Friday, March 22, 2013
More Than a Scandinavian Night? Forbrydelsen, Nordic Noir, and the Cultures of Criticism
The purpose of this presentation was to introduce an audience that I assumed probably did not know much about Nordic noir or Forbrydelsen and had not seen Forbrydelsen because they couldn't, to Nordic noir and Forbrydelsen. American TV may remake British, Australian, Irsraeli, and even Danish television programmes (most Americans, I suspect aren't aware of this), but beyond PBS and local PBS stations, which concentrate on British television programmes they don't show them. Only remakes need apply as I note in the paper. The other point of the paper was a sociology of knowledge one. Why is it that Anglo-American television criticism like American television and British television itself, though to a lesser extent with British and American television--the UK, after all, is no longer an imperial power it once was--is so focused on American and British television programmes? As you will see I raise the question as to whether this parochialism, at least in part, is a reflection of American and British ideologies of exceptionalism, to American and British nationalism. The sociology of academic knowledge is close to my polemical heart as so much of the writing I have done here and elsewhere indicates.
My emphasis on non-academic and journalistic sources (forgive me my sins o ye guardians of academic purity), particularly the Guardian, reflects not only the fact that the Guardian gave substantial coverage to Forbrydelsen (undoubtedly because some of its writers were fans), but also the fact that amateur historians and journalists, as opposed to so many academics of the crystal ball textualist persuasion working in English Studies, Film Studies, and Television Studies these days, don't feel the need to do primary source research while amateur historians and journalists still do. They still do, for instance, interviews with producers, creators, directors, and actors in order to explore the "creative" process. Journalism, in other words, is still living the cliché, it is the first draft of history. And that to me is a good thing. For crystal ball textualism to be valid it has to fill the hole at its very heart with primary source material beyond the "text" (its crystal ball) if it wants me, a trained historian (perhaps more accurately an ill trained Historian) if with a heavy theoretical and methodological bent, to take it seriously. Needless to say, I can't really do that at the moment because, as Gene Halton notes, crystal ball textualism is akin to a glazed doughnut, full along its outer edges but absent a creamy empirical centre.
I was asked to submit this paper to Clues: A Journal of Detection by their managing editor. She presumably saw that I was supposed to present it at the PCA's. With some hesitation and trepidation--I suspected that Clues wasn't much interested in a paper that raised questions about the social and cultural nature of academic knowledge and its relationship to ideologies of nationalism and ethnocentrism--I decided to go ahead and submit the essay. The only change I made was to lop off the last few sentences of the paper. The readers response to the paper was exactly what I expected as was his tired, old, rather clichéd I didn't get the Buffy reference. Frankly, I would have thought that reference would have been quite obvious given its context. The reviewer, in paternalistic tones, decried the tone of my comments on American and British parochialism, something I found rich coming from someone in a profession that is polemical in its choice of subject, its choice of methodologies, and its choice of theories, condemned me for my obsession with lists, something I have occasionally chided Historians for but sometimes you just gotta have historical examples even if they are obvious, and condemned me for not using established "academic" sources. Lists I guess, are inherently bad in the mental world of some academics. Apparently, as so often happens in the world of popular culture, the reviewer wanted me to write the paper he wanted me to write rather than the paper I actually wrote.
The reviewer said nothing about the substance of the paper so I have to assume it was historically accurate and as I said, there aren't many "academic" papers on Forbrydelsen as of yet. It was just that my sources were not of the right kind of sources or the right class of sources. Reading the "review" I couldn't help thinking that downstairs me had wondered upstairs to join the party not understanding that I was not wanted upstairs because of the sources I associated with. Anyway as I said earlier I am not as enamoured of the academic "class" of sources as my "betters" for the reasons I enunciated earlier. The editor of the journal asked me to resubmit the paper with revisions but I declined since the revisions would have gutted one of the things that I think makes the paper interesting, namely, the question of whether Anglo-American television criticism with its concentration on American and British television is the academic variant of British and American parochialism. I guess in the end I would rather associate with all the wrong kind of people, err, sources. I would never want to soil the pages of a respectable academic journal with such heresy.
There were some positive aspects to the reader review, things that generally tell us as much if not more about the reviewer and his or her broader and niche ideologies, ways of seeing, ways of perceiving the world than that which is being reviewed. The reviewer did suggest that I expand on certain interesting points. Which points he found interesting, however, were not listed.
