Monday, October 5, 2015

Killing Time with Scandi-Noir

(Published in Multiverse – Singapore, Oct 2015)

“All things in nature are dark except where exposed by light.” 
Leonardo da Vinci

I realised my addiction had got out of hand in the labour ward of Raffles Hospital. My wife didn’t appear to be in much pain, so I suggested we do what we’d been doing every evening for the past weeks. Only when she said “no” did I really believe that our daughter was about to be born.
Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl)
The medical term for the addiction of which I speak is Forbrydelsen, which literally means “The Crime” but has been translated into English as “The Killing.” It is a Danish mystery series about a single-minded detective Sarah Lund’s investigation into the murder of the 19-year-old Nanna Birk Larsen. When two humanities professors become fanatical about a television series, it usually – though not always – means something is up. My wife, Anna, has literally read and watched every mystery story ever written – and she is not given to hyperbole (unlike me). So when she used the word “masterpiece” about the series my suspicion that it is a cut above the rest was confirmed. I also knew sooner or later I would be compelled to write about this particular addiction.

In this article I will present the phenomenon known as Scandi-Noir and an anatomy of a mystery masterpiece – in other words, why Forbrydelsen is a totally awesome show and why you should watch it. But first some cultural context. Don’t skip this part, it’s important. Scandinavia – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – is a lovely part of the world. On Midsummer’s Eve, the sun barely sets. Fair-haired children pick flowers and dance around the maypole while their older siblings get high in the woods and their parents sip on Schnapps and crunch on herring and lingonberry jam sandwiches. Harmony reigns! Swedes have a reputation for being joyous libertines. Scandinavian countries are as orderly and culture-rich as any in Europe. The governments are seen as exemplary models of the welfare state where the industrious prosper but where poorer citizens want for nothing. Swedish exports include Ikea and Abba. Enough said.

Swedish Midsummer (courtesy of IKEA)
But beneath the picture-postcard prettiness, there is a dark side to Scandinavia. And boy is it dark. Literally dark – at the winter solstice, there are barely a few hours of daylight and it is very, very cold. Suicide rates are high. Likewise, when one probes beyond the veneer of the perfect-looking societies, one finds cracks. Modern day Scandinavian countries are not immune from the pressures facing all of Europe – the widening of rich-poor divide and of social inequality and the pressure for financial austerity after decades of living beyond their means. Scandinavians tend to believe that their nations’ best days are already behind them.
There are also few skeletons in their national cupboards. During World War II, Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Germans and governed by collaborators. Sweden avoided occupation by declaring neutrality, yet supplied iron ore and steel to the German war machine. In recent times, xenophobia and white extremism have once again reared their ugly heads. The slaying of seventy-seven youths at a Norwegian summer camp in 2007 by a right-wing extremist is a horrific occurrence and a deeply scaring national tragedy.
Now back to black – or “noir.” It is a fictional genre of mystery and detective stories telling tales of murder, theft, blackmail, corruption, deceit and sex. Its origins can be traced to the “hard-boiled” detective novels of Depression-era America, where poverty was rife and the good guys didn’t get the girl. Raymond Chandler’s novels (The Big SleepThe Long Goodbye) with the original mumbling gumshoe Philip Marlowe have best survived the test of time. As a whole, however, these takes are downright dodge tales of pulp fiction with no lasting literary merit. 
And yet there is something infinitely fascinating about these murky mysteries. Dudley Andrew, a scholar and specialist in the genre, explains that they are “a sign of deeper, darker truths ... their contradictory tone, both hushed and hysterical, expressed unconsciously the existential angst of the times.”[1] Their poetic quality was captured in screen adaptations of the 1940s and 50s – a time when Hollywood, both tonally and morally, went over to the dark side. Film noir’s shadowy black-and-white imagery accentuated the moral ambiguity of its antiheroes and provided bleak backdrops for their demise, more-often-than-not at the hands of a deadly femme fatale.
Classic film noir chiaroscuro
(The Killers, 1946)
Scandi-Noir is a modern, hybridised version of its American counterpart. At its best, it is more philosophical, more political and more powerful. It harnesses the tension between the idyllic surface and the dark lower depths, indiscriminately probing the raison-d’être of all its inhabitants – it is an intoxicating formula. Not everyone is a villain in Scandi-Noir – there are some sheep in among the wolves. In a sense, the genre can be conceived of as a mirror image of Scandinavia itself; beautifully bleak.
I won’t give a long history of Scandinavian noir, but again a bit of context is helpful. Its earliest origins can be traced way, way back to ancient Nordic folklore. Few other ancient cultures have more creatures that go bump in the night. Trolls are obese half-wits who cause no end of mischief, but the real danger comes Maras (she-werewolves), Huldras and Elves; all prototype femmes fatales. 
Maras, Huldras and Elves:
Femme fatale prototypes
We’ll skip the Vikings, who were too busy marauding to leave behind much literature. There is a fascinating outsider case for claiming Hamlet as the first Scandi-Noir. Detective Hamlet investigates the suspicious death of the King, his father, who it turns out has been murdered by his brother and wife (Hamlet’s uncle and mother). As every schoolboy knows, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and in line with the noir tradition, everyone is dead by the end of the play.
The first work of Scandi-Noir?

