Danish film director Bille August has directed a film based on a novel by Henrik Pontoppidan, first made into a screenplay by August and Anders Frithiof August. A Fortunate Man: A Danish Tragedy is available on Netflix and is well worth watching.
Lykke-Per (A Fortunate Man) is a drama from 2018 and was one of three films shortlisted to be the Danish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. The nearly three hour-film is based on the eight-volume novel written by Danish Nobel Prize-winning author Henrik Pontoppidan (1857–1943). It was originally published between 1898 and 1904.
The title “A Fortunate Man” has a double edge, as the movie, whose characters rarely fail to explain their motives and circumstances. The film is set in the late 19th century when the main character Peter Sidenius gets accepted to study Engineering at the College of Advanced Technology in Copenhagen. He leaves rural Jutland for Copenhagen and breaks ties with his overbearing, pious father’s calvinist background. He hates his father and he rejects a gift of his father’s pocket watch. The self-confident Peter, free of family and Christian religion, is poor but studies hard. He befriends a waitress who teaches him the ways of the city and introduces him to the world of sex but is dismissed on his rise up in social status.
So, the movie asks whether it is possible to rise above humble origins or whether birth and character are destiny. Peter Andreas or Per, as he is increasingly called, believes that wind and water can be harnessed for energy — and that whoever controls the energy supply will have money and power. The title also apparently alludes to the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale, Lucky Hans (Hans im Glück), about a young man who keeps trading one item after another for one of lesser value and ends up empty-handed, but relieved.
The background clash
Peter meets Ivan Salomon, from a wealthy Jewish banking family. Ivan likes the ambitious, smart engineer and especially likes Peter’s revolutionary grand future project to harness water and wind power to develop the country with electricity. Ivan helps Peter adjust to free-thinking intellectuals, new political thought, monied-class businessmen, cultural rules and expectations, and the Salomon family.
Their daughter Jakobe was to marry Eybert, a little older, wealthy, and established Jewish man, but instead falls in love with Peter. Peter fails to win ministerial government approval for his plans. Phillip, the senior Salomon, decides to send Peter to Austria to further his engineering studies and get others’ review of his plans for canals, windmills, and water energy. Peter and Jakobe are separated by his travels.
However, their backgrounds clash: She has a high social standing and is Jewish. He is poor and, despite his desire to reject his father, inwardly conflicted about his strict Christian upbringing – and he is also too headstrong to bootlick.
Related: Famous Danish Film Directors
From a Jewish perspective
At the 2019 New York Jewish Film Festival, Elisebeth Dyssegaard said about the film:
“A gifted but self-destructive young man leaves his suffocating Lutheran upbringing in the country for the metropolitan Copenhagen of the 1880s. An engineer with progressive ideas, he is welcomed by a wealthy Jewish family and insinuates himself into their opulent milieu, embarking on a journey of personal and professional ambition that teeters on the razor’s edge between triumph and catastrophe. A sprawling story of grand scope and high romance from the Academy Award–winning director of ‘Pelle the Conqueror’, ‘A Fortunate Man’ is a rare kind of film—beautifully realized, full of exceptional performances, and with a dramatic sweep on par with the great classics of cinema.”
The best of Bille August
The sprawling narrative sometimes gets the best of August. For instance, is the waitress Per rejects forgotten by him, or just by the movie? His habit of over-explaining each new development also appears to have removed nuance from a much more textured story. “A Fortunate Man” is a great advertisement for the book.
A Danish Tragedy, written by Tor Kjolberg