Anyway, I have decided to put my paper on Forbrydelsen up here on my blog. I would like more people to read this paper than the handful who read specialised and often esoteric academic journals that are the product of the unfortunate division of knowledge labour that has made academia into a bunch of specialised disciplinary monads that rarely know what the others are doing. Blogs, I suspect, get more and broader traffic and I have never been driven, as many others are, by dreams of academic glory, celebrity, power, or status (academia as a mirror of broader society). Despite all my academic degrees, which really don't say much about me save that I eventually was able to jump through a series of paternalistic bureaucratic hoops, I regard myself more as an intellectual than an academic. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this paper. Please let me know what you think and please correct any inaccuracies in the paper. I am not an expert in Danish Studies or Nordic Studies but I am now, thanks to the BBC, the Guardian, and Arrow DVD a fan of some Danish television. I learned a lot about Danish and Scandinavian culture while writing this paper, which was my intention, and I am very glad I did. Education, after all, should be continual and it should be about learning something new every day, every week, and every year.
Anglo-American television criticism, academic and journalistic television criticism emanating from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, has tended to focus its critical attention on television produced in the United States and Great Britain. All the volumes in the BFI’s TV Classics series and Wayne State University Press’s TV Milestones series, British publisher I.B. Tauris, and American publisher McFarland, for instance, focus almost exclusively on British and American TV programmes. The odd TV show books out in this parade of Anglo-American television programmes is Tauris’s publications on the Canadian show Stargate SG1 (Showtime, 1997-2002, Sci-Fi, 2002-2007) and the global variations on Yo soy Betty, la fea. Scratch beneath the surface of both of those television shows, however, and you will find that both Stargate and Betty the Ugly have American connections.
There are more than a dozen books in academialand on the significant American television programme Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003), more than a dozen books on the important British television programme Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-1989, 2005-), and even one on the derivative, and I might add, questionably significant, Buffy clone Charmed (WB 1998-2006). There are none, to my knowledge on the significant German series Heimat (ARD, 1984, 1992, 2004) and there is little on the subject of this paper, the Danish television show Forbrydelsen, The Crime, The Killing (Danmarks Radio, 2007, 2011, 2012), beyond Janet McCabe’s essay on the representation of women and particularly of the central female character Forbrydelsen revolves around, Sarah Lund. Given this state of affairs one can’t help but wonder whether all of this British and American academic navel gazing, some of which is understandable given the size and significance of the British and American television industries, is, at least in part, the critical and academic equivalent of British and American ideologies of exceptionalism.
Until recently Anglo-American television criticism has not had a foreign moment comparable to that which occurred in cinema studies in the 1960s and 1970s when a host of British and American critics discovered the films of Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa and others and wrote about them for cinephiles and cinephilic academics who had suddenly discovered that film could be “art”. There were some "foreign" starts and stops on British television. European television shows had shown up on the BBC since the 1960s. Between October of 1964 and December of 1968 BBC 1 broadcast dubbed versions of children’s programmes from East Germany, Switzerland, the USSR, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, France, Hungary, Jugoslavija, Sweden, Norway, Mongolia, Austria, and Bulgaria as part of its Tales from Europe series. One of them, the DEFA made and Grimm influenced Das Singende Klingende Baumchen/The Singing Ringing Tree (DEFA, 1957) sent children scurrying behind the sofa as the Daleks of Doctor Who had done before, scaring and scarring a generation of British children for life. In 1965 the BBC broadcast the French children’s show Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoë/Adventures of Robinson Crusoe dubbed into English. In 1967 the French children’s show Belle et Sébastien/Belle and Sebastian and Le Chevalier Tempête/The Flashing Blade were broadcast on the BBC in dubbed versions. In 1984 and 1988 BBC 2 broadcast the television version of Das Boot with English subtitles. Between 1986 and 1993 BBC 2 broadcast the first, second, and third series of the German television show Heimat with subtitles. In the early 1990s BBC 2 broadcast all ten episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s brilliant Polish television show Dekalog (Telewizja Polska (TVP), 1988). By 1997 “foreign” product moved to BBC 4, the poor stepchild of the BBC television empire in Great Britain and beyond. In that year BBC 4 broadcast Lars von Trier’s Danish TV programme Riget/Kingdom (DR, 1994, 1997). By and large, however, non-English language programming on British TV and at the Beeb, particularly beyond children’s programming, proved to be anomalies. They didn’t lead to consistent programming of European television shows on British television.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the blockade of “foreign” programmes on British television really began to decline at least for the moment. In that year BBC 4 ran the first series or season of the French noir TV programme Engrenages/Spiral, (Canal+, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2012). Thanks to the success of Spiral BBC 4 followed that show with the Swedish SVT (Sveriges Television) programme Wallander (SVT, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013) beginning in 2008, the Danish DR programme Forbrydelsen in 2011, another DR television programme Borgen (DR 2010, 2011, 2013) in 2012 and 2013, and the Danish-Swedish co-production Broen/Bron/The Bridge (DR/SVT, 2011, 2013) again in 2012. BBC 4 seems to have shown, at least for the moment, that the brass ceiling for subtitled television product was more a ceiling of breakable glass than a ceiling of impenetrable brass and that there is viewer interest in “quality” foreign television in the UK.
