Showrun by “An Education” director Lone Scherfig and anchored by the performance of “The Killing” star Sofie Gråbøl playing opposite “Kon-Tiki” lead Pål Sverre Hagen, “The Shift’s” key talent credentials mark it out immediately as one of potential standout Scandinavian series of 2022.
Selection for both Berlinale Series and the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize, announced Feb. 2, merely confirms that promise.
In “The Shift,” Gråbøl plays Ella, a head midwife at Denmark’s best maternity ward who secretly yearning for her own.
She’s also having an affair with Norwegian paediatrician Jerry (Sverre Hagen) whose marriage is falling apart, a fact his religious community is not supposed to know.
But work goes on, mercilessly for a short-staffed unit. Ella delivers nine children in one day in Ep. 1, then works a 26 hour-stint at one go in Ep. 3.
The trailer captures much of the series’ charm, part courtesy of conceptual director Søren Balle (Netflix’s“The Rain” and “Equinox” and Adam Price’s “Ride Upon the Storm”) who directed the first three episodes.
The set is remarkable, based around a wild garden courtyard surrounded by wood-framed glass walls, allowing depth to reception scenes and a rich play of reflections in shots from the patio.
The maternity ward is a place of wonder but also pain, the trailer announces. The latter cuts several ways. There’s the emotional pain for some mothers.
There’s also physical hell for some of child birth. Some staff can’t take it any more. Chief anaesthetist Jacob, caught in the trailer, is near to nervous breakdown.
Though her first work in her native Danish in 14 years “The Shift” remains in many ways classic Sherfig, picking up on traits from her best films, whether, say, 2000 Berlin Silver Bear winner “Italian for Beginners,” 2010 triple-Oscar nominee “An Education” starring Carey Mulligan, or 2017’s Göteborg Audience Award winner “Their Finest.”
Cast is top-notch, pace brisk and scenes plushly lensed with classically composed shots. There’s a big-heartedness to the episodes. Sherfig often finds humor in drama. The trailer, typically, is bookended by moments of humor.
“When I was an intern, the midwife always said that babies were like traffic accidents in reverse: Blood and screams but when it’s over there’s one more person than you started with,” Ella muses to an intern, Vihelde.
“I promise to be the best male midwife ever,” Vihelde declares. “The competition isn’t exactly stiff,” a more jaundiced female colleague replies.
Variety chatted to Scherfig and Balle in the run-up to the Göteborg Film Festival.
The camera set-ups often leave a lot of space behind the characters, but you don’t use depth of field to pick out background details. So the characters really stand out…
Balle: Lone and I talked about this a lot, also with DP Matthias Troelstrup.
We wanted to create a physical feeling of standing right next to the characters, because this enhances a sense of presence and a stronger connection with the characters. Lone and I had a million talks about this not being a plot-driven show, it’s about the characters. How do you make a show that doesn’t have a strong plot? We very quickly decided this show has to be real. This is not superficial feel-good genre entertainment: if it doesn’t have truth, honesty, character depth, a realism about the existential things affecting these characters, it doesn’t have anything.
The series’ trailer gives some sense of the airy spaciousness of sets, their use of reflection, mirrors, natural light and white light blue tones, wood frames for windows and furniture with the green foliage of the patio a frequent background. Is this also realistic or metaphorical in some sense?
Scherfig: There are 27 new hospitals and hospital wings being built in Denmark at the moment, and very much inspired by new Nordic architecture. We shot the series on a set inspired by a combination of them. So yes, it’s realism. The architecture is often built for specific nature and based on a belief that daylight is healing. We also wanted to do something that is light because some of the series’ elements are quite dark and the story very much has to do with nature, following the seasons’ change. But, yes, this is what the hospitals look like in the hand of a dream team crew including DP Matthias Troelstrup.
The series seems to follows the unexpected, urgent rhythms of a maternity ward…
Scherfig: We’ve thought about this a lot: How to have a series that is less obvious in structure with space for small digressions into characters and unpredictability rather than a more conventional “a” plot, “b” plot, “c” plot etc. Hopefully, this feels more alive and true. The further you get into the series, you’ll have small pockets where you suddenly understand the secrets of main characters’ who are foregrounded from time to time. You’ll end up having followed and being attached to these characters without even realizing that this was a very important nine months in everybody’s lives.
Though a series, “The Shift” seems in many ways to be classic Lone Scherfig: For example, it’s about a community formed by people from very different walks of life and sometimes there’s tension but they all pull together for a common good…
Sherfig: There’s a scene I directed in “Their Finest”: Bill Nighy is singing, you have a whole film crew sitting in the pub tired after a long workday and we cut around to the members of this fictional film crew. Maybe that’s a miniature version of this maternity ward because you admire and care for them wall-to-wall. But once you’ve been in a real maternity ward, you realise that on film sets we thought we were working so hard and we were so important and everything so profound until you’ve just been there, sit and watch and ask questions. That has been super inspiring for us all.
How do you direct Sofie Gråbøl, one of Denmark’s most famous, prized and revered actors?
Balle: When you have actors that are that good, it honestly makes directing much easier. In any specific scene, Sophie and I and the other actors in the scene would simply have an eye-to-eye talk and discussion about what we felt was the most important thing to tell with this scene, and I would let the actors work freely. I like to be inspired by the actors’ take on a scene, and I try to abstain from micromanaging their every move. Sophie completely levels in this. She knows and thinks and she delivers.