70's People 70's People 70's People 70's People

The Seventies People

  •  - Denmark
  •  - Danmarks Radio
  •  - 1974
  •  - 127 mins


In 1974 I made ‘The 70s People’ for Danmarks Radio (Danish Radio and TV Corporation), and the following year wrote a description of how this film project developed. It had started with my own concern for the stresses of life in a modern industrialized society, and the reports of high suicide figures in Denmark.

Danish society has many of the outward characteristics of the ‘ideal’ welfare state - chubby children, green grass, milk, honey, and convivial hospitality. In contrast to the brooding silence of Oslo and Stockholm, the restaurants of Copenhagen are often filled with raucous laughter, blue cigar smoke and ... much slapping of backs. But with a few weeks research, I had begun to sense the very strong contradictions in this outwardly jovial society ... First, I began to check into the suicide figures in Denmark.
Yes, I was told, we have the 5th or 6th highest suicide rate in the world, and at the moment this numbers about twelve hundred deaths a year.
What, I inquired, about attempted suicide.
Short silence. Well, actually, there has not been much research done in this area.
Yes, but how many Danes attempt to take their lives each year?
Mmm, that’s hard to say, but somewhere in the ratio of 3 or 4 to every one fulfilled suicide.
And how many of these three or four thousand attempts are made by young people?
We don’t really know, the last detailed research into this was done ten years ago by a Copenhagen psychiatrist working on her doctor’s thesis.

By now I was becoming intrigued - something very essential was wrong I felt, if only in the vagueness of the replies. So I asked one of the main Copenhagen hospitals to do research into the last year’s figures for intakes into its Poisons Ward (a very large proportion of Danish suicides are made - or attempted - with the use of Barbiturates).

In the meantime, we put an advertisement in the Copenhagen newspapers, asking for responses from people who might like to share their feelings about modern stress. We particularly wanted to meet those Danes who felt angst about themselves, their role in life, their identity. About 300 Danes responded, and for the next 5-6 weeks I and the two [researchers] working with me talked with them ... Though each of these people talked about extremely personal and individual factors affecting their lives, certain similarities did emerge. One was a sense that many of them had [had] a surfeit of [materialistic] society - they had begun to feel, very deeply, that there was something missing from their lives. We discussed this elusive factor a great deal.

Many of the young people talked of the stresses within their families -of the pressures on them as individuals - many of them felt that even at the age of 17 or 18 they were not taken seriously by their parents or by their society. They felt they had little or no personal contact with their teachers at school. When asked, they said that they very seldom discussed social or political matters in the classroom, they were given very little information on the nuclear arms race, for instance, or on the world hunger and population crisis.

[From] one group of youngsters, at what was supposed to be one of the most advanced schools in Copenhagen, only two out of ten had vaguely heard of the explosion of an Indian nuclear device, which had occurred two days earlier. One of the boys thought that Strontium 90 was a kind of motor-bicycle. After three or four days of meetings like this, in different schools, one of the two women working with me said, in a very startled tone, ‘My God, I honestly thought that this kind of thing only happened in my day’.

At one concrete dormitory area in the suburbs of Copenhagen, there is a vast complex of high-rise apartment blocks, planned with all the technical acumen of the twentieth century - which has somehow managed to overlook the construction of any recreation area for the thousands of youngsters living in the complex. The only possibility for them is to purchase a beer at the local railway station and sit on a bench in the ticket hall.

By this time, the figures from the Copenhagen hospital had come in, [revealing] that almost 30 per cent of the attempted suicides in Denmark were made by young people under the age of thirty.

I talked with several priests in the Danish Folk Church, who informed me that the only professional counseling in Denmark for someone who felt at an emotional crossroads, perhaps near suicide, was to go to one of their ‘emergency suicide centres’ ... Such church centres are staffed largely by volunteers, and receive not one kroner in aid from the Danish government. They exist entirely on charity. There is literally nothing else ...

