Copenhagen, the way it was – and still is
My passion for the theater most likely started the day ‘we’ married Arne, as I famously said with a Freudian slip one evening at the dinner table. Yes, ‘we’ had indeed married Arne, my wonderful stepfather, Arne Lydén, who had lifelong ties to the theater, its history and its various realizations in prewar Germany of the Weimar Republic in the twenties, as well as in Scandinavia. Arne spent a year in Berlin in the late twenties watching theater and supporting himself by writing articles about it for Swedish newspapers. In inflation-torn Germany Swedish kronor were highly valued and Arne never needed a lot of material possessions to get along perfectly well in life.
In Berlin he learned first-hand about Max Reinhardt, the theater director and actor who revolutionized German theater, and who has in fact had a very strong influence on Western theater in general. This included not just acting and powerful staging techniques but also stage design, music and choreography, He has gone down in theater history, along with the Russian actor and director, Constantin Stanislavski, of a somewhat older generation. Stanislavski was another one of Arne’s great heroes for making ‘modern’ theater what it was at his time, that is theater of post World War II. I guess that he learned about this great creator of theater history in Berlin as well, but of course also studying his style of theater creating in his studies in the history of the theater (Teaterhistoria) with Professor Agne Beijer who became his great friend.1 He spoke about Stanislavski with the most profound respect, indeed as the father of modern theater. Out with the French declamatory style of acting that survived at the Comédie-française up to a point even into the 20th century.
My parents were both linked to the new City Theater in Malmö (Malmö Stadsteater).Arne was a theater director from the beginning of this new and modern theater in September 1944. My mother was the theater’s photographer and she kept up that activity alongside with her own studio.
She had started out in the most fashionable and brand new Trygg’s Building at Gustav Adolfs Plaza in 1938. At that time there was still optimism in the air. People were hoping that Hitler was going to keep his fascism, which they usually knew very little about, inside the German borders. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came back from the conference in Munich in September 1938 and declared to the British people that there would be “peace for our time”, thereby accepting Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland, the German speaking border area of Czechoslovakia. People believed in a possible peace because they wanted to believe. But times got very dark towards the end of 1939, and Britain and France declared war on Germany in September when Hitler invaded Poland.
After our seemingly carefree evacuation in spring and summer1940 in northern Småland, Mother went on with her own business for another year. However, with the war came general insecurity, especially with the horrible years of divorce from my much beloved father. Mother needed increased support and stability and so accepted an offer to manage a photography firm called Polyfoto, a chain business in fact where drab multiple photos were produced.
Polyfoto was nothing before Mother took it over. She set about teaching the ‘girls’ who took the poly-photos, all on one plate,2 about lighting and composition, and generally loosening up an often stiff customer. She upgraded the entire firm from third class to top class. The number of pictures on one plate was also changed from the ridiculous tiny 48 photos to 20 or even 12 if the customer so wished.
In the back of the premises a studio was installed that was Mother’s own, with a nice-looking waiting room and a small dressing room.
She hired a business to decorate the shop window and it became by far the most attractive photography window in Malmö. She gave courses in photography to Poly-photo photographers from all over the country.
Sandro Malmquist was our first Director of the new theater, and Malmö finally had its own home for drama, as well as for musicals, ballet and concerts. Sandro Malmquist was a thoroughly learned theater man who had actually studied with Max Reinhardt in Berlin in the twenties and also, after that, with the great actor Louis Jouvet in Paris.
The people who worked for the theater from the Director to the stage workers, the seamstresses and the wig makers got to be like a huge family. Funnily enough I felt so intimately a part of the theater that I always referred to plays that were staged at our new theater as ‘our’ performance. ‘We’ did such and such a play.