In its modern incarnation Scandi-Noir was born in 1975 Stockholm, where a Swedish journalist named Per Wahlöö and a publisher named Maj Sjöwall wrote a series of detective stories about a depressed policeman called Martin Beck. The author Henning Mankell has said that “anyone who writes about crime as a reflection of society,” – as good a definition of the genre as any – “has been inspired to some extent by what they wrote.”[2] Mankell’s own detective series Wallander has made Ystad police and the eponymous detective household names in the UK, thanks to an atmospheric BBC adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh.[3]

By far the most successful international export of Scandi-Noir is the Stieg Larson “Millennium” novels – you’ve probably heard of them, if you haven’t read them. The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest have sold over eighty million copies worldwide and inspired four film adaptations. In this series, Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist teams up with Lisbeth Salander, a cyber punk teen, to fight misogynistic Nazi industrialists intent on destroying the Swedish liberal left.[4] The novels are compelling and thought-provoking, an all-too-rare instance of writing that is both critically and commercially successful.
We can now turn our attention to Forbrydelsen. Its first claim to “mystery masterpiece” status is that, even more so than the “Millennium” novels, it goes in for the kill when it comes to the politicians. Most mystery stories about abducted teenagers do not feature high-political intrigue, but Forbrydelsen’s genius is to seamlessly marry two noir subgenres – one personal and the other political. Its second stroke of genius is to implicitly frame murder as a philosophical and sociological question; I will endeavour to explain what this means by example.
The first lead in the investigation takes detective Sarah Lund and her partner Jan Meyer to the mayor’s office in Copenhagen. The suspect – a campaign worker who drove the car used to drown the missing teenager in a river – turns out to be a red herring. But a connection has been made with the mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann and both he and the upcoming election will figure in every episode. Troels is a charismatic and enigmatic figure played by Lars Mikkelsen, who has something of an international profile (he was recently the Russian President in the Netflix series House of Cards). On first encounter he seems as sincere as he is suave – an incorruptible operating in the “rotten” waters of Copenhagen politics.
The first test of Troels’ integrity comes when a major suspect in the investigation is revealed as a teacher of Middle-Eastern origin who is a “role model” in a programme to better the lives of young immigrants. Troels refuses to throw the teacher under a bus, proverbially-speaking, in spite of the media storm and damage to his campaign. On face value this is a noble act, but there is a hint of some ulterior motive at play. Is Troels hiding darker, dirtier secrets, as yet uncovered? Is he struggling with self-destructive urges?
    Troels Hartmann (Lars Mikkelsen)

Time and time again, Troels has to decide whether to act with integrity or in the interest of his campaign. Evidence suggests that one of his advisers is working against him; but is it his press secretary and lover Rie, or his long-time friend Morten? Among the many secrets to emerge from Troels’ closet is that, after his wife’s death, he was a serial internet seducer using the avatar “Faust.” The reference is heavy-handed, but the point is well made. In a sobering encounter with his mayoral opponent, the corrupt veteran politician Poul Bremer, we understand that the elder statesman was once upon a time as untainted and sincere as his younger rival. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But here’s the rub. Even if Troels has some serious integrity issues, the viewer still roots for him – he is charming and good-looking and we want him to play the game and to win. If statecraft is a dirty business, than our heroes must fight dirty. Are Troels’ secrets darker than any man’s? Naturally, this raises fundamental moral and ethical questions about our democratic value systems, and indeed our own. In the best of noir tradition, we find no easy answers.
If Forbrydelsen scores highly on content, its form is also excellent. Series creator Søren Sveistrup has taken a leaf out of Alfred Hitchcock’s book, whose motto was to “make the audience suffer as much as possible.” The formula is simple – keep the audience begging to find out whodunit, while providing enough twists, turns and red herrings to put some thrills in the ride – but it is rare for a series, especially one that runs for twenty episodes, to execute it so flawlessly.
The main suspense is derived from the long litany of suspects. Just when you think the evidence against a character is overwhelming, you discover there is an even more convincing culprit. The campaign worker whose car was used in the murder is a troubled man with a history of violence who ties up an old lady when pursued by the police. But he has a cast-iron alibi. Attention then shifts to Nanna’s school friends. Her ex-boyfriend is a rich punk who hosted a secret sex and drugs party in his school basement the very evening of the murder. But surveillance footage emerges of Nanna leaving the school alone – so it wasn’t him.
Rama, a school teacher and former soldier, is a yet more plausible suspect. He hid the fact that a student recently accused him of sexual misconduct and that – go figure – Nanna came to his house after the school party just a few hours before her death. Furthermore, his initial alibi was proven to be a lie. It must be him, right? But no, it turns out that at the time of Nanna’s death he was busy hiding away another teenage girl, an illegal immigrant seeking safe passage in Denmark.
The face of anguish: Theis and Pernille