Forbrydelsen, the focus of this paper, is the creation of Danish writer Søren Sveistrup. It premiered on Danish public broadcaster DR in January of 2007. The first series of Forbrydelsen centres on the brutal murder of the 19 year old Nanna Birk Larsen, the 20 day police investigation led by Sarah Lund (played by the wonderful Sofie Gråbøl) over 20 episodes into its many twists and turns, the impact of Nanna's brutal rape and murder on the Larsen family, and the impact of the murder and police investigation on the mayoral election in Copenhagen. The first ten episodes of the show broadcast between January and March of 2007, proved so popular, 1.5 million Danes out of a population of 5.6 million viewed each episode (TNS Gallup ratings), that the last ten episodes, which were intended for broadcast in January of March 2008, were pushed up to September to November 2007, as many Danes had become obsessed with knowing who killed Nanna Birk Larsen, the tag line for the series. A second series of ten episodes, centred around the death of Danish soldiers who may or may not have witnessed a massacre of civilians by Danish soldiers in Afghanistan which the Danish government is trying to cover up, followed the first on DR in September 2009 and garnered an average of around 1.7 million viewers in Denmark according to TNS Gallup. A third series, again of ten episodes, the last, ran on DR from 23 September to 25 November 2012, where it was watched by an average of 1.7 million Danes according to TNS Gallup.
When Forbrydelsen appeared on BBC 4 as The Killing in January of 2011 the show attracted, according to BARB, the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, between 400,000 and 600,000 viewers per episode, more viewers, according to the Guardian’s Vicky Frost (4 March 2011), than the American television programme Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2012). The second series which ran between 19 November and 17 December 2011 attracted between 860,000 and 1.2 million according to BARB. The third, which began broadcast on 17 November 2012 on BBC 4, was seen by over a million viewers per episode according to BARB. Borgen and Broen/Bron achieved similar viewing numbers. Episodes of Borgen, according to BARB, were watched by between 600,000 to 780,000 viewers. Episodes of Broen/Bron, were watched, according to BARB, by between 860,000 to 1.2 million Brits. Forbrydelsen and Borgen also garnered acclaim from their British peers. Both won international BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards, Forbrydelsen in 2011, Borgen in 2012.
The success of Nordic noir, as Scandinavian crime programmes have come to be called, on British television has also had an impact on the availability of Scandinavian programmes in the UK on DVD and Blue Ray. Arrow Films has become the face of and the leading purveyor of Nordic noir film and television in the British DVD and Blue Ray marketplace. It puts out all three seasons of Forbrydelsen, both series of Borgen—a show I would classify and categorise more as political drama than Nordic noir—the first series of Broen/Bron, and the Swedish versions of Henning Mankell’s Wallander and has even published an excellent brief introduction to the genre entitled “Nordic Noir” by Jakob Stougaard-Nelsen, a professor of Scandinavian Studies at University College, the University of London, and author of a forthcoming work on Scandinavian crime fiction, which it now places in each of its Nordic Noir series releases.
Though Forbrydelsen was successful in “old Europe” the closest Americans got to the show, beyond, rumour has it, its broadcast on some PBS affiliates, was the American remake or “reimaging” of the show called The Killing on the American cable network AMC, American Movie Classics, which ran for two seasons in 2011 and 2012 and is apparently about to be resurrected as I write. Though the US The Killing proved, as the show went on, not to be the success AMC hoped for, it is not the last Danish show slated for a Hollywood makeover. A "loose" remake of Broen/Bron appeared on FX in 2013. According to Nick Edwards the American over the air network NBC is interested in remaking Borgen. Apparently in America only remakes of TV shows or musical acts that sing in English like Abba, Roxette, a ha, or Europe need apply. Apparently, the sun never shines for Scandinavian TV on American TV. I wonder what that says about American cosmopolitanism or lack of it? By the way, of Forbrydelsen, Borgen, Broen, and Wallander only Wallander and Borgen, have gotten DVD or Blue Ray releases in the US, Borgen only in March of this year. 