It should be mentioned also, that Malmö Stadsteater was an innovator in Sweden for school performances, for both theater and concerts. Arne was the organizer of those activities. The funny thing was that when we school children (I was 11 at the time and still in grade school) saw the inauguration performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a man got out from behind the huge red curtain, decorated with theater masks in white, and talked to us briefly about Shakespeare and the play we were about to see. Very useful, since we definitely didn’t know any more than the name of Shakespeare as a very old English playwright. That man was Arne who was going to be my stepfather. We saw a tall, somewhat formal, dark-haired man.in a dark suit who had the gift of getting our attention.
Years later, when Arne was in Nyköping without ever having broken the links to the theater, he was at a gathering of teachers in Stockholm where Ingmar Bergman proudly spoke about how he had for the first time in Swedish history introduced school theater in whatever the city was, most likely Stockholm. Arne of course knew Ingmar Bergman well. He got pretty excited and stood up and said loudly: Ingmar, you certainly know that that’s not true. We had school theater at Malmö Stadsteater from the very beginning in 1944 when you had barely started your career. Arne forgot to tell me what Bergman’s reply to this was. It would have been interesting to know.
Speaking about Ingmar Bergman, once when he was directing a play at our theater, he came up to Mother’s atelier where she was taking close-ups of the actors. He turned to Mother and said ‘Shouldn’t you take the picture in such and such a way instead?’ Mother looked at him with proud eyes and said. ‘Who is the photographer here, you or I?’
World War II had been over since May 1945 and the traffic between Malmö in Sweden and the Danish capital, Copenhagen, had resumed at a normal pace across Öresund, the sound that separates the two countries. Conditions in the once German-occupied country were getting back to normal.
The Royal theater in Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Teater, was in those days the home of theater, opera and the world-famous Danish ballet. It was one of the foremost theaters in Europe and the actor Poul Reumert was an international celebrity.
One autumn day in 1948 Arne had arranged a trip for all of us, plus Gun’s boyfriend, Lars to go to Copenhagen. We were going to make the trip across the Sound, Öresund, to see Molière’s Tartuffe at ‘Det Kongelige’. Starring were the immortal Poul Reumert as Tartuffe and the almost equally famous Bodil Ipsen as the rich man Orgon’s wife, Elmire. What a dream! This was history played out in real life and I am sure that even at the time, when I was 15 years old, I realized what an extraordinary event this was.
Poul Reumert had played Tartuffe innumerable times, the first time in 1922 at Det Kongelige. He had even been a guest actor at La Comédie Française in 1925, the only foreigner to perform on the French national stage, at least at the time. He also appeared at le Théâtre National de l’Odéon in Paris and did guest performances at several other theaters in Europe.
We set out on the boat – there was one that left every two hours for Copenhagen. It took two hours for the crossing since it had to go up north to the mid channel in the Sound and then back south to Copenhagen. The small ferries and hovercraft that came in much later took about half an hour, but these were the old days and the big boats had deep keels. With Lars who was invited to come with us, there were five of us crossing the Sound on this windy day in 1948. The sea was rough even in the Sound and I remember vividly lots of people being seasick and hanging their heads over the gunwale.
The boat landed in Nyhavn, the ‘new harbor’, which was anything but new, and it was just a short walk from there to Kongens Nytorv where Det Kongelige Teater is located. People walked in those days. Thus began our historic visit to Copenhagen and Det Kongelige Teater, at a time when the hardship of the war years was not yet quite forgotten.
The performance was of course just what you wanted from Tartuffe, a perfectly enacted spoof on hypocrisy, lust and greed. It is serious comedy at its sarcastic best and lots of laughs from a delighted audience made for an unforgettable theater evening at one of the best theaters in Europe. I can still remember a very funny scene where Tartuffe – Poul Reumert – is nearly caught in his devious attempts to lustfully seduce Elmire, Orgon’s wife – Bodil Ipsen – the lady of the house. Just as Elmire’s husband, the rich man Orgon, enters the room, Tartuffe cowardly hides under the table. Danes are, generally speaking, far less serious than Swedes and they seem to always be ready for a good laugh. And laugh they did.
Fortunately I had read the play before the event, since the Danish language is not very easy to understand for Swedes, particularly not from the stage.
