Nicolas Winding Refn

awarded with the Grand IFFMH Award 2023

The award winner in 2022 was the French director and screenwriter Alice Winocour. With 'Proxima' and 'Paris Memories', the two most recent films from her oeuvre could be experienced at the IFFMH. And not only that: in a round of talks open to all interested parties, our Masterclass, she allowed us insights into her work and helped us to interpret her cinematographic visions.


More than twenty years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn was a guest of the IFFMH with his second film ›Bleeder‹. At the time, no one could have predicted the skyrocketing international career that would follow for the Danish-born director. Not only has he established himself in Hollywood, he has also made three of the most influential films of the early 21st century: ›Drive‹, ›Only God Forgives‹ and ›The Neon Demon‹. Plus, he has worked with some of the most important actors of our time. Most notably Ryan Gosling, but also Carey Mulligan, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jena Malone, Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves.

The Hollywood breakthrough was preceded by a European career that took him from the ›Pusher‹-trilogy to the arthouse hits ›Bronson‹ and ›Valhalla Rising‹. The early Danish films are quite different from those he made in Hollywood: slightly grainy images, quick cuts and a camera that always stays close to the characters give the impression of witnessing the events nearly as if they were happening live. ›Bronson‹ marks a shift in Refn’s creative work: here begins the path to greater stylization and the lavishly produced visual language for which the director is now internationally renowned.

This visual language overwhelms us, astonishes us again and again. It entails strong contrasts between light and shadow, and generally a lot of darkness. Then, the already rich colors are overlaid with color filters, especially in red tones. There are backlit shots and fluid camera movements that alternate with static takes, not infrequently featuring symmetrical compositions. Sequences of images are sometimes faster, sometimes slower, always precise and rhythmic, in sync with the score, which is crucial for the atmosphere. The result is a dance of images, or rather, an ‘image-beat’ – a heartbeat of the film.

Refn’s love of cinematic experimentation, his unique vision of cinema beyond the mainstream, and his faith in the sheer power of images are remarkable. Indeed, his style also includes leaps across temporal planes, an extreme paring-down of the action, elliptical storytelling, and the mixing of a wide variety of genre tropes.

A central element of Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent films and series is certainly the stylization of violence. It very deliberately does not appear naturalistic, but artistically made, embedded in art – beautiful, even. This is no coincidence, for the director sees art itself as a form of violence designed to penetrate the viewer. Accordingly, he draws an analogy between the staging of violence and sex. It’s all about the build-up, the emotional connection. It makes sure to sweep us viewers along. The device of fading out the diegetic film sound and replacing it with music sets the stage for the visual experience of violence. Slow motion also has its place here. Think of the legendary elevator scene in ›Drive‹.

The characters themselves are often archetypes: the driver in ›Drive‹ and the protagonist in ›Valhalla Rising‹, whom others call One-Eye, have no names. These characters – for a long time they were mostly men; since ›The Neon Demon‹ they’ve increasingly been women – all seem to have difficulty connecting to the world and to other people. Their persistent silence is their eloquent way of expressing this. But this very silence also gives them a mysterious aura.

Most recently, Nicolas Winding Refn turned to the serial format, first with ›Too Old to Die Young‹, and then with ›Copenhagen Cowboy‹, which finally saw him return to Denmark – but with his new aesthetic. The series goes even further than ›The Neon Demon‹ because this time the hero is a woman. But the silence remains. As does our blissful astonishment.