Another result of the success of Forbrydelsen, Borgen, and Broen/Bron, on British television has been an explosion, if I can use that term here, of interest in Danish TV and Nordic Noir in the British press and online as Maggie Brown's "Borgen: Inside Danish TV's Thriller Factory" (14 January 2012, the Guardian) and Emma Jane Kirby's "The Killing and Borgen: Danish Drama Wins Global Fanbase" (27 April 2012, BBC News Magazine) make clear. Vicky Frost blogged intelligently about Forbrydelsen and later Borgen and Broen/Bron extensively on the Guardian’s website. Frost’s blogs on each episode of Forbrydelsen and later Borgen and Broen/Bron drew hundreds and eventually thousands of comments as some Brits, like some Danes and other Scandinavians, before them, had become obsessed with figuring out the mystery at the heart of Forbrydelsen’s first series, who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. Critics in the British press, particularly at the Guardian, the Independent, and the Telegraph, wrote articles on everything from Forbrydelsen's heroine Sarah Lund, Lund’s Faroese jumper, and the makers of the now infamous Sarah Lund jumper, Gudrun og Gudrun, the Faroese sweater maker named after its two female founders. Gudrun og Gudrun has, according to Tim Ecott, seen a tremendous jump in sales since the debut of Forbrydelsen. Posters online provided patterns so fans of Forbrydelsen and fans of Lund’s jumper could make their own Faroese sweater and avoid the €240 to €280 euro cost of the handmade originals.
The success of Forbrydelsen, Borgen, and Broen/Bron in the UK and the praise many British critics have heaped on all three have left many British critics wondering how and why Danish television seems to have come from nowhere only to be fêted by some critics as making some of the best television in the world. Some critics, as Patrick Kingsley notes, trace Denmark’s rise to artistic, gastronomic—from no three star Michelin Guide ratings in the 1980s to 12 today—architectural, and television prominence to Dogme 95, the Danish cinematic movement which advocated a minimalist realism in the face of the artificiality of contemporary cinema and the genre films of Hollywood and which counted prominent Danish film makers Lars von Trier (The Idiots, 1998), Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune’s sidste sang, 1999), Kristian Levring (The King is Alive, 2000) and Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, 1998, Dear Wendy, 2005) amongst its members. Kingsley, however, claims that Forbrydelsen’s excellence is less the product of Dogme’s aesthetics then the ambition it fostered in Denmark.
Beyond Dogme 95 and the culture of ambition it helped stimulate in Denmark Kingsley and Chris Hanretty attribute increasing Danish cultural prominence to Danish governmental investment in its citizens and its institutions, public and private (Are you listening America?). In 1997 the government of Denmark combined the Danish Film Institute which supported the production of feature films, the National Film Board of Denmark, which supported the production of shorts and documentaries, the Danish film workshop, which supported the production of experimental films and videos, and the Danish Film Museum, the national film archive, and established the Film House in Copenhagen to house them all. This support of the film and video arts also extended to the public television network DR. DR is supported by a license fee of over 2000 krone (over €300 euros) and this has allowed DR, despite its license fee being one-eighth the income of the BBC, as Gerald Gilbert and Maggie Brown note, to develop—with a little help, on occasion, from the Swedish public broadcaster SVT, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK (Norsk Rikskringkasting), and the German public broadcaster ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen)—what Gilbert says is a commitment to the vision of its authors, a commitment to original dramas, a commitment to telling complex stories about the complexities of life, and a commitment to strong female characters.
Though academic work on Forbrydelsen has lagged behind that of journalistic and online criticism this has not, in my opinion, been an entirely bad thing. At least journalist critics, unlike many academic analysts of literature, film, and television realise that research in primary source material beyond the text is essential for a full understanding of literature, film and television in their historical and sociological contexts.