Copenhagen seemed to have recovered surprisingly fast from the hard years during the war and the Nazi occupation. At least that’s the way it seemed. At Kongens Nytorv (The King’s New Plaza) where the Royal theater is located, there is also the elegant Hotel d’Angleterre, a huge white edifice that the German military, the SS and the Wehrmarcht, took over for their headquarters during the occupation. It was quickly restored to its original usage after the liberation in May 1945.
To get to the very cosmopolitan capital of Denmark, or actually of Scandinavia in many ways, we took the 2-hour boat, and later on a big new ferry, Öresund, where you got an excellent smorgasbord for not very much in terms of money, and there was no delicious smorgasbord food missing from that table, except maybe Russian caviar and foie gras.
But we young people didn’t take the boat to Copenhagen for the food or for the very special Aalborg aquavit, called snaps in all the Scandinavian languages (Schnapps in German). We went to Copenhagen to breathe the air of the jovial big city. The Danes have a quality that there is no other word for in any language I know than the German word gemütlich, even if jovial gets rather close to the idea of Gemütlichkeit. One thing that does irritate the Danes though is when Stockholm people with their quite different accent from us people from Skåne in vain try to make themselves understood or to understand. Malmö is located in the southernmost province of Sweden and we don’t have any real difficulty understanding Danish, at least as spoken in Copenhagen.
At that time, around 1950, we went to Copenhagen with friends, in groups, with our parents, or even once on a field trip with our Latin teacher to visit the world-famous museum, Glyptoteket, a marvel of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures as well as the Dutch and Flemish masters and Danish and French 19thcentury paintings. This was the first time I saw a real Van Gogh or a Renoir painting and I was impressed. Glyptoteket is also a marvel in terms of its architecture and its Winter Garden. It is simply breathtakingly beautiful.
The long street actually has many different names, but in its entirety it is always called Strøget. We would go shopping, if we had some money, or just look around at all the beautiful things at Illum and Magasin du Nord, department stores which we had never seen the like of, unless we traveled all the way to Stockholm. And even so, NK – Nordiska Kompaniet – in Stockholm could not really stand up to Illum.
We would peek at Nyhavn, where the boat from Malmö was moored. On the north side of the canal, across from where the boat was moored, was the long row of infamous smoky cafés or actually more like brothels, smoke-filled hovels in old warehouse. Sailors and dumb tourists would dance with gaudily dressed women in the middle of the afternoon Many all too curious Swedes would wake up after the stupor of the night with a bad hangover and empty pockets. To me, a straight-laced young Swedish girl to see the dancing couples outlined in a dense sea of smoke, was so curiously different from the world I knew that the picture got etched onto my retina for ever.
And how the Danes smoked! Denmark was probably the only country, in Europe at least, where you would see women smoking cigars or cigarillos. Heavyset middle-aged women would inhale the smoke lustily, and with a course laugh they would throw their arms around a Latin American sailor’s neck. The war was over. Life could begin anew.
From Nyhavn to Kongens Nytorv the change of scenery was at the time so striking that you would think you were in a different city. The equestrian statue of Christian V is in the very center of this beautiful plaza to remind us that he was the king who made it become what it is now, after its having been a dumping ground for cargo from ships that embarked at near-by Nyhavn. The plaza is also the site of Det Kongelige Teater, a most beautiful building with the statues of two of the most famous Danish playwrights decorating the outside, Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) and Adam Oehlenschläger (1799-1850).
Back in those days, we would go to one of the two huge and fairly inexpensive restaurants in Vesterbrogade. They were so spacious that I can easily see the restaurants during the war years hosting all of the German SS, Wehrmacht and police forces, all in one sitting – the Danish waiters serving them with cold and restrained politeness. Those restaurants don’t exist any more. They have been replaced by far more intimate restaurants serving expensive but delicious food, and not on the huge central Vesterbrogade, but in little side streets.
This wonderful city has a charm all of its own that can not really be described in simple words. It has to be experienced with all your senses. You stroll over to Gammelstrand where until quite recently the women fishmongers were selling the night’s catch of fish every morning.