This, of course, should be seen in the perspective of a society with a vastly overloaded bureaucratic structure, creaking under the strain of supporting a welfare state which would probably collapse were it not for the exorbitant tax demands made upon its citizens. “Yes,” said one teacher, “I had a 12-year old boy in my class, who was being a bit difficult with me. I phoned his parents, to ask what I should do. Hit him, they replied, that’s what we always do.”

I asked several young people how they felt about themselves as people, and they commented that they had never been asked that question before ...”

The film: ‘The 70’s People’ focuses on the lives of two Copenhagen families, one well-to-do, the other less so, and in particular on the problems facing their children. The family scenes were ‘enacted’, after a great many personal and group discussions with the non-professional participants. The film also includes actual interviews with many young people, and reconstructed interviews with a psychologist, school teacher, doctor, television executive, fire brigade rescue chief, minister, etc.

The film was made in Copenhagen during the summer of 1974, with cinematographer Henrik Herbert, sound recordist Andres Møller, and art director Leif Hedager; I edited the film with the assistance of Jeff McBride. Consultants included Jens Guldbaek, Tine Bryld, and others. Jette Jørgensen played Kathrine; Inge Lundgren - her mother; Erik L.Christensen - her father; Anne Kathrine Holm - Anne; Elisabeth Hastrup - her mother; Frederick Rils-Petersen - her father; Christian Rosenstand-Koux - her brother; Susanne Andreassen - their grandmother.


Again from the text I wrote in 1975:

“The film is, of course, very critical of the human gap in the Danish welfare system, but it is also a film about the Western world in general.It is therefore interesting to see the reaction to the film. In Denmark, the critics have reacted with a viciousness and a narrow-mindedness which one had naively thought belonged to the last century. There was also a frightening similarity to much of the language used, almost as though many of the critics had sat around a table and checked with each other on how they were going to destroy the validity of the film ...”

‘The 70’s People’ was indeed heavily attacked by Danish critics. They complained that I was a foreigner who did not understand the culture - “the facts” I presented were therefore suspect (an accusation which was to be repeated during my years in Scandinavia). It was clear that the critics did not want anyone - especially from abroad - questioning the highly protective image they had formulated of their famous welfare society. With a few exceptions, the reviews completely ignored the central issues in ‘The 70’s People’, or its aesthetic aspects and complex structure. The following speak for themselves:

‘Jeg tror ikke på den udsendelse, fordi den er fordrejet. Og dens elementaere budskab om desperat ensomhed og fatale beslutninger overdøves totalt af en pukken på den samlede verdens skyldfølesle’(Politken)

‘Filmen er et utålegigt, pseudo-seriøst, smart og overfladisk montage-potpourri ...’ (Information)

‘70’ernes folk’ repraesenterer kun Peter Watkins virkelighed. Det burde man have understreget langt tydeligere’ (Kristeligt Dagsblad)

‘70’ernes folk’ kan bedst karakterisere som en pompøs fiasko. En begavet instruktors aergerrige, men mislykkede projekt. Et fejlslagent forsøg at praesentere Danmark og danskerne for den sandhed, mange har sagt, men ikke sagt tydeligt nok’ (Berlingske Tidende)

‘Filmen var et stykke dristig kunst. Der var klippet med enorm og pågående dygtighed og konstrueret med formidabel virkning i seernes sjael’ (Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten)


‘The ‘70s People’ was effectively shelved after one screening on Danmarks Radio, and telecasts in Sweden and Norway. Danmarks Radio yielded to pressure from the former Danish Prime Minister, who asked that the film not be shown again (he is less than a sympathetic figure in the actual film). A senior producer with the Danmarks Radio Drama Department justified marginalizing ‘The 70’s People’ with the same ‘logic’ used against ‘The War Game’, ‘Edvard Munch’, ‘La Commune’: ‘While Watkins is a sensitive documentarist, The ‘70s People did not function as well as it should have.’

© Peter Watkins 2022