Valdemar Psilander, Icon of Danish Silent Cinema

The actor Valdemar Psilander, born on 9th May 1884, first appeared before a camera, albeit rather unobtrusively, in October 1910, just a few weeks after Asta Nielsen’s sensational debut in Afgrunden. Shortly afterwards, however, he was hired by the Nordisk Films Kompagni where, in the space of six years, he played the leading role in 83 different movies. His first film Ved Fængslets Port, which premiered on 6th March 1911, was a great success and 246 copies were sold world-wide. It was, and still is, one of the best films of the period, thanks to its innovative style, careful attention to detail and excellent performances. Psilander was something of a goldmine for Nordisk Films, and following his debut he soon became the company’s highest paid actor. He was particularly popular with German, Russian and Hungarian audiences and even a mediocre script became – at least in the eyes of the public – a film worth seeing simply because of his charisma.

Psilander starred in numerous formulaic films made by Nordisk Films’ well-oiled machine and was regularly cast as the young hero in romantic melodramas and action films. He usually played the part of a nobleman, officer, or artist of some kind and he mastered these roles perfectly. Dressing up in tight-fitting uniforms, elegant riding boots and tailored evening dress all added to his irresistible appeal; his talent as a horseman was also exploited to the full. Psilander rarely played villains, but in Mormonens Offer, made in 1911, he showed that he could play this type of role as well.

Despite the intensity of his output, a number of these films are still notable and several are considered important and exceptional works of art, such as Evangeliemandens Liv and Klovnen. In both these films Psilander interprets parts not dissimilar from his other roles yet in both cases he rises to the occasion, acting with greater depth and creating strong and moving characters. Klovnen was only released after Psilander’s death and became his greatest artistic success.

At the end of 1916 Psilander left Nordisk Films and there was a lot of speculation in the press as to what he would do next. The reason for the break was presumably because Nordisk would not agree to the new contract and exorbitant pay rise that Psilander had demanded. Instead Psilander chose to start his own film company and on 1st January 1917 Psilander-Film was born. Staff were hired, screenplays bought, and some footage in wich Psilan- der kisses Clara Wieth was even shot. And then it all ended. On 6th March 1917 Psilander was found dead in his hotel suite. His untimely death at the age of 32 greatly contributed to cementing his popularity and for a while even increased it. Abroad his death caused a sensation. Memorial shows were arranged, obituaries and commemorative poems were published and letters of condolence were sent from admirers from all over the world. But what made him so popular? Why did he become the greatest star Danish cinema has ever known? His subdued acting and evident sincerity certainly helped as did his masculine manner. But perhaps what really made him so unique was his handsome, charming face and that intense expression that made women all over the world swoon.
Twenty-seven complete Psilander films have survived. The Danish Film Institut has also produced a DVD with three of his films. There is also a complete filmography, biographical data and pictures of Valdemar Psilander on the Danish Film Institut home page (→Links og databaser→Danmarks nationalfilmografi).