There is so much one can say—many critics, in fact, have already said it—about Forbrydelsen. Forbrydelsen, of course, didn’t arise in a vacuum. Forbrydelsen, with its largely night time action, its brutal murders, its rainy streets, its political intrigues, its byzantine police politics, its secrets, lies, and cover-ups is the latest in a long line of literary, film, and television crime drama or Nordic noir, the term many have given to the dark and socially conscious crime drama that has come and continues to come out of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Though historians have generally traced the beginnings of Nordic noir to the Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall (1935-) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) others note that there was Nordic crime fiction and Nordic noir before Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Nils Nordberg argues Norwegian noir began with Mauritz Christopher Hansen. Hansen wrote over 20 stories, the earliest one the psychological thriller Den gale Christian (The Mad Christian) published in 1821. Hansen referred to what he wrote as Criminalhistorie (crime story). Vicky Albritton traces the origins of Swedish noir to Hjalmar Söderberg’s 1905 dark and brooding midsummer night’s eve novel Doctor Glas. Doctor Glas centres around a young woman who asks Dr. Glas to lie for her and tell her vicar husband that she cannot have sex with him lest she die. She is really having an affair with another man.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö, though they may not have been the originators of Nordic noir, are generally acknowledged to be two of its most influential practitioners. Between 1965 and 1975 Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote ten best selling novels centred around their detective Martin Beck. Beck first appeared in Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s Roseanna in 1965 and appeared for the last time in their Terroristerna (The Terrorists) of 1975. What made Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s Nordic noir fiction somewhat novel compared to noir elsewhere was the fact that it had a social conscious dimension, a left and Marxist social dimension, to it. As Sjöwall told the Guardian’s Louise France in 2009, "We wanted to describe society from our left point of view. Per had written political books, but they'd only sold 300 copies. We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer." This social dimension would prove to be influential in so much of the Nordic noir that appeared in the wake of Sjöwall and Wahlöö.
Other Nordic writers of Scandinavian noir followed in the footsteps of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. There was the Swede Jan Guillou (1944-) and his Carl Hamilton, a nobleman military spy who had socialist leanings. There is the Swede Henning Mankell (1948-), another left social democrat, and his Kurt Wallander and Linda Wallander. Mankell’s 1991 Mördare utan ansikte/Faceless Killers deals with the impact of immigration on contemporary Sweden and the xenophobic response to it. His 1994 Mannen som log/Man who Smiled deals with organ trafficking from the have not world to the have world. His 1996 Den femte kvinnan/Fifth Woman deals with misogyny. His 1998 Brandvägg/Firewall centres on an international conspiracy to bring down the economic system of the world. There is the Swede Håkan Nesser (1950-) and his Inspector Van Veeteren. There is the Dane Peter Høeg (1957-) and his Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen. Høeg’s Smillas fornemmelse for sne/Smilla’s Feeling for Snow takes place against the backdrop of Danish colonialism in Greenland and its associated prejudices. There is the Norwegian Jo Nesbø (1960-) and his Inspector Harry Hole. There is Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason (1961-) and his Inspector Erlander. There is Swede Asa Larson (1966-) and his Rebecka Martinsson. And finally there was the Swede Stieg Larson (1954-2004), yet another left social democrat, and his Lisbeth Salander protagonist of his Men Who Hate Women Trilogy. Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor/Millennium Trilogy takes place against the backdrop of Swedish fascism, Swedish political corruption, and the depravity of Sweden’s elite.
Nordic noir was not only a man’s game. Nordic women were writing their own noir, femikrimi. There is the Swede Anna Jansson (1958-) and her Maria Wern. There is the Norwegian Anne Holt (1958-) and her Hanne Wilhelmsen. There is the Finn Leena Letholainen (1964) and her Maria Kallio. There is the Swede Liza Marklund (1962-) and her Maria Eriksson and Annika Bengtzen. There is Swede Helene Tursten (1954-) and her Irene Huss. There is the Norwegian Karin Fossum (1954-), the queen of Norwegian crime fiction, and her Inspector Konrad Sejer. There is Icelander Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (1963-) and her Erlendur Sveinsson. There is Finn Camilla Lackberg (1974-) who has been called by some the Swedish Agatha Christie. There is the Dane Gretelise Holm (1946-) and her Karin Sommer. There is the Dane Sara Blædel and her Louise Rick.
