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Y Gwyll is a four-part crime drama first broadcast on S4C in late 2013.  Hinterland, the English language version of the series, aired on BBC One Wales in the spring of 2014 and was also made available on the BBC iPlayer around that time.  From the outset, publicity for the show (in both English and Welsh) stressed its noirish credentials and drew direct comparisons with the Danish hit TV drama The Killing. Rights for the English language version have been sold to the Danish broadcaster behind The Killing (BBC News Wales, 2013), and the series is widely reported to be scheduled for broadcast on BBC4, home to other Nordic dramas including The Bridge and Borgen later this year.  Describing the show as ‘part Wallander, part Broadchurch, Ruth McElroy (2013) set the tone for critical analysis of the series, though some in Wales might balk at the title of her piece (‘What can Wales learn from Nordic Noir’) implying that Wales is late to the game when it comes to crime drama. Author Malcolm Pryce has established a successful long-running series of noirish tales beginning with Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001), while Robert Lewis’s darkly humorous Robert Llywelyn trilogy portrays a troubled PI struggling with alcohol addiction and personal hygiene issues.  Granted, the Welsh do not yet have the equivalent to Tartan Noir, but that does not mean that we have no tradition of crime writing and crime drama. 

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As a Welsh speaker living and working in England, and a big fan of Nordic Noir, I was intrigued by Hinterland from the moment I heard about it. In particular, I was interested to see how some of the conventions of Nordic Noir would carry over to Wales.  I was also intrigued by the fact that the series was shot first in English, then in Welsh. This has been trialled in Wales previously, with a detective series from the 1990s featuring the late Philip Madoc, called A Mind to Kill in English and Yr Heliwr in Welsh.  Likewise, one of the fascinations of BBC4’s  Scandinavian drama The Bridge is that it crosses borders and features both Danish and Swedish actors. However, with English subtitling, sadly much of the impact and politics of this linguistic mix is lost.  While the main language of Hinterland is English, some of the characters speak Welsh to one another (subtitled for non-Welsh speaking viewers).  The easy slippage from one language to another is something that I recognise as a bilingual speaker growing up in Wales, marking out different sets of relationships with friends and family, and of course being handy for excluding non-Welsh speakers from your conversations. In Hinterland, one of the uses of Welsh is to signal to the viewer how far certain characters are integrated into the local community or are perceived as outsiders.  In particular, the character of DCI Tom Mathias (played by Richard Harrington), newly returned from a stint at the London Met, seems to be deliberately isolated from his work colleagues in the English language version as they address each other in Welsh but always speak to him in English (it’s as yet unclear from the English version whether or not he can in fact speak Welsh).  I still haven’t seen the Welsh language version where Mathias definitely is a Welsh speaker, and it would be interesting to compare the two versions in terms of the role language plays in characterising the protagonists and their interrelationships.  But it is clear that the English version of the show is not afraid to play on the politics of language, nor to rely on its viewers to read between the lines: I had no idea what either ‘y gwyll’ or ‘hinterland’ meant prior to watching the show, and was somewhat gratified to learn that this obscurity and othering of the viewer was deliberate (McElroy 2013).  Whether this othering would have been more effective had the show been broadcast in Welsh with subtitles remains to be seen. It certainly would have been cheaper, but probably wouldn’t have attracted anything like the same attention, and perhaps would not have been taken as seriously.  

I was a bit apprehensive that Hinterland might turn out to be full of cliché, both in terms of the representation of the Welsh, and in its borrowing of the conventions of Nordic Noir.  The world weary character of Tom Mathias (‘a man cast into a wilderness of his own making’ according to the S4C website) is clearly reminiscent of Scandinavian detectives such as Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole or Henning  Mankell’s Wallander, particularly when it comes to his problematic domestic relationships (we fleetingly see photographs of his daughters and references are made to a  failed relationship).  Like many noirish tecs, Mathias is shown living a semi-masochistic existence, trying to keep body and mind in order, with several shots showing him out jogging, or staring broodingly at the landscape.  Visual echoes of the BBC adaptation of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh alsoabound. There are lots of panoramic shots of the countryside stretching for miles with only the odd sheep to break up the monotony, while four-by-fours and suspect outhouses, another staple of the genre, are aplenty.  Meanwhile, the faded Victorian splendour of Aberystwyth, as well as its vulnerability to the elements, provides a strong sense of place and a whiff of social unrest.  The series does a good job of conveying class as well as linguistic divisions in the town, and hints at the problems caused by its transient population.  The Killing and other Scandi dramas have been praised for allowing the plots to unfold slowly, and Hinterland likewise isn’t afraid to spend time building atmosphere and developing its characters.  So there is plenty here to satifsy the Nordic Noir aficionados, but what is reassuring is that this borrowing proves very effective, and works well adapted to the landscape, both physical and cultural, of its new setting.  

