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Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen explains how the show proves power corrupts everyone

As the acclaimed Danish political drama returns, its star Sidse Babett Knudsen talks about her character’s loss of ideals, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor

Borgen is back. In the nine years since we last saw Sidse Babett Knudsen as Danish politician Birgitte Nyborg, the political world has changed dramatically.

The series aired on BBC Four in the UK – becoming the most popular of the Danish imports that viewers flocked to in the wake of The Killing. It returns now on Netflix.

The new fourth series finds Birgitte Nyborg politically and personally alone. With a huge oil find in Greenland leading to a clash between principles and power, Borgen is as good as ever. Knudsen tells us more...

I had come to peace with leaving her behind. And I think we had left it in a good place. So it was not something we were planning. But the writer was writing another project – he had talked to the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and come up with this idea about Greenland and finding oil. But the more he worked on it, the more he thought it fitted into the old Borgen universe.

When he approached me at first, I was reluctant. I thought, let’s not touch it. But the more we talked, the more curious I was to see how Birgitte was doing!

I really liked the evolution of the character. And the idea that she’s very much alone. She could just dedicate herself completely to saving the world. Her family are used to there being other priorities for her – and now she doesn’t even have to hide it any more. 

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She can be completely upfront. And then the curious thing is that when she finally has a chance to really save the world, what does she do? It’s so much more mature this series, in a way. It is a little less naive, a little less idealistic, a little more hard and real. 

It is green politics against the big cash. It’s such a dilemma. Because for Greenland to explore the options of producing oil is so bad for the climate – but it would finally give them the independence they have been trying to get for so many years.

And for Birgitte, whose politics are quite climate conscious, she quickly finds out that – because she is not prime minister any more, she is a little lower in the hierarchy, it is going to happen with her or without her. And she would rather be in the discussion. But if you are part of the discussion you sometimes have to put words. In your mouth you might not want to say. All these compromises. 

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I think she comes from a good place. But we follow her down a path that takes so many turns and little by little, I think it’s quite subtle, we don’t really recognise her any more and she doesn’t really recognise herself. It’s really interesting for a character to go against herself in a way. It is not always a joyful path. I thought it was really interesting but sometimes it was really hard – because I really root for her. And she does things this season that hurt me a little bit. 

I don’t like to see her compromise her principles. But I think it is interesting and much more realistic. The whole ambition for this series was to use as much of the DNA of the old series, but then bring a bit up to date.

When we talked about where is Birgitte in her life, it is very natural that she is going through the menopause. Nobody talked about it for a long time but it pops up all over the place as a condition that half the world’s population have to face. It’s not a big plot or anything, but it’s part of her daily routine and also part of this unpredictable thing that is nature.

Which is kind of the theme of this season – nature, and what is uncontrollable when we want to control everything. There are limits to our control. 

Borgen is available on Netflix now

Before, she was the bright new thing. But she has a boss now. And that was really interesting. Because she doesn’t do very well with a boss – when you’ve been the boss yourself it is really difficult to step down. And in her head, it is good and normal and how things should be. But her whole personality works against it, she can’t really accept it – because I think she thinks at this point that she is probably the best politician in the country. And it would be most natural and benefit the whole country if we just did what she thinks. 

So the whole idea of democracy, which is really her thing – a blind a beautiful trust and belief in democracy. But it shows that it is dangerous to be at the summit. There is a little bit of hubris going on. I believe in her, so I follow her down this slightly dodgy path at times. She does, in the end, fight for power just to stay in power. 

But she hasn’t seen how much she is holding on to power. It does kind of show that power corrupts everyone. I don’t want to think that it is like that – it makes me a bit sad. It should be possible to hold power and maintain idealism. And if it isn’t something has got to change. I haven’t met enough politicians to say, but I do feel I have met politicians who still burn for the same stuff they always have. 

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In the old Borgen, she would fight for your right to have a different opinion. But Denmark is a small country. And being a Danish person. I think it is just the right size. Because it is small, the gap between the lowest and the highest, the richest and poorest, the powerful and the powerless is manageable in some way. Whereas in your country from the lowest to the highest, there are so many unsurpassable hierarchies. 

You have to have something underneath. To raise the bottom. A safety net. But isn’t it all around the world that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer? So what do we do? 

This was my first adult role. I’d done mostly comedy. And I was playing the mother of the nation. A real authority. I was so happy that people bought into it. I loved the tone of it. I love playing Birgitte Nyborg and I love the universe of Borgen – maybe it is because I am more of a questions person. I very seldom have any sort of answers! 

Borgen streams on Netflix from 2 June

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