The success of Scandinavian crime fiction and Nordic noir not only in Scandinavia but in Germany, the UK, and the US, made the migration of Nordic noir to the big screen and small screen and made original Nordic noir film and television inevitable. There’s 1958’s De dødes tjern (The Lake of the Dead). There’s the 1963 Swedish adaptation of Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s 1965 Beck novel Roseanna. There’s the 1993 through 1995 and 1997 to 2010 Swedish television programmes based on Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck both titled Martin Beck. There’s Dane Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 original film noir Pusher. There’s Billie August’s 1997 adaptation of Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. There’s the 1997 Norwegian film Insomnia. There’s the 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 Illusion and Yellow Bird, a film and television company founded by Mankell that has become a leading producer of Nordic noir for film and television, adaptations of Mankell’s Wallander (TV4). There’s Icelander Baltasar Kormakur's 2006 adaptation of Indriðason’s Mýrin (Jar City, 2006). There’s the Illusion and Yellow Bird adaptation of Tursten’s Irene Huss novels for Swedish television (SVT) beginning in 2007. There’s the 2009 and 2010 Yellow Bird and Nordisk Film television and film adaptations of Larson’s Millennium Trilogy. There’s the adaptations, beginning in 2008, of Jansson’s Maria Wern books (TV4). There’s Icelander Óskar Jónasson’s 2008 original film Rekjavik-Rotterdam.
Nordic noir cinema and television like Nordic noir fiction wasn’t only showing up on Scandinavian big and small screens. Nordic noir also made its way around the Western world. Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s 1968 Beck novel Den skrattande polisen was adapted by Hollywood in 1973 as The Laughing Policeman. Hollywood transformed Martin Beck into Jake Martin and transplanted him from Stockholm to San Francisco. Yellow Bird, Left Bank Pictures and TKBC made three English language series of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh for the BBC in 2008, 2010, and 2012. The US remake of Larson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo produced by Yellow Bird, MGM, Scott Rudin Productions, and the Swedish company Film i Väst and distributed by Sony/Columbia appeared on the world’s big screens in 2011.
Many of these broader currents in the Western world and the decline in utopianism they brought with them have impacted and in some cases play starring roles in Forbrydelsen during its three seasons. Brutal serial killers haunt Denmark in all three series of the show, one someone who became a serial killer because of the role he played in a a coverup while he was a soldier in Afghanistan. Politicians, even the reformist ones, are shown as invariably relying on the same power seeking and influence peddling strategies of those politicians they initially criticised and condemned. Politicians are portrayed as possibly and sometimes definitely involved in the murders Sarah Lund is investigating (Troels Hartman, Thomas Buch, Kristian Kamper). Politics within the police department is shown to be labyrinthian, fraught with danger, potentially hazardous to the pursuit of truth wherever it might lead, and potentially hazardous to a detective like Sarah Lund's career. Political and economic elites are shown to be able to impact and manipulate Danish politics and even murder investigations in ways common Danes cannot. Economic elites (Robert Zeuthen) are revealed to be engaging in morally and legally questionable behaviour. Forbrydelsen, in other words, like the works of Sjöwall and Wahlöö before it, shows the criminality, brutality, and inequality lurking in the dark shadows of the Scandinavian social democratic dream, criminality, brutality, and inequalities Sarah Lund brings out of the shadows sometimes to the discomfort of some of her police, political, and economic "superiors".
Denmark and Forbrydelsen, as the preceding discussion hints, are part of a Western and Atlantic literary, film, and television culture. Forbrydelsen is the latest in a long line of serial stories that, I suppose, one could argue, go back at least to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Ancient Greece if not to the stories of the Tanakh, and, closer to our own times, the serial melodramas of Charles Dickens, and, in the crime thriller drama genre, the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle centred around the cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes.
Serials, not surprisingly, given the influence of serial melodramas, on other media, have not only been a staple of various genres of literature but they have also found their way into film, radio, and television. In film there are Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Thin Man, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond serials. In radio and television, the communication media perhaps best suited to seriality given its episodic nature, the list is long and includes radio and later television soap operas like Guiding Light (US, radio, 1937, television 1952), various adaptations of literary works that go back to almost the beginnings of British television, Leave it to Beaver (US, ABC, 1957-1963), the original series of Upstairs Downstairs (UK, ITV, 1971-1975), I Claudius (UK, BBC, 1976), and more recently, Edge of Darkness (UK, BBC, 1985), Prime Suspect (UK, ITV, 1991-1996, 2006) Cracker (UK, ITV, 1991-1996, 2006), X-Files (US, Fox, 1993-2002), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (US, WB/UPN, 1997-2003), and 24 (US, Fox, 2001-2010), a television show the first series of Forbrydelsen bears rather obvious structural similarities to (David Bianculli, “’The Killing’: ‘Twin Peaks’ Meets ‘24’ On AMC”). Each episode of 24 is one hour among 24 hours. Each episode of the first series of Forbrydelsen is approximately a day in the life of an approximately 20-day investigation.