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Scandinavian crime dramas such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or Jo Nesbo’s  The Redbreast looked back to shameful episodes in their countries’ pasts, such as collaboration with the Nazis or the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, while also demonstrating that these darker sides to the seeming social democratic idylls were also very much a feature of the present.  With Wales, it would be more difficult perhaps to unpick political crimes from those attributable to Britain as a whole, but the series is certainly full of suggestions of long buried family secrets as well as crimes that remain hidden within localized communities.  

The storylines and crimes featured in Hinterland offer the same mix of extreme violence tied to social injustice that has become such a defining feature of Nordic Noir.  In one episode, child abuse at a children’s home is uncovered, with the suggestion that the mistreatment and abandonment of problem children was a systemic failure of Welsh society in the seventies and eighties.  I have argued elsewhere (Thomas 2012) that Scandinavian crime writing is characterized by a tone of social campaigning, linking the personal and the political, and suggesting that we all bear some responsibility for the crimes that take place in our societies.  Hinterland does this subtly but effectively: Mathias’ boss is a looming presence throughout the series, with a strong suggestion that his links to freemasonry may have implicated him in as-yet-unknown crimes and misdemeanors.  There is also a suggestion that not only is Welsh society far from welcoming to outsiders, but it is prone to scapegoating those who do not easily fit in: this is most evident with the character of Wyn Bratton in Episode 3 who lives in the woods, wracked by guilt after a house fire he started in an attempt to get back at his estranged wife goes disastrously wrong.  

Wyn Bratton is played by Matthew Gravelle, who also starred as the family man turned killer in the hit ITV crime drama Broadchurch.  Similarities have therefore inevitably been drawn with that series, inevitably perhaps because of the seaside setting, but also because of the flawed and vulnerable detective (David Tennant in Broadchurch) and the feeling evoked in both shows of communities about to tear themselves apart.  As is inevitable for a Welsh speaker who has grown up with shows like Pobol y Cwm, many of the actors in Hinterland are very familiar faces, albeit inhabiting sometimes quite radically unfamiliar roles.  Likewise, references to Welsh myths and legends, and glimpses of iconic cultural reference points like ‘Salem’ (a painting of the Welsh lady with the face of the devil in her shawl), could easily have missed the mark and been the subject of ridicule, but they add to the feeling described by writer Ed Thomas of the audience discovering in this version of Wales an ‘unknown hinterland’ (Moss, 2013).  

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For the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales, looking beyond the UK for connections with European counterparts has become a way of trying to assert independence and distinctiveness. It would be lazy and perhaps facile to try to draw too many comparisons between the Welsh and the Nordic nations, but in many studies of Nordic Noir, the importance of religion has been noted, in particular a Lutheran belief in the idea of  ‘hidden God’ (Saarinen, 2003:132) and a view of evil as ‘the incomprehensible darkness lurking in all societies’ (135).  In Hinterland, the climax to one of the episodes takes place in a remote chapel, reinforcing the notion conveyed so powerfully in ‘Salem’ that piety, respectability and evil may not always be so very far apart.  

Joe Queenan (2008) has argued that the vogue for Nordic Noir owes much to what he calls a kind of ‘reverse exoticism’ whereby it is the very bleakness of the landscape and the moroseness of the characters that form part of its appeal.  Perhaps with Hinterland, there is also the sense in which the drama challenges cultural stereotypes, showing the Welsh to be capable of malevolence and violence not just whimsy.  At the same time, far be it for the Welsh audience to take the brooding drama or itself too seriously: Welsh language online news site Golwg 360 mischievously proposed a drinking game for viewers of the show where a sip is taken every time the devil is mentioned.  

A second series of Y Gwyll is planned after a ‘phenomenal’ public response to the show (BBC News Mid Wales, 2013), helping to bolster Welsh language programming at a time when its modest audience figures have come in for attack and ridicule. 

References 

BBC News Wales. (2013)  Welsh Drama Hinterland sold to Danish ‘The Killing

TV’.  3 January. Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-20906436 

BBC News Mid Wales. (2013) Aberystwyth police drama Y Gwyll gets second series. 27 November.

Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-25118460 

McElroy, R. (2013) What Can Wales Learn from Nordic Noir? CST Online.

Accessed 11/3/14 at http://cstonline.tv/what-can-wales-learn-from-nordic-noir 

Moss, S. (2013) Hinterland: the TV noir so good they made it twice. The Guardian. 30 July.  

Nesbo, J. (2000) The Redbreast. London: Vintage.  

Pryce, M. (2001) Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  London: Bloomsbury.  

Queenan, J. (2008) The Nordic Mystery Boom. Los Angeles Times. 25 May.  

Saarinen, R. (2003) The surplus of evil in welfare society: Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction,

Dialog. 42(2): 131-135.  

Thomas, B. (2012) Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: The rhetoric of social campaigningin Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Language and Literature. Vol. 21, No.3, pp. 299-310.

