ILULISSAT, Greenland — From the top floor of a hotel here, the view of Disko Bay, a vast inlet in western Greenland dotted with icebergs, was captivating.
But as Danish actor Sidse Babett Knudsen stared out the window at what appeared to be a frozen ghost town shimmering in the early September sun, she looked more pained than captivated. Knudsen was in Greenland shooting scenes for a new season of “Borgen,” the acclaimed series that apparently ended nearly a decade ago.
In the years that followed, her character Birgitte Nyborg, Denmark’s first female prime minister, underwent changes that made Knudsen uncomfortable. “She goes to bad places,” the actor said of Birgitte’s revival. “Which is intellectually interesting, but actually a bit difficult to do because I feel this incredible responsibility to take care of her.”
This dilemma of beloved characters going bad is at the heart of the fourth season of “Borgen,” which, after a long hiatus and February debut on Danish public television, begins streaming on Netflix on June 2. is unchanged: it still navigates a surprisingly engaging path through the thickets of politics, and it still focuses on the double bind that women in positions of power face in their public and private lives.
But now the stakes are higher: Instead of episodic stories of inter-party fighting, this “Borgen” follows a single plotline throughout the season: large oil reserves are discovered in Greenland and geopolitical tensions erupt around issues of sovereignty, climate change and decolonization. . And all this between characters who themselves have not only aged, but become darker: less “West Wing”, more “House of Cards”.
When “Borgen” aired what appeared to be its final episode on Danish television in 2013, the show was already on its way to becoming an international hit; finally broadcast in 70 countries, it will launch the Hollywood career of several of its stars, including Knudsen, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen and Pilou Asbaek.
Knudsen’s immensely sympathetic portrayal of a political idealist who was both a determined leader and a vulnerable woman (the first episode had her known to struggle to fit into the costume she planned to wear during an important debate) may have even helped the public to accept the idea of a female prime minister; Denmark elected its first, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a year after the debut of “Borgen” in 2010. But it also made Birgitte a feminist icon on a global scale. “I was in London once,” Knudsen said. “And a woman came up to me and said she had something on her fridge that said, ‘What would Birgitte Nyborg do? “”
For all its popularity, the series was never intended to last longer than its original three seasons, and Knudsen was initially reluctant, she said, to make a fourth, thinking fans would inevitably be disappointed. . She was won over by the trajectory of the new season presented by the series creator and screenwriter, Adam Price, and her affection for his character.
Several other key players, including Hjort Sorensen, who plays journalist Katrine Fonsmark, also returned. “What’s great,” said Hjort Sorensen, “is that 10 years have passed, both in real time and for the characters. So when I read the first script, I had the feels like catching up with old friends on Facebook: Oh, you did!In the new season, Katrine returns to journalism and becomes the head of a newsroom, only to find that the traits that served earlier in her career – her tenacity and uncompromising nature – make her an unsympathetic boss.”I definitely wrestled with my vanity on her behalf,” Hjort Sorensen said.But she also welcomed the possibility of exploring a character who has understood with age “that the world is less black and white”.
Birgitte, now foreign minister, is also compromising on her ideals. “She is faced with a choice: are you going to leave the stage in style or are you going to stay in the game? The price said. “Knowing that staying in the game means your hands will be very dirty.” The real action of this “Borgen” takes place on the massive, ice-covered island of Greenland, 2,000 miles from Copenhagen. When oil is discovered there, it falls to Birgitte not only to manage the competing interests of the United States, China and Russia, but, even more delicately, to negotiate with the Greenlandic government about its extraction.
“Borgen” has always had a nod to real political events, and here, too, the corollaries resonate. An autonomous region of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland has power over several policy areas, but still relies heavily on the Danish government for its operating expenses; an annual subsidy of over $600 million represents about 20% of Greenland’s gross domestic product. On the show and in real life, the discovery of valuable natural resources in Greenland could offer a path to ending the country’s dependence on Denmark.
Focusing the new season on this arc has brought immense challenges. The logistics were daunting: Filming took place in August and September 2021, when Greenland’s strict coronavirus policies had reduced the already low number of international flights. Greenland has no roads to connect its colonies, and everything needed for the several weeks of filming in Ilulissat, Greenland’s third-largest city, and Nuuk, the capital, had to be shipped from Copenhagen by ship. This included a life-size submarine and crates of chemical hand warmers that would keep the team from freezing on set.
More delicate still was the task of representing a country and a people still in full decolonization. “We have this huge history together,” Price said of the tensions that drew him to the season’s storyline. “There’s so much guilt, and there’s so much underlying anger.”
But as a Danish production making a story about Greenlanders, “Borgen” ran the risk of reproducing historical patterns. “We’re so used to being represented by others,” said Nivi Pedersen, an actor who plays Greenland’s prime minister’s attaché on the show and is also a documentary filmmaker. “And we’re just beginning to tell our own stories, both within ourselves and to the rest of the world.”
Price admits that in early drafts, “some of the Greenlandic characters bordered on cliché, because I didn’t know any better.” He tried to counteract that with extensive research and giving Greenland “as much voice as possible on the show”, he said. As well as hiring novelist Niviaq Korneliussen to handle the translation of the Greenlandic dialogue, the management team was influenced by a research trip organized by prominent local businessman Svend Hardenberg, who said trying to introduce the team to the real Greenland.
While production was underway, the show’s Greenlandic cast expressed concern in interviews about certain cultural elements they considered important for authenticity – local accents that would make a character’s origins immediately obvious to other Greenlanders; the deep-rooted codes that would prevent another from making a public outburst—were not accurately depicted. And since the show premiered, reviews from the Greenlandic press have been mixed. “It quickly becomes a cartoonish representation of a beautiful land with noble and submissive people,” writes the Sermitsiaq newspaper.
But the Danes and Greenlanders involved in the production expect the season to open their audiences’ eyes in a big way. “I think it will have an impact on how other people view the relationship between Danes and Greenlanders, and maybe how Danes view themselves,” Hardenberg said. “That’s the wonderful thing about a vehicle like ‘Borgen’,” Price agreed. “We can truly inform and entertain at the same time.”
That the new season does so in darker tones than previous ones feels like an honest reflection of the past decade. Months after her stay in Ilulissat, Knudsen no longer wondered if she had made the right decision in returning to “Borgen”. Like the others, she hoped the show would help raise awareness of Denmark’s relationship with Greenland, and she said she felt definitely changed by her encounters with these spectacular icebergs in Disko Bay.
When asked how she thought this woman in London would now feel about Birgitte, whom the actor again portrays with deft nuance, Knudsen smiled with the adorable wrinkle of her nose that her character is known for. .
“There may not be as much advice about her refrigerator from Birgitte Nyborg,” she said. “But I hope she finds the trip interesting.”