Forbrydelsen is the descendent of the crime stories of the American writer Edgar Alan Poe (1809-1849), the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the English writer Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), the English writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976), the hardboiled American noir writer Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), American noir writer Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), French noir writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989), and the hardboiled detective writer Ed McBain (1926-2005). Sjöwall and Wahlöö were, by the way, the Swedish translators of McBain. In filmic terms, Forbrydelsen is the grand child of German expressionism and French poetic realism, and the child of American film noir.
One of the clearest way to see just how much Western crime fiction, expressionism, poetic realism, and literary and film noir has impacted Nordic noir and Forbrydelsen is by looking at the hub around which Forbrydelsen revolves, Forbrydelsen’s central detective character Sarah Lund played by the superb Danish actor Sofie Gråbøl. Lund is the descendent of Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Christie’s Miss Marple, Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Hammett’s Sam Spade, Chandler’s Philip Marlowe—all but Dupin have made a transition to the big and small screen—and their television descendents including Morse’s (ITV, 1997-2000) Endeavour Morse Prime Suspect’s (ITV, 1991-1996, 2003, 2006) Jane Tennison, Cracker’s (ITV, 1991-1996, 2006) Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, and Due South’s (CTV, 1994-1999) Benton Fraser.
Given that Lund is the heart and soul of Forbrydelsen many critics have, not surprisingly, focused their attention on gender representations and the representation of women in Forbrydelsen. Steven Baxter (“Jumpers at the Ready: The Killing is Back”) sees Lund as being very different from the most well known of all fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, in that while Holmes was active while Lund is passive. Where Holmes was, according to Baxter, an articulator, Lund is a thinker. Where Holmes was brilliantly deductive, Lund is more intuitive like Morse. She, Baxter argues, like Morse gets to the truth by simply wearing it down through patience and persistence. For Emma Kennedy ("The Killing Has Given Us a Heroine to Remember") and Gerald Gilbert ("Nothing Like a Dane”) Lund is like no other female detective before her. Kennedy notes that "...Sarah Lund...is a woman who is allowed to spend 20 hours of television in nothing more enticing than a pair of old jeans, a cream and navy Faroese jumper that has achieved cult status in its own right, and an anonymous short black coat." As to the now infamous jumper or sweater Sofie Gråbøl, who had a major role in developing the Lund character, told the Guardian’s Vicky Frost ("The Killing: Sarah Lund's Jumper Explained”) that "We had a costume meeting and I saw that sweater and thought: “That's it!. The reason it's so perfect is because it tells so many stories. It tells of a person who doesn't use her sexuality – that's a big point. Lund's so sure of herself she doesn't have to wear a suit. She's at peace with herself...I wore this sweater and so did my parents. That sweater was a sign of believing in togetherness. There's a nice tension between those soft, human values and Lund being a very tough closed person – because to me it says that she's wanting to sit around a fire with a guitar; it gives a great opposite to her line of work and behaviour."
The shadow of Sherlock Holmes hovers over Sarah Lund just as it hovers over so much Western detective fiction, detective films, and detective television since the late 19th century and so many Western detectives in their various iterations from Poirot to Miss Marple to Mr. Monk (Monk, USA, 2002-2009) to Dr. House (House, Fox, 2004-2012) to Chief Johnson (The Closer, TNT, 2005-2012) and to the updated Sherlock’s of the BBC’s wonderful Sherlock (2010-) and CBS’s much less interesting Elementary (2012-). Lund seems to me a combination Sherlock Holmes, DCI Jane Tennison, Eddie Fitzgerald, and DCI Endeavour Morse, obsessed, as she is, with solving crime, an obsession that essentially controls every waking moment of her life virtually destroying any thing that gets in its way, including her relationships with her twelve year old son and her mother, her ability to defer to authority, and her relationship with her partners. Like Holmes, Tennison, Fitzgerald, Morse and her Scandinavian cousins Kurt Wallander, Lisbeth Salander, and Saga Norén (Broen/Bron), who may or may not have autism/Asperger’s, Lund is rather aloof, somewhat of a loner. Like Holmes Lund is less intuitive—Morse and Wallander are highly intuitive—and more deductive, something Gråbøl notes in her interview with BBC News (“Killing Star on Challenging Feminist Views”).