ABOUT

Bronwen Thomas is Associate Professor in the Media School at Bournemouth University. Originally from Llanelli in South Wales, she has published widely on fanfiction and online communities, and is currently PI for the AHRC Digital Reading Network. Recent publications include Real Lives, Celebrity Stories: Narratives of Ordinary and Extraordinary People Across Media, co-edited with Julia Round, and New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age, co-edited with Ruth Page.

A cursory examination of UK TV schedules from the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrates that foreign language programming was a regular fixture on the broadcast landscape long before the emergence of the Nordic Noir sub-genre. In a less competitive televisual environment prime time slots were routinely devoted to series from the continent, most notably Heimat and Das Boot (BBC2) Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic (Channel 4). Operating under public service principles, childrens’ schedules also contained examples of international content to promote cultural awareness. Using a mixture of dubbed prints (The Flashing Blade, Monkey, The Water Margin) or retaining the original dialogue track but burying it deep within the mix and placing  an English language narrator at the front of the sound design (Tales from Europe, Storybook International) a mixture of self contained and anthology series employed popular generic forms to educate the viewing public about other social structures and practices.

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The BBC has a guaranteed income in the form of the licence fee and to a certain extent the corporation is immune from commercial pressures. However, it nonetheless has to justify its existence in the form of satisfactory appreciation index data and substantial viewing figures. With the arrival of a new station specifically set up to cater for minority audiences ITV soon dropped foreign language content from its schedules leaving the BBC and Channel 4 as the only UK broadcasters screening non-English language series. 

The funding model which Channel 4 adhered to in its formative years ensured that it did not need to worry about a collapse in advertising revenue as any shortfall would be met by the ITV network. In short, this meant that Channel 4 could screen whatever it wanted, provided the programme met broadcasting guidelines, and not be concerned about alienating potential advertisers. Emboldened by the financial safety net offered by ITV Channel 4 decided to screen subtitled TV drama. Alongside the aforementioned Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic several Brazilian telenovellas, including Isaura the Slave Girl,  were given afternoon slots frequently competing directly against Australian soap operas in the same slot on ITV. 

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Despite positive critical notices for Heimat and Das Boot, after 1993 the BBC restricted its transmissions of non English language content output to features films. Channel 4 soon followed the BBC’s example and removed TV drama from its schedules. The reality of having to compete for mass audiences in an increasingly competitive cross platform climate meant that free-to-air stations may have considered the prospect of screening subtitled drama as no longer being viable. Two decades would pass before a  station decided to once again start showing series from mainland Europe. 

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seemed impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. With The Killing and Borgen now consigned to the immortality of DVD boxsets naysayers might have been tempted to inaccurately predict that the Scandinavian TV phenomenon had peaked. From Stieg Larsson through to the closing moments of our window in Birgitte Nyborg’s personal life and political career, Danish and Swedish culture has been covertly invading our high streets and TV screens. Retail outlets now routinely stock Faroese inspired sweaters to customers who may be unaware of their precise cultural significance and the relatively recent television series Broadchurch has demonstrated that creative professionals are studiously paying attention to how their Nordic counterparts craft quality popular drama.

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High turnout to the recent Nordicana event and consistently impressive viewing figures for The Bridge‘s second season is testament that interest in all things Danish and Swedish remains buoyant. Not only is BBC Four committed to maintaining its now traditional Saturday foreign language slot throughout 2014, it is complemented by programming from More4 who are currently screening the Norwegian series Mammon, Fox who will soon air the third season of Braquo. and Sky Arts who have purchased  The Legacy from Denmark. 

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Fans of Nordic Noir frequently find themselves simultaneously gazing in multiple directions; on the one hand attention is firmly focused on what new books, shows, and films will be coming to the UK within the next few months and on the other curiosity may lead them to engage in finding tantalising hints of information about those titles which up until now haven’t managed to secure distribution within English language territories.

The fandom which actively celebrates its appreciation of broadcast series and DVDs initially interacted via social networks. In June 2013 this subcultural group was offered its first ever physical space to cement its enthusiasm with Nordicana  a two day convention specifically designed to commemorate Scandinavian culture. The first event of its kind, this expo was sponsored by Arrow Films, Danish Arts Council, Film Institute Denmark and Danish Broadcasting Corporation in association with English and Danish PEN. What Nordicana represented was a bold initiative that demonstrated how in a relatively short space of time Nordic Noir has gone from being an under explored literary curiosity to a visible brand with an ever growing fanbase that is warm and welcoming.

