Over the past 10 years, there has been a slow revolution in the way we consume our crime fiction – and it’s all thanks to the frozen northern climes of Scandinavia. First it infected our literature, with Stieg Larsson’s gripping Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in the infamous Millenium series. Then, show by show, episode by episode, Nordic creatives showed the televisual world a fresh take on noir that didn't have to be mired in the clichés of post-war cinema.
What is Nordic noir?
As is the case with every genre that seems specific at first glance, it’s the subject of much debate – but generally speaking, Nordic noir tends to follow crime investigation stories against the backdrop of societal hypocrisy, where dark prejudices and hatreds lurk beneath the egalitarian surface. As much an exploration of the human psyche as a whodunnit, Nordic noir features “heroes” that are beaten down by life, work and their own weaknesses, depraved villains and stories grittier than anything you’ll see from Hollywood. On top of the characters and plots, the stark landscape and ever-present cold add to a mood that feels oppressive, isolating and filled with easily buried secrets.
How did we discover this fresh new genre?
It began with Wallander. Well, first we should avoid a barrage of hair-splitting comments by clarifying that Nordic noir is not really a new genre sprung whole cloth in the past decade. From Viking sagas through 1820s psychological thrillers to 20th century cinema, the idea of strong men and women doing difficult things to survive in a harsh landscape while struggling with their own issues is a core part of Scandinavian culture. But for the rest of us, it began with Wallander.
In 2008, the BBC was producing an adaptation of Henning Mankell’s novels about a troubled, disillusioned detective starring Kenneth Branagh. To promote it, they ran the original Swedish series with Krister Henriksson portraying the rumpled, broken-down cynic Kurt Wallander.
The original version of Wallander quickly developed a cult following because of its unflinching look at society’s degradation and abuse of power on a human scale. It was similarly beloved by SBS viewers when it screened in Australia, paving the way for more international interest in the unique stories of the north.
What came next?
For many of us, Scandinavia is a far-off, exotic region experienced only through stories and photographs. From childhood, we develop a mental image of these frozen countries that blends Vikings, reindeer, saunas, the superheroic Thor and other bright stereotypes. Nordic noir shatters these illusions – and that’s by design.
Piv Bernth, the head of drama at DR (Denmark’s public broadcaster), told The Conversation,“We’ve always been selling the Scandinavian countries as this place where there is light 24 hours a day, and we have all these blonde girls with blue eyes and Hans Christian Andersen and things like that – but we wanted to show the other side, the underbelly.”
Taking cues from American procedurals and giving them a uniquely Scandinavian spin, Bernth and her co-creatives launched a new take on a tired genre with The Killing. Unlike the majority of mainstream US shows, it was low-key, low-budget, drowning in knitwear... which made it all the more unexpected as a massive hit (apparently Camilla Parker Bowles was a huge fan).
Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) is not your usual noir protagonist. For starters, she’s a woman – as well as being surly and abrasive. Over the course of the series, she rubs everyone around her the wrong way by refusing to smooth her rough social graces as she pursues a case that becomes all-consuming.
In the end, the first season of The Killing spends 20 episodes following the investigation of a single case.
That’s not something you often see in traditional crime series, and indeed wouldn’t maintain audience interest without engaging characters and incredible cinematography that makes the most of the bleak landscape.
Bernth told Reuters: “One killing in 20 episodes – you had to wait until the end if you would find out who did it. At the same time, we told a profound story about people and destinies in a modern society.”
Then what happened?
More of the same. Audiences were drawn to the complex characters and commitment to scraping away the public face of local culture to reveal the seamy underbelly. Our heroes invite empathy without necessarily following a redemptive arc or even being likeable in what feels like a more realistic or grounded approach to drama.
The Bridge continued in the Killing vein, with another iconic female protagonist in the form of Swedish police investigator Saga Noren (Sofia Helin), who is brilliant, unemotional and strongly suggested to be on the autistic spectrum. When a body is discovered on the bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark – cut in half at the waist – Noren has to share jurisdiction with Danish inspector Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) as they hunt for the killer.
Trapped is Iceland’s stab at the genre, and it’s a testament to the success of its forebears that it’s the most expensive series ever made in that country. A summary of the plot can’t help but include the phrase “mutilated torso”, an object that quickly becomes the centrepiece of Trapped’s investigation. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays the main man here, dealing with family dramas, rubbing snow in his beard and generally behaving in ways alien to most of us while he works towards solving the case in a truly claustrophobic setting.
The tone of these shows even extended to programs outside the Nordic noir genre, such as Borgen, which shares a great deal of DNA with its criminal counterparts. Focused on Denmark’s first (fictional) female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen), it once again presents layered emotional circumstances as a catalyst for drama.
“It had the same elements – well-drawn characters and a multilayered story – but no murders,” says Radio Times’ AlisonGraham. “Like Nordic noir, it transcended its origins – it was about the pursuit of power and about compromise. We can all see that in our governments, wherever we are.”
How has the influence spread?
On a straightforward level, the US remakes of The Killing and The Bridge point to the international appetite for this style of programming, even if they imply an audience that doesn’t want to devote the full attention required to read subtitles.
But in terms of shaping the way television is made outside of Scandinavia, it isn’t difficult to see how the flawed characters, atmospheric settings and oil slick of sleaze have been translated into British crime dramas (Broadchurch), prestige US series (True Detective), and even Australian (Secret City) and New Zealand productions (Top of the Lake).
Back in the north, the international success of Nordic noir has meant bigger budgets and more lavish productions. There are plenty of great new shows generating export dollars for the Scandinavian states, from 1864: Denmark’s War to Lilyhammer, a co-production between Norway’s public broadcaster, NRK, and Netflix.
Follow the Money surrounds the discovery of a dead body next to a Danish wind farm, which ends up focusing police attention on the CEO of the environmentally friendly energy company that owns the farm. In other words, the ideal combination of murder, hidden motives and societal commentary that makes a series Nordic noir.
Or as Graham puts it, in British and American shows of this stripe “characters always have to learn lessons or pay the price of their misdeeds. Not in Nordic noir. Bad people often get away with bad things. And nice people are killed off.”