‘The Happiest Place on Earth? Grim Scandinavinan Cinema,’ Emma Robinson, La Trobe Univesity, Melbourne, Australia


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?

sarah lund

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.


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.


 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).

let the right one in

 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


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.