An audacious experiment, the first Nordicana was rapturously received by an audience which never expected to have the opportunity to see in person the shining lights of Scandinavian drama. Despite being an undoubted success few could have predicted a second event would be staged within months. In Febuary 2014 a sophomore festival was mounted that expanded its parameters offering a veritable smorgasbord of Nordic screen talent, key literary figures, a celebration of cuisine, and a UK film première (The Hour of the Lynx). The rapid expansion of its fanbase forced the organizers to seek out a building large enough to house the many aficionados clamouring for the opportunity to attend. Bidding farewell to the Farmiloe Building, Nordicana upped sticks and relocated to Spitalfield’s Old Truman Brewery and then promptly set about trying to fill every inch of available floor space with entertaining talks, screenings, and demonstrations. Offering a more varied schedule than the previous event, it placed greater emphasis than before on Scandinavia’s rich legacy of crime literature whilst simultaneously celebrating the current crop of TV favourites and offering an intriguing glimpse of the future for Nordic Noir with a preview of The Legacy.   

hour of the lynx

Broadcast in a high profile slot on New Years Day 2014, ratings for  The Legacy exceeded all expectations. Published figures state that the first instalment was watched by 1,784,000 people and the second episode attracted an audience share of  61% with nearly two million viewers. Directed by Pernilla August (Beyond) the series is a contemporary drama that explores the consequences of progressive approaches to parenting which gained widespread social currency with Denmark in the late 1960s. Well known artist  Veronika Grønnegaard is terminally ill. Her children live very different lives, each bares a unique emotional scare as a consequence of decisions taken with regards their upbringing. Liberalism and tradition are at odds as long harboured secrets come to the surface and lies woven across the decades are exposed. Purchased by Sky Arts whilst still in production, the effect such a high profile series being sold to a pay broadcaster may provide ample scope for further investigation into subcultural responses.  

During interviews to promote the third season of The Killing  Piv Bernth series producer and head of drama at Danish public service broadcaster DR was unequivocal in her belief that the series had come to its logical end, lessons learnt during the production process would be employed on a new slate of series. The re-branding of Danish TV drama also includes the historical drama 1864 which is currently in production 1864, slated to air in the autumn.

In March 2014 it was announced that Nadia Kløvedal Reich would vacate the post of Head of Fiction at Danish public service broadcaster DR and be replaced by Bernth, series producer on The Killing and then current Head of Drama. During her tenure Nadia has transformed the face of Danish drama and unwittingly spawned a fandom. The future of Nordic Noir is assured but with such a rapidly shifting sub generic form it is impossible to predict what shape it will take or how its attendant fan community will adapt. 

 ABOUT

Andy Lawrence maintains the blog Euro But Not Trash (http://eurodrama.wordpress.com/) , a space for the celebration of European films, TV series and literature with a heavy slant towards Nordic Noir. He is a regular contributor to Nordic Noir Magazine and UK Film News and has also written for Scan Magazine and Crime Time. He is currently researching Icelandic TV drama for an as yet untitled text.

 

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Scandinavia has been declared one of the happiest places in the world. In the World Happiness Report released in 2013 and covering the years 2010-2012, Denmark came in first place, Norway second and Sweden fifth. The Scandinavian countries are known for having relatively high-income levels as well as being egalitarian. The public sectors are a cornerstone of the welfare states that have been developed, and  the relative size of the public sector and the tax burden are among the highest in the world. On top of that employment is high. Looking at Scandinavia, it’s rather easy to believe.
the World Happiness Report results. However, the Scandinavian cinema and television of the past twenty years provides some of the most grim characters, settings and stories in the world. For a region recognised as a safe, secular and friendly community, the Scandinavian cinema shows a land full of violent crime, inner religious conflict and anti social behaviour. Is the Scandinavian cinema entirely reflective of the Scandinavian region?

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Looking at Scandinavian film and television, the ‘Nordic Noir’ phenomenon has been the greatest export from the region in recent years. Television programs such as The Killing (Forbrydelsen 2007-2012), Wallander (2005-)and The Bridge (Broen, 2011-) have become popular both in the United Kingdom and around the world. Despite this popularity, it is only recently that scholars have begun to investigate the Scandinavian crime genre. With its focus on human darkness, crime fiction arguably focalises the social experience of modernity in a different way. Broden argues that the thematic transformation of the Swedish crime genre can be theorised in terms of a changing attitude towards crime as social ambivalence. Drawing on the work of Bauman (1995), Broden conceptualises the cinematic representation of crime as a manifestation of the disturbing ambivalence that otherwise has been downplayed in the media culture of the welfare state (Broden 2011 p. 98). Ever since its emergence in the 1940s, the crime genre has dealt with perceived sides of social life in the Scandinavian welfare state. The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 has come to be spoken of amongst the Swedes as the end of an era and the point where Sweden lost its innocence. Ever since then, the social critique in the Scandinavian crime fiction can be seen in the context of a perceived crumbling of the welfare state.

The ever-present violence and corruption in the welfare state is a central theme in contemporary Scandinavian crime film. The most well known example is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The Millennium films tell the dark story about the ambivalent condition and the historical development of the welfare state of Sweden in late modernity. In their investigations, Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander investigate and unearth the forms of violence and crime in the welfare society. The critical perspective in Stieg Larsson’s stories can, of course, be discussed in light of the tradition of crime fiction with a social conscience that many scholars consider to be the backbone of Swedish crime fiction (see Wendelius 1999, Agger 2010). Broden stresses that over the years, Swedish cinema has come to portray increased violence and hardened crime as a seemingly more integral and inescapable feature of contemporary social life.(Broden 2011 p. 96) The Millennium Trilogy specifically reflects a later stage of deeper sociocultural process concerning a certain way of imagining crime as a phenomenon in Swedish society. That is, whereas Swedish crime films of the past identified violent crime as an exceptional element in the welfare state, present-day thrillers represent it as more or less an inescapable element of the welfare state.

