Fifteen minutes into the first episode of the new Danish drama Ride Upon The Storm I was faced with the stark realisation that I knew next to nothing about how Christianity found its way to the Nordic end of Europe at all, let alone what influence the church had on the state through to its role in society today.
This isn't something I would have lost sleep about before, but as I became rapidly engrossed in the show, I craved some context. Thanks to some intense Wikipedia-based research, I was up to speed on the situation - allowing me to analyse and more accurately read the motivations of Johannes (Lars Mikkelsen), his complicated family, and how they are entrenched in a centuries long tradition of being men of the cloth.
Often a drama program or historical drama leads to more questions and active learning than the passive act of simply watching a documentary. In Ride Upon The Storm, we hear a family legend that traces the roots of the clan back to a sexual encounter between a family member and N. F. S. Grundtvig, a very influential figure in forming what now stands as the modern Danish national consciousness. The anecdote is told in a throwaway setting, almost as a joke, but it firmly positions our fictional family in the ‘real’ history of Denmark.
It’s not that program doesn’t work without this prior knowledge gleamed from the digital pages of Wikipedia – quite the opposite. In fact it’s a French/Danish co-production with absolutely zero concessions made to the French audience in terms of adding French characters or elements into the mix – French network Arte embraced the obvious universal appeal of the story.
As the layers of the story and characters begin to reveal themselves, some contextual information can lead to a better understanding of the complex characters’ motivations. Patriarch Johannes clearly sees himself as a man on a quest for knowledge and understanding of the meaning of life in the league of Grundtvig, wanting to boost the Copenhagen district’s falling levels of membership to the National Church, which relative to the rest of the country are low, and nearing 50% as reflected in the real world. He seeks to reinvigorate the idea of the church as a place of discussion of the big questions in his effort to become the first Bishop in the family in a long line of pastors.
The Copenhagen diocese is particularly important, owing to the fact that the Denmark has no archbishop, instead the Bishop of Copenhagen is awarded the primus inter pares – an unofficial leadership of the nation’s dioceses.
Johannes is forced to confront the idea that his ideas of Christianity in modern Denmark have become outdated when faced with his opponent in the Copenhagen district elections for Bishop. His passion and fire seem to be up against some stiff competition from his opponent’s political correctness and capitalist ideology.
Grudtvig’s presence and influence is still felt in a very tangible way in Denmark. School children sing his hymns at Easter, birthdays, and other special occasions – the songs themselves are a part of the national psyche. His work is studied in high schools and university. He was once considered a liberal champion, with anti-egalitarian ideas, but his teachings of nationalism are now being co-opted by the far right and as justification for Denmark’s strict immigration policies.
The family drama and incredible characters mean that there is much to love about Ride Upon The Storm without being across these references to the church and Grundtvig himself, but for non-Danish viewers a little more background makes Johannes’ plight all the more relevant.
Ride Upon The Storm airs Thursday nights on SBS at 10:30pm. You can stream the entire first season now at SBS On Demand.