Dissatisfied with the police investigation, Nanna’s father, Theis, decides to take justice into his own hand and beats Rama to within an inch of his life. It turns out Theis is suspected of committing a murder in his youth. But he has no clear motive for killing his own daughter, so attention turns back to the town hall and the other users of the car. After a missing CCTV tape is mysteriously delivered to Lund, we discover that Troels himself drove the vehicle that evening to a nearby luxury apartment where Nanna’s blood is found. Troels is arrested. It must be Troels, right?

It isn’t. I’ll stop there with the plot spoilers – and needless to say I have only covered a fraction of the twists, turns and intrigues that meander through the series. One would imagine that twenty, hour-long episodes must have some boring bits, and yes – there are some filler scenes. But Forbrydelsen takes its time skilfully – the characters live with you for the duration of the series as you are teased, entertained and drawn deep into its universe. It is the kind of television that is challenging the assumption that only cinema can aspire to visual art.
There are other aspects of Forbrydelsen that merit praise. The acting is superb – Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) in particular. Her character’s tenacious, at times blinkered – sometimes plain wrong – approach to the case and to her personal life, is entirely plausible. While not easily likeable, she is utterly compelling. The relationship between Lund and her gruff partner Meyer (Søren Malling) unfolds deftly, from hostility to complicity, and this adds a serious emotional kick to the finale when Meyer’s life is threatened. The production value is high – easily rivalling series from countries with much bigger television studios. The cinematography too is skilful, revelling in the dark hues of the wintery land and cityscapes of Copenhagen. Some sequences are especially memorable, such as the moment when the penny drops and Lund finally confronts the killer face to face.
As a critic, of course, I am contractually obliged to point out some flaws. The visuals are not as impressive as, for instance, Wallander or Broadchurch. The culprit is something of a let-down (it almost always is); inevitably it renders half the show’s intrigues irrelevant and also leaves a number of loose-ends. But I will reserve my ire for seasons two and three which fall woefully short of the “mystery masterpiece” status of season one. Season two is all political, with little by way of character drama. The third season, the story of the missing daughter of a rich industrialist – is something of a return to form, but condensed into a mere ten episodes it feels rushed. It does, however, have a strong, enigmatic ending worthy of the noir tradition; one that also means, sadly, Forbrydelsen will not be returning for a fourth series.
And so I conclude my long love letter to Scandi-Noir and my pitch for you to watch Forbrydelsen. I would encourage Singaporean readers in particular to watch this or some other Scandi-Noir series, mainly because, as you’ve gathered, it’s rather different from what you get on MediaCorp Channel 5. Let’s face it – its worldview is the complete antithesis of the local mentality that television should promote happy, wholesome viewing. I believe thinking people (like you) would find the series a gripping walk on the wild side, if not a worthy journey of discovery. The chances are good if you’ve got this far into my article! And if not – well, you will have spent some quality time with Nanna, Sarah, Jan, Troels, Theis and Pernille, and you’ll know a little more about the big bad world.
Scandi-Noir: Also known as Nordic Noir
On a lighter note, a big part of the enjoyment is derived from trying to understand Danish. If you listen carefully, you will figure out a number of words (“nu” is now, “hus” is house, “tag” is thanks etc.). In fact, after twenty hours, if you haven’t picked up enough Danish to order a Carlsberg, you’ve probably been watching the American remake. American audiences don’t do subtitles, so an army of production companies exist to remake Scandi-Noirs in an English-speaking setting. Anna and I watched five minutes of the American version of Forbrydelsen and lost interest. There was no Sarah Lund, no Troels Hartmann, no moody shots of Copenhagen. It follows the universal law of remakes – 99.9% are inferior rubbish, watch the original.

[1] Andrew, Dudley. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 12.
[3] FYI Branagh is noted for his film adaptation of Hamlet. See the connection?
[4] A fourth novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, has just been released. It is written by David Lagercrantz, as Stieg Larson died of a heart-attack in 2004, before any of his novels were published.

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