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Various types of crime film have emerged from Scandinavia in the past twenty years, and each highlight growing cracks in the welfare state. One of the biggest films to come from Denmark recently, The Hunt (Jagten, 2012), shows this inescapable crime as being pursued despi
te lack of real proof. The adults impose the situation of potential child molestation upon the children, but never attempt to explain it or help them heal from the trauma they think they have experienced. Their only desire is to hunt Lucas and punish him for this crime. The gut reaction to accuse without investigation and to harm rather than heal is the human failure this film addresses. The Hunt continuously highlights how easily the seemingly civilised, rational inhabitants of the small town lose their moral bearings and how irrational their behaviour is. Similarly in In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, 2014), a young man is falsely accused and killed for a crime, and the protagonist Nils seeks revenge. This film focuses on the theme of drug use and immigrant mafias, which are two major themes found in Scandinavian crime film. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy was the first Scandinavian film revolving around gangsters and drug use, and only came out in 1996. In Norway, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, 31 August (2011) both highlight consequences of drug use amongst ethnic Norwegians, whereas films like Izzat (2005) show immigrant Pakistani youths getting involved amongst drug and gang culture.

Scandinavia is one of the least religious places in the world, and this has much to do with the desire to keep religion private and personal in individual lives. In a study on religion conducted by the University of Uppsala in 1990, both belief and church attendance have declined markedly between 1950 and 1990 (Hamberg 1990). Furthermore, the Eurobarometer Poll in 2010 found that 18% of Swedes, 22% of Norwegians and 28% of Danes believed there was a God, some of the lowest scores in Europe. Thirty years ago, Ingmar Bergman was a key figure in discussions of the relationship between theology and contemporary art. During a period lasting little more than seven years, his explorations of religious themes in his films was extraordinary. Bergman rarely turned to the cheerier side of the human condition, but he never averted his eye from the truth has he saw it it. A series of films by Bergman explored the possibility of faith. In The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en Spegel, 1961), Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963)and The Silence, he posed traditional faith questions in identifiably religious language. The characters struggle self-consciously with their inability to believe in God and form relationships with one another. With The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), Bergman concludes that God is unknowable, and the human person must simply continue life’s journey seeking understanding and happiness however one can. (Blake) This lends to the idea in Scandinavian cinema that religion is a private affair. During his ‘God period’Bergman worked endless variations. After he had banished God in The Silence, he turned his attention to the search for love. Bergman expresses the human search according to a religious template, and these troubled human relationships reflect the metaphorical and poetic terms of the contemporary, ongoing struggle to discover an authentic relationship to God.

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 This notion of the Scandinavian being in a privately religious conflict has shifted over into contemporary cinema. In his study of the clergy in Nordic films, Arni Svanur Danielsson discusses the many different representations of the clergy in films. According to Danielsson, the representations are not strictly negative or positive (Danielsson). In Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for Begyndere, 2000), the religious figure is a positive part of the society he lives in and is trusted by the parishioners, and in As It Is in Heaven (Såsom i Himmelen, 2004), the pastor is the cause of problems. However, each figure is seen as a local member of the community with the best intentions at heart, and their religious doubts are kept to themselves, only ever displayed in private. Adams Apples (Adams æbler, 2005) comes across as the film that provides the best overview of the status of religion in contemporary Scandinavia. Adams Apples has an obvious religious core furthered by the fact that it won the Danish Church film award, Gabriel, in 2006. It’s religious themes have been heavily discussed. Sjo concurs with Johannes H. Christensen, who calls the film a “decorous fable of human development and transformation.”(Christensen), which already draws parallels to Bergman. Religion is central to the transformation of both protagonists, the neo-Nazi Adam who is sent to a rural church to be rehabilitated, and Ivan, the pastor of the church. Ivan shows obvious signs of mental instability, and Adam, when determined to break him, forces the pastor to confront the reality of the world around him, Ivan collapses. Ivan is clearly unbalanced, and religion plays into his madness. However, he also brings his community together, and this religious instability is kept to himself.