Lund, however, is not simply a copy of obsessed, intellectual, and aloof detectives of the past. She is a bit different from her detective forefathers and foremothers. Lund, even more than Holmes, who has his Watson, Tennison, who has her squad, Fitzgerald, who has his Penhaligon, Morse who has his Lewis, Salander who has her Bloomkvist, and Saga who has her Martin, is the ultimate outsider in a world of insiders or insider wannabes. Hers is detective work for detections sake. Lund is different from her fellow Nordic noir fictional characters in that unlike Kurt Wallander and Mikael Bloomkvist, she isn't a crusader. It is not necessarily justice she seeks. It is the truth regardless of where the truth takes her.
I want to end this paper on a personal note. Max Weber was right oh so many years ago. We humans, including us academics, are on some level fans, we study what we value and we value what we study and that is why we study what we study. Like so many other viewers, as Vicky Frost’s Guardian blogs on Forbrydelsen make clear, once I began watching Forbrydelsen—I spent four days or approximately thirty hours of my life watching the two series/seasons of Forbrydelsen—I became obsessed with who killed Nanna Birk Larsen, with the character of Sarah Lund, and yes, with Sarah Lund’s jumper or sweater. My obsession with all three continued into the second season. As a result I became obsessed with learning as much about the show as I could. This paper is the result of that obsession. In the social and cultural eyes of this beholder Forbrydelsen is, one of the best television programmes (or films for that matter) I have seen in years. I haven't been this addicted to a TV show since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003), Firefly (Joss Whedon, Fox, 2002), The Thick of It (Armando Iannucci, BBC, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012), or Outnumbered (Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, BBC, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011). I found Borgen and Broen/Bron, just as addictive. I only wish more PBS affiliates followed in the footsteps of the DC area independent public broadcaster MHz Networks which shows a rich menu of international crime drama including the Swedish Wallander series, the Swedish Beck series, the Swedish Maria Wern series, the Swedish Irene Huss series, the French Bruno Cremer Maigret series, the French noir series Engrenages/Spiral, the Italian noir Detective Montalbano series (which successfully ran on BBC 4 in the fall of 2013), the Italian noir Octopus series. I would really like to see what the television world beyond the US and the UK has to offer. And so also, I think, should academics interested in television studies.
1. Speaking of the American remake of Forbrydelsen, that show has prompted some in the American press and in the blogosphere to compare the Danish original with its American remake or reimaging. For the Daily Beast's Jace Lacob The Killing essentially went off the rails after the pilot and suffered a massive decline in viewership as a result. The New York Times's Mike Hale blames the artistic failure of The Killing on its shortness, changes in the plot lines, and the less complex narrative and character arcs of The Killing in comparison to Forbrydelsen. Some bloggers blogged about both Forbrydelsen and its American remake and re-imagining The Killing simultaneously. Like Lacob and Hale Opinionless's bloggers come down on the side of Forbrydelsen in the which is best debate.
2.The assassination of Palme and the attempt to solve it reads like a Nordic noir novel, film, or television show. Palme’s assassination has been attributed to the Swedish right—Palme was a social democrat—the Jugoslav security services—payback for his support of Jugoslav dissidents—the Kurdish revolutionary movement the PKK—payback for Sweden’s decision to extradite Kurdish revolutionaries to Turkey—a White South African assassination squad—payback for Palme’s support of the anti-apartheid movement—a Chilean—payback for Palme’s criticism of the coup against Allende in 1973 and for Sweden providing asylum to Chilean dissidents in the wake of the coup—someone connected to Swedish arms manufacture Bofors and its AE Services—payback for Palme’s discovery that Bofors was illegally paying bribes to Indian politicians to “promote” its merchandise through AE Services—the Red Army Faction of West Germany—payback for the failure of the Red Army’s attempt to take over the West German embassy in Stockholm which they blamed on Palme—the CIA—Palme got caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal because Bofors was caught up in Iran-Contra—and to a petty criminal and drug dealer.
3. In the metaphors we criticise by category, some critics, like Margaret Lyons (“How The Killing Channeled Twin Peaks Last Night”) and David Bianculli (“’The Killing’: ‘Twin Peaks’ Meets ‘24’ On AMC”), see Forbrydelsen’s American stepchild The Killing, and, by extension, since a significant amount of The Killing is a literal remake of Forbrydelsen, Forbrydelsen itself as the children of Twin Peaks. Forbrydelsen creator Sveistrup has admitted to watching and liking, up to a point, Twin Peaks (Chipping) but he also notes that he liked Steven Bochko’s, Charles H. Eