling that's a good answer because I've heard a lot of people don't like it. I'm glad they reconceived the franchise because I had a hard time seeing myself as a Bond villain with a 'ho ho ho' pirate laugh.

"But by now I was hoping they would ease up a little on the intensity and become more charming with slightly more girls getting laid and so on."

Charmingly frank, Mikkelsen was a relatively late bloomer as an actor. First a gymnast, then a dancer, he says that nine years on the boards, including a time in the chorus of West Side Story, were enough to inoculate him against theatre for life and send him back to acting school. "I graduated aged 31 and, luckily for me, a whole generation of people were graduating at that time, people who changed Danish film."

Mikkelsen became a familiar face in the Dogme 95 movement, sharing with Dogme directors a reputation for uncompromising roles. But, as so often is the case, the reputation is far from the reality.

Mikkelsen says he has no interest in daring career choices, just "good jobs" whether they are big pictures (King Arthur) or smaller Danish productions (The Green Butchers). He recently finished play composer Igor Stravinsky in one of three Coco Chanel biopics, and pops up occasionally in fashion magazines and has fronted an ad campaign for Swedish clothing chain H&M.

Now he finally gets to have it all in Flame & Citron, a big war movie that is also an intelligent moral dilemma drama. Reportedly the most expensive Danish feature ever made, Flame & Citron tells the extraordinary story of two figures in the Danish resistance who waged war on the occupying Nazi forces in Copenhagen, often to disdain from the local population.

Like Michael Collins and The Wind That Shakes the Barley in Ireland, Flame & Citron has sparked an emotive public debate in Denmark that has drawn all sorts of pseudo-experts out of the woodwork to debate the portrayal of the period and the two true-life figures.

Mikkelsen's character, Jorgen Haagen Schmith, is a borderline psychotic battling inner demons and a pill addiction who earned his nickname, Citron, after blowing up his father-in-law's Citroen dealership. One of the first Danes to take on the Nazis, Citron is teamed up with Bent Faurschou-Hviid, an idealistic young red-head (hence "Flame") known around Copenhagen for his daring, point-blank executions of top Gestapo leaders followed by a cool beer in his favourite Nazi-filled cafe.

"We don't teach about these guys in history class; they are legends that our grandfathers know about," says Mikkelsen. The reason, he adds, is simple enough: in their zeal to get the country back on track, the postwar Danish government sealed all records from the period.

"We Danes like to see ourselves as a nation full of resistance fighters on every corner, but that is not the truth. There were around 1,000 resistance fighters and thousands, 10 times as many, Danes who became Nazis."

With official records sealed away, scriptwriter Lars K Andersen spent seven years conducting original research and interviews with surviving eye witnesses. The tragedy of the period is just how few are still alive: with a state-imposed postwar taboo, resistance fighters found no one to talk to about their experiences; many committed suicide.

In a twist of fate, days before shooting began, Mikkelsen was given a box of papers that once belonged to his grandfather. Inside were dozens of false identity papers and wartime letters from the resistance movement.

"What exactly he got up to, I don't know yet. All I know is that he was in the communist wing of the resistance."

Though told from a Danish perspective, Flame & Citron doesn't play favourites with heroes and villains; instead it makes a play for the grey area inbetween. It starts by addressing the Danish dilemma of whether to resist the Third Reich and pay the price or to meekly become a "model protectorate".

Things get more interesting when director Madsen begins analysing what he calls the "anatomy of the kill", the dehumanising effect of assassinations on assassins, particularly when these assassins are ordinary people whose already blurry motivations and loyalties begin to shift beyond recognition.

"We are very used to seeing Germans as bad guys and, don't get me wrong, I think they were very bad guys. But they have human faces, and many were also victims of the situation. The Nazis were not all evil people, just people caught in blurriness of the time, rough times of unemployment, no food and chaos in Europe. A new wind was blowing, the wrong wind, and some knew what was happening, but many didn't."

The taboo surrounding the Nazi occupation of Denmark gave the film-makers a certain artistic licence, rather than making them slaves to an official record. Their exploration of a dimly-lit period of Danish history, though a huge box office success, came under attack from all sides.

"We were the first people to do the original research, yet we suddenly had a lot of so-called experts telling us how it really was and how we were wrong," says Mikkelsen. "What we learned is that no one knows jack shit about this period. We're hopeful the debate will go on, that people will research and think some more about it. Perhaps we needed a gap of 60 years before we can look at the period with clear eyes."

Flame & Citron is released in Ireland next Friday