Among crime and religious Scandinavian films, a growing trend of isolation seems apparent. It is common among detectives, such as Engstom in Insomnia or Lucas in The Hunt, to be somewhat withdrawn from society or dealing with their own private issues. This is the same in the images of pastors found in contemporary Scandinavian film, such as the protagonist in As It Is in Heaven, who deals with his illness in secret. Perhaps in such a happy and wealthy country, people tend to withdraw themselves more than is made apparent. The feeling of isolation we see has made its way into films focusing on children. In Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), Oskar and Eli have much in common. Oskar is let down by adults in his life, who are too preoccupied to notice the cruel, incessant bullying he undergoes at school, let alone his unhealthy preoccupation with random acts of violence or his solitary enactment of revenge scenarios. The motif of the bullied and isolated child, while atypical of the vampire genre, is commonplace in recent Scandinavian film, examined from varying perspectives in works such as Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål, 1998), a lesbian coming-of-age/coming-out story; Before the Storm (Före stormen, 2000), where seventh-grader Leo closely resembles Oskar and like him is bullied at school; King of Devils Island (Kongen av Bastøy, 2010), where a new inmate in a boys home leads to a violent uprising; and Irl (2013), which tackles themes of online bullying. In In a Better World (Hævnen, 2010), which was the recipient of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, patterns of correspondence and coincidence are traced between the friendship of two kids and the conflict in Africa. Like Let the Right One In, the parents of each child are not sufficiently present in their sons lives. Both Anton and Claus are incredulous that their sons could be involved in a knife fight, missing the signs that the kids are just getting started. What director Susanne Bier is attempting to do is cut between all of these stories to contrast the kinds of people who are instinctively cruel and those who are instinctively kind. In Scandinavia, more boys than girls have been reported as committing an offence such as vandalism, shoplifting, burglary and assault. However, the number of youths committing crimes has declined in recent years, making it surprising that juvenile crime has been so big in cinema. The media often reports on youth crime, making it seem much greater than it actually is (Friday).

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 Looking at a range of Scandinavian films, it is clear that themes of crime and isolation commonly occur amongst the various stories. However, is the a norm for all Scandinavian film? A study on patterns and trends in Scandinavian film was conducted by Ib Bondebjerg, and it found that the family film was one of the most popular genres (Bondebjerg 2011 p. 69) In 2013, family films were the majority of films seen in Norway and Sweden, notable examples being Solan and Ludvig – Christmas in Pinchliffe (Solan og Ludvig-Jul i Flåklypa, 2013), Casper and Emma: Best Friends (Karsten og Petra blir bestevenner, 2013), and The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann, 2013). In Denmark, however, the top two films were The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret, 2013) and The Hunt (See the Nordisk Film and TV Fond).When it comes to genre, crime and family are the two things that have managed to gain the greatest recognition overseas. Most people interviewed in Bondebjerg’s study have singled out crime as the genre that travels the best in the Nordic region. However, the statistics in Niels Marslev’s report indicate that while crime and family are about equally popular on the domestic market, family does better than crime in terms of indexed share of audience when exported. From this, it is easily recognised that the crime and family film share equal popularity in Scandinavia and abroad.

To what extent, then, are these dark themes reflective of Scandinavia? Bondebjerg says in his study that “the films [crime] are considered to be dealing with both contemporary and social issues, rather than mere entertainment”(Bondebjerg 2011 p.81). The common thread amongst all these films is of crime shattering the fabric of quiet, peaceful communities. However, Scandinavia is not without fault. As seen in statistics presented throughout this paper, several problems including isolation, murder, youth, drug, and immigrant crime are seen as part of the crumbling welfare model. This has greatly lent itself to the plots of dark Scandinavian cinema in recent decades. Moreover, the beautiful landscape assists in placing these dark stories in such an ideal environment. Dark themes are found in films throughout the world, of course. However, the genre has become particularly popular in Scandinavia because despite the looming threat of the welfare model, they are really safe societies with very little crime in comparison to the rest of the world. The safer people feel, the more they desire to scare themselves, and this is part of the reason dark cinema is so popular. And for us, the international audience, our idea of Scandinavia being so perfect only makes these dark films more intriguing to watch.

Works Cited 

Agger, G (2010), ‘Approaches to Scandinavian Crime Fiction’, Crime Fiction and Crime Journalism in Scandinavia, no. 15

Bauman, Z (1995), Modernity and Ambivalence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Blake, R.A (2007) ‘Ingmar Bergman, Theologian?’America vol. 197 no. 5 pp. 29-31

Bondebjerg, I (2011), ‘A Small Region in a Global World: Patterns in Scandinavian Film and Media Culture, Centre for Modern European Studies, No. 1

Broden, D (2011) ‘The Dark Ambivalences of the Welfare State: Investigating the Transformations of the Swedish Crime Film’, Northern Lights, No. 9

Christensen, J.H (2010), ‘Apple Pie from the Tree of Knowledge’, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema vol.1 no.1, pp. 123-125

Danielsson, A.S (2009), ‘From State Officials to Teddy Bears: A Study of the Image of Pastors in Selected Nordic Films’, Studies in World Christianity, vol.15 no.2, pp. 162-175

Friday, P.C, ‘Research on Youth Crime in Sweden: Some Problems in Methodology’, in Scandinavian Studies, vol.46 no.1

Hamberg, E.M (1990), Studies in the Prevalence of Religious Beliefs and Religious Practice in Contemporary Sweden, University of Uppsala, Stockholm, pp. 16-26

Nordisk Film and TV Fund, ‘Nordic Admissions 2013 Part 1: Denmark, Finland,  http://www.nordiskfilmogtvfond.com/index.php/news/stories/nordic-admissions-2013-part-1-denmark-finland/

Nordisk Film and TV Fund, ‘Nordic Admissions 2013 Part 1: Denmark, Finland,  http://www.nordiskfilmogtvfond.com/index.php/news/stories/nordic-admissions-2013-part-1-denmark-finland/

Wendelius, L (1999), Rationalitet och kaos: Nedslag i svensk kriminalfiktion efter 1965/Rationality and Chaos: On Swedish Crime Fiction After 1965, Hedemora, Gilunds

ABOUT

Emma Robinson is currently studying a Master of Arts at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research interest is the representation of Scandinavian culture in the contemporary cinema. She is also the editor of the monthly magazine Cinema Scandinavia.

 

Nordic-Landscapes34

 

The appearance of the term Nordic Noir is one which was recently constructed by the media and has become a popular catch all term to cover a variety of writing, film and television programmes being produced in the Nordic countries today.    However, at the heart of this term is crime fiction.   The translated literary branch of Nordic crime writing has become a hot commodity outside of its native area in the last 15 years.  Crime books and related films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and specific to TV series such as The Bridge are popular worldwide and have helped the brand of Nordic Noir to have continued growth in popularity.

When looking at the crime genre in general there are two points worth noting.  Firstly it is generally accepted that audiences around the world have similar expectations when it comes to crime writing and film, however alongside that it is also acknowledged as one of the genres where writers and filmmakers can easily include a nod to cultural traditions of the local area in the storyline, characters and the overall theme of their work.    Secondly it is known that if packaged correctly, audiences of this genre are open to accepting some narrative experimentation.  There have been many discussions about what makes Nordic Noir what it is.  I keep returning to the idea of isolation.   Barry Forshaw suggests that ‘Nordic soul sometimes…has the effect of lowering the emotional temperature of the narrative and according the reader a cool, balanced appraisal of the situations and the characters that are presented to us.’    Perhaps what I am calling isolation is part of this Nordic soul and that is what I would like to explore in relation to the visual aspect of Nordic Noir.

Recently on the television show ‘Scandimania’ Danish actor Soren Malling admitted that “the Danes do darkness.”  He suggested that one of the reasons the Danes have been found to be one of the happiest nations on earth is because they take time to embrace and discuss the dark side of life. There does seem to be a general acceptance amongst the Nordic people that I have encountered that one’s life will have ups and downs and that these should be acknowledged by society.  One could argue that this is one of the distinguishing points of Nordic arts in general.  Think of the art of Munch, the writing of Ibsen and Strindberg.  When one considers the Nordic Noir genre in television and film, the theme of isolation, not specifically physical isolation but particularly isolation of specific main characters in a group, is usually present.  The Swedes have a word which may convey the type of isolation that I would argue runs through the Nordic Noir genre, ‘ensamhet,’ which translates as loneliness, desolation or solitude.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘film as an art form…should communicate psychic states, not merely project pictures of external action.’   This idea is well presented in shows and films such as The Killing, The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, but it is also present in shows which have less distinct main characters such as Arne Dahl and The Protectors.  The characters of Lund, Saga, Salander, Hjelm and Jasmina El-Murad all exhibit a strong element of isolation within their lives in one way or another.   Another of Bergman’s cinematic devices is to portray a character’s psychic state through the use of close up facial expression.  A haunted, lonely facial close up is easy to picture if you recall any of the popular   recent Nordic Noir television shows or film.  Often the isolation of the characters becomes more and more apparent as we become more familiar with the stories.  The characters embody a struggle within the confines of everyday life that is sometimes painful for the audience to watch such as Lund’s relationship with her mother and son in The Killing.

 

Isolation Wallander1

Often in crime films and series it is the criminal who is presented as the isolated person.  Their isolation from society is often cited as a reason that they have turned to crime in the first place, but more often than not in these Nordic Noir shows the main character is portrayed as being just as much or even more psychologically isolated than the perpetrator.  Steven Peacock describes one aspect of isolation in the filmed Wallander series well when he says ‘TV versions present…Kurt Wallander as a loner who is constantly dragged back into affairs of state, the family, and the police force.  Despite his asserted strive for solitude, he reluctantly continues to gravitate towards community, while standing desperately alone.’  In these shows, in general, the storyline of the main character and their isolation within society is on a level with the perpetrator’s storyline and his penetration of society.