It was still there in 1977, but only just a couple of stands. What is left now is a wonderfully life-like statue, in what looks like cement, of a fishmonger woman. 3
On 13 March 2008, Doris Marx sold the last fish from her stand at Gammel Strand. For 45 years, she had tended her market stand, and her departure closed a chapter in Denmark’s cultural heritage. Copenhageners had bought their fish at Gammel Strand possibly for centuries, but in the end space became too scarce and in 1958 a new fish market opened in South Harbour.
But some stands remained at Gammel Strand. The fish were sold by fishwives, called skovserkoner (fishwifes from Skovshoved). They were known for their distinctive white head garb, which in winter was pulled well around their ears, while their dresses were padded out with newspapers against the cold. Until the 1900s, the fishwives had walked from Skovshoved, a fishing hamlet north of Copenhagen, with their wares bundled around their necks, selling the fish caught by their husbands. Later, when the fish were peddled from the South Harbour, the name Skovserkone survived.”
On Gammel Strand (the old strand), a street that runs along one side of one of many canals in Copenhagen, Slotsholmens Canal, you can also find the two best fish restaurants in this city, Krogs Fiskehus and, right next to it, Fiskehuset where John and I have had a couple of wonderful meals. They serve you your little glass of Aalborg and leave the bottle on the table with a friendly smile. That definitely adds to the friendly atmosphere, and also incites you to have a second glass.
You walk among the many hundreds of cyclists along the wide and narrow streets to Gråbrödretorv to eat delicious deep-fried plaice at Scott restaurant. You stroll from Kongens Nytorv down to Nyhavn which has become a sadly cleaned-up and chic place for today’s international tourists to visit in droves, maybe trying to imagine what this once famously sinful and dingy street used to be like. If you follow the walking street Strøget from the King’s New Plaza and all the way to Copenhagen’s main artery, Vesterbrogade, you will get to Tivoli. You MUST go inside and take your time looking at the wonders of this amusement park, which is so much more than an amusement park. It’s unique in the world. The unbelievably beautiful flower and fountain arrangements, the Chinese pavilion with – what else — a restaurant, the duck ponds with weeping willows drooping over the water next to a Tudor style old farm house. And there is the Moorish Palace, a huge white building, with a hotel and a restaurant. What isn’t to be found at Tivoli isn’t worth seeing.
Also, can you believe it, in the old days there was a real flea circus, maybe the only one in the world, or at least in Europe. Once, much later on, when I asked someone who worked there where the flea circus was, he laughed and told me that it had been gone for many many years. Oh well… but I have the clearest memories of the race between the fleas that the man had them perform. Close to unbelievable. I suppose the man died of old age and that was the end of the flea circus.
Copenhagen is one of those very special cities that you want to visit again and again. You fall in love once and you live with that love for the rest of your life. The Danish Gemüt, the good humor, is of course one of the contributing factors to the strong attraction you develop to this wonderful city. And I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful royal castles or the fairy-like botanical garden. I miss the streetcars that were already gone when I returned to this city in 1971, in an interim to my many years in the United States.
I know the three capitals of Scandinavia fairly well and I love them all. Stockholm, situated partly on islands in lake Mälaren, is a jewel among big cities of the world, but it has none of the Gemüt you find in the Danish capital. Oslo is a relatively small capital but with lots of beautiful sites, the view over the water, Oslo Bay (Oslofjorden), and museums with impressive huge Viking boats, the real ones, not copies, the fascinating balsa-wood raft Kon-Tiki at the Thor Heyerdahl Research Foundation – just to mention two museums that are very special to Oslo. And, not to be forgotten, the wonderful Oslo Folkemuseum (the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History) where you can see how people used to live, back in the old old days. Norwegians are friendly people, even though not as open and ready to laughter as the Danes.
Copenhagen is simply unique.
Continued: Chapter Three – Lapland and Lofoten, Norway