Denmark’s tax laws were never Number One with a bullet on my priority list of interesting topics, but, after viewing “Sex, Drugs, and Taxation,” a Danish film by Christoffer Boe, I’m more interested than I initially thought I was. This was one of the funniest serio-comic pieces of real-life reporting that I’ve seen this film season, based, as it is, on a real-life Danish politician who hated paying taxes and did everything he could to avoid doing so, to the point that he went to jail for tax evasion.
The unlikely hero of this serio-comic piece is Mogens Glistrup (Nicolas Bro), who spends much of the film spouting off about paying taxes. “Show me who you’re taxing, and I’ll tell you who you are,” he says, at one point in the film. Glistrup even goes on television and, in response to the question, “Shouldn’t we happily pay our taxes?” responds “Paying taxes is immoral.” He adds, “I compliment those who pay the least taxes and condemn those who pay the most.”
Glistrup seems quite in tune with modern-day United States billionaires like the Walton family or the Romneys. There is $1.2 trillion passed down in America each year, according to former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who says, “Our estate tax system is broken.” Rich folks like the Waltons and the Romneys and the Rockefellers pour money into trusts (more than $9 billion in Alice Walton’s mother’s and brother’s trust since 2003) that help them avoid paying taxes by using what is commonly referred to as the “Jackie O” trust method. (Jackie O trusts are primarily charitable planning tools, whose general guarantee is that 100% of the assets, plus an assumed return approved by the IRS, will be distributed to charity. However, when the assets accumulate fast, whatever is left at the end of a set period of time (usually 20 or 30 years) goes back to the donor’s heirs, without any taxation. Since a 40% tax is levied at death on estate of more than $5.25 million per individual, total lifetime giving to heirs that exceeds that threshold is also taxed at 40%, which prevents people from avoiding the estate tax through early handouts. However, the “Jackie O” trusts, in America, are going strong.
And, apparently, in Denmark, the same sort of phenomenon occurs, according to this film, because lines like “The natural hierarchy has collapsed in this country” would indicate we are not alone. As the film posits, “There are 2 rules: the rich get tax deductions and the rich evade the law…The ruling class makes the laws.”
The comic portions of Glistrup’s life come into play as a result of his association with an eccentric millionaire named Simon Spies (Pilou Asbaek), whose long gray beard and penchant for appearing naked and aroused (not to mention having sex with a variety of ladies of the evening while on camera) marks him as not likely to win any awards as a Pillar of the Danish community. Glistrup is Spies’ attorney, and they share the same desire to avoid paying taxes. At one point, Spies says, to his taxman, “We’re two old geezers with money and sharp minds…But who the hell are we?” The two set off to defraud the government of getting any of their money, using Section 16, Subsection C or Section 22, Subsection 4, or any number of other arcane tax codes. In fact, the large firm where Glistrup originally works doesn’t even want Spies as a client, saying, “We’re honest people, not fortune hunters.”
That doesn’t prevent Glistrup from becoming Spies’ best friend. We get to see the nude Spies confront a gorilla in a cage, throwing him some cashews and staring the beast down. Did I mention that the Spies character appears to be sexually aroused at the time?
As is usually the case when someone has to take the fall (*See notation on Scooter Libby , Valerie Plame, “Fair Game”), Glistrup eventually takes the blame for all of Simon Spies’ excesses, doing time in 2001 for aggravated tax evasion. He goes to his old friend and collaborator, and Simon coldly says, “There is no us. Not any more.” Like many criminals before him (the star of “Blade,” Wesley Snipes, comes to mind) Spies will deny any knowledge of what his taxman did for him, and the tax man will suffer the consequences.
But THIS tax man comes out fighting. He has been quoted as saying, “If you want to be King, you have to be prepared to go to war.” He goes on national Danish television and creates a new party, the Progress Party. He is so likable in his honesty that people vote him and his party into power. One of the tenets of the Progress Party is to abolish the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and simply purchase an answering machine with a Russian voice saying, “We surrender.” The tax circus Glistrup presided over as ringmaster leads to his election to the highest level of Danish power in parliament. He says his role will be to dismantle government. [Echoes of the Tea Party in the U.S. are stronger than we would like.]
Ultimately, Glistrup did get out of prison, but he went right back in for racism in 2005 and died on July 1, 2008 at the age of 82, discredited as a rational source of governing principles and sad that his life-long friendship with Simon Spies ended with Spies’ death before his release from prison. The Danish film ends rather enigmatically, for U.S. audiences, with a single word on a piece of paper, conveyed to him by Spies young widow. It is not translated.
Given the previous events and scenes, I am guessing it was something profane, but it could also have been “I’m sorry.” Not since “Rosebud” has one word had such a mysterious and enigmatic power over a film. I’m still searching for a translation.