Consider not only the physical loneliness of Lund who struggles to let anyone into her personal physical space as well as how awkward she feels in social gatherings in the series, but specifically the psychological loneliness of her character. She is not a team player, she has difficulty maintaining professional and family relations and although she lives and she works in society she does not seem to be part of it.  It seems to happen around her.  Many of the same things could be said of Saga or Salander, a small difference being both of those characters acknowledge that they are different from others around them.  All of these isolated characters allow the audience to debate the worth of human life through their actions.  They are the ones who invite death into their lives.  Hjelm talks the armed hostage taker down in the first episode of the Arne Dahl series, Lund goes into so many dangerous situations we lose count of them, Salander too shows no fear in the face of multiple villains.  This device of allowing the audience to debate one of life’s eternal questions features heavily in Nordic film in previous generations.  Both Dreyer and Bergman were psychological cineastes and the teams who write, produce and direct these newer shows, the ones which have gripped audiences, continue that in tradition.

Also in the manner of Dreyer many of the shows are not heavy with dialogue.  At Nordicana recently David Hewson highlighted a scene in the first series of The Killing where the Birk-Larssens go to identify their daughter’s body in the morgue with Lund and Meyer.  The scene is over two minutes long and not one word is said, yet it is a powerful scene.   Using music, lighting, positioning and facial expression we experience different isolated emotions from all four characters in the scene, they are all present in that room but isolated in their own psyches with their own thoughts and agendas at that particular moment.  Dreyer said he wanted his audience to leave the cinema ‘gripped and silent’, viewers of The Bridge and The Killing surely felt this way as they watched the story uncover episode by episode.

Isolation Saga and Martin

Perhaps stemming from the literary tradition of crime writing such as the Detective Inspector Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo from the 1960’s the pace of many of these films and shows is slower than many audiences are used to for crime thrillers, giving the audience time to pick up on and perhaps relate to some of the deeper characteristics of the characters.  Indeed the stories are isolated incidents in time and during the time that the story is told we the audience become disconnected from real life and become embedded in this world of drama, intrigue, beauty and human tales.  If you take into account that the majority of the audience in the UK have to read the subtitles to understand the story then you can also factor this isolating quality into watching these shows.  Total concentration is required or great chunks of comprehension are lost.  One can watch or discuss but to simultaneously watch, read and discuss does not work as it may with a show without subtitles.  The viewer has to be fully engaged with what they are watching, reading and listening to.

The theme of isolation is also visually represented in the series The Killing and to some extent in The Bridge.  When they filmed The Killing they played with the tones and stripped out colour on the film so that the red of the blood would be isolated and thus emphasised when the audience viewed it.  This stripping back of colour and general use of dark tones meant that when colours were used they appeared more isolated and thus had more visual impact.  This technique had a strong part to play in creating the mood of the series and enhancing the storyline in a particularly visual way.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘there is no artform that has so much in common with film as music.  Both affect our emotions directly not via the intellect.  And film is mainly rhythm.  It is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.’ If you think about Frans Bak’s theme tune for The Killing, you may recall the rhythmic tune with eerie synth and vocal layered on top used at the beginning and end of the show, reminding the viewer of a pounding individual heartbeat, or you may remember Bak’s very simple piano piece ‘Sara’s Piano’ which could be interpreted as a two minute musical embodiment of isolation.  In The Bridge theme you can hear the same single, isolated note repeated on the piano in Hollow Talk by the Choir of Young Believers.  There is plenty of space and isolation in the music which compliments this particular lonely aspect of one of the defining qualities of Nordic Noir.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdcrN9Vggck

There are many facets which make these shows Nordic and Noir and this is just one of them; one that the Nordic people have been using for some time.  It is part of their cultural tradition and may be expressed in different ways in each country.  To the viewer the representation of isolation is distilled and presented in real world, physical stories in the Nordic Noir genre on screen.  Spiritual concepts such as love, beauty and forgiveness become more profound when juxtapositioned next to the fear, anger, sadness and isolation of the various characters particularly Lund in The Killing and Saga in The Bridge.  Nordic Noir is a subgenre of the larger crime genre for many reasons, some obvious and some not so distinct.   The subtle isolation used in the visual mediums gives us, the viewer, space to breathe, experience and move within the story and I propose that is an important part of what goes to make up the Nordic Soul which distinguishes Nordic Noir within the crime genre.

 

Bibliography and Works Cited

Steven Peacock, The impossibility of Isolation in Wallander, Critical Studies in Television, Vol 6: Issue 2: Autumn 2011pp37-46

Barry Forshaw, Death in a Cold Climate, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Philip Mosley, Ingmar Bergman: The Cinema as Mistress, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1981

Scandimania, Episode 2, shown on Channel 4, Sunday 9 February 2014

ABOUT

 

Miriam V Owen is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen where she studied for an MA in History of Art (specialising in modern Scottish, European and American art).  She is currently studying for a Master’s in Research at the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication at the University of Stirling where her research focuses on online genre communities.  She is also interested in the creative process, cultures and communities.  You can find her on Twitter at NordicNoirBuzz or at the blog of the independent research project she is part of at http://nordicnoirblog.wordpress.com/