Riis' true-life WWII drama draws families

First-timer helmer Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’ WWII drama “Hvidstengruppen” (“This Life”) has become the second highest-grossing Danish film in the past 35 years on home turf, earning DKR54 million ($9.4 million) in 11 weeks.

The film, based on a true story, centers on the Fiil family, who were caught by the Gestapo helping resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation.

On March 1, some 67 years later, surviving family members were invited to the film’s preem in Randers in Jutland, where the events took place, by exec producer Regner Grasten. The highly charged and emotional evening was covered by all the local television news programs.

Grasten said he got the idea of opening “This Life” in the provinces, rather than in Copenhagen, after reading about “The Intouchables,” whose French preem took place not in Paris but at a fest in Angouleme.

To get an idea of local auds’ passion for “This Life,” the top earning Hollywood offering in 2011 was “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” which took $10.2 million.

Budgeted at $4.5 million, “This Life” avoids expensive action sequences of necessity. Instead, it focuses on family relationships.

Grasten said many people have drawn parallels between the fate of the Fiils in the film and events during the Arab Spring, when ordinary people of all ages put their lives in danger to fight for freedom. “They want to know why those families and young people are risking their lives. They see it on television every day,” he told Variety.

Grasten said that he detects a sea change in the mood of many cinemagoers. “You see it all over the world: People want to see movies about values, films like ‘The King’s Speech’ and ‘Intouchables,’” he said. “Movies like ‘This Life’ have staying power because people want to go to the cinema and have a social experience with their friends and families, and they want something to talk about afterwards.”

Grasten wanted families to see the film together, and to that end, he ran the trailer on TV in primetime, as well as full-page ads in the main dailies, over the Christmas break, a time when many families are gathered together. “At that moment, the whole Fiil family decided that they would see the movie together on March 1. That’s why we had such a huge opening, which is unusual for a drama movie,” Grasten said.

On April 9, the date that Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, broadcaster TV2, which backed the pic alongside the Danish Film Institute, showed two docus linked to “This Life.” One went behind the scenes as the film lensed, and the other looked at the real family whose story is told in the film. Ad spots for the film ran with the documentaries.

Grasten said that he won’t screen the pic at the Cannes Market as he wants “This Life” to prove itself as a fest movie first. He is aiming for a berth at the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival. He also is hoping to get the pic adopted as the Danish foreign-language Oscar entry.

The top earning Danish film of all time is helmer Mikkel Norgaard’s “Clown — the Movie,” released in 2010, which grossed $11.3 million.

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