top of page

Denmark's dark past

Forced sterilisation, neglect, violence, confinement and sexual abuse. This was the reality for

many of the disabled and mentally ill who were in the care of the Danish state between 1933 and 1980. In this issue, we highlight a film based on a dark period in the modern history of Denmark.

Photographs: / NORDISK FILM / Det Danske Filminstitut

Text: Michaela Medveďová / Sara R. Newell

The newly-released film "Ustyrlig" (Uncontrollable) tells the story of 17-year-old wild and unruly Maren and her 6-year stay at the women's institution Sprogø.

"How can you live with yourself?" asks Sørine, one of the main characters, addressing the words to the primary nurse at Sprogø.

This a sentence that might flash through the viewers' heads several times throughout the newly-released film by Malou Reymann. Especially when they learn that the story is far from fiction and covers a particularly dark period in Denmark's history.

A picturesque prison

Between 1923 and 1961, Sprogø, a small island along the Great Belt Bridge, was home to the Kellersk Institution. Women were sent to the institution if they were deemed feeble-minded but mostly morally deficient, the symptoms of which were behaviours that broke the established moral code of the era: sexual promiscuity, sexual activity when unmarried, vagrancy, or thieving.

This institution was part of a greater effort in society at that time to make sure that Denmark had a "healthy" population by reducing the number of illegitimate children and children with so-called "degenerate genes", which were mainly blamed on sexually active women. The institution had a dual function as a quarantine for these "morally weak" women and as a deterrent so that other females wouldn't engage in this behaviour.

During its almost 40-year tenure, the Sprogø institute housed around 500 women, usually about 40-50 at a time. In the movie, one of the women is Maren (played with full force at every turn by Emilie Koppel), a 17-year-old girl from Copenhagen who is sent to the institution because of her wild behaviour.

For those unaware of the institution's role in history and the consequences of the stay, its slowly revealed with beautiful contrast. The picturesque house where the women reside is set in an almost unrealistically beautiful setting on a small Danish island. When Maren first arrives at Sprogø, her walk from the harbour is sunlit and leads through a garden filled with beautiful flowers.

The serene atmosphere is, however, very soon contrasted with the hopeless conditions of the institution's inhabitants. The women are used as a source of domestic and agricultural labour to tend to the land on the island (just as they did in the actual Kellersk Institution) - labour was supposed to emulate everyday family life and was meant to "normalise" the women. The lovely house was filled with ever-present rules. The seemingly nurturing primary nurse engaged in the frequent infantilisation of the women, constantly addressing them as "girls". And when they became too unruly, they were sent to the "reporting room" (or betænkningsrummet) to calm down - which often took the form of being strapped to the bed. This room still stands in Sprogø, and scratch marks from former inhabitants' nails are still visible on the walls.

Living a horror film

While the film unveils the unsettling conditions slowly through the eyes of Maren as she attempts to settle into her new life, it's not long until the movie pulls out the first reveal as if out of a horror movie: even though the women aren't inmates, per se, they are sent to the institution for an indefinite period of time. As Maren, with growing despair, goes around the room and asks the other women how long they've been at Sprogø, she learns that the others have been there for two, five, six, or even twelve years. Maren starts to think that she might never get to leave the island.

In an interesting juxtaposition, the film pits the two main heroines - a "newbie" Maren and a veteran, Sørine - against each other before ultimately coming together and changing each other's lives. The film shows two distinct ways of approaching the system: fighting against it to keep your character - or playing the part of the obedient girl on the slim chance of an early release.

These differences, however, amount to very little when coming to the most upsetting reveal: the introduction of the Sterilization Law of 1934, making the sterilisation of people deemed mentally ill possible. Between 1929 and 1967, 11 thousand people were sterilised - many of which were women from the Sprogø island. The film shows this horrific reality in two examples. After her child is taken away, Maren is sterilised entirely against her will and without her knowledge. Sørine gives her consent, but under duress - undergoing sterilisation was the only option that allowed her to be released from the island.

While, on the surface, the film offers a happy ending, in reality, it's bittersweet at best. It merely highlights how much the system and the laws stole from these women: their motherhood, time, and lives.

Not because they were unruly. But because they lived in disturbing times for which they, to this day, still have received no official apology. It remains to be seen if the Danish government will ever give an official apology and if the government has the will to ensure that this dark period in history can never be repeated.

395 views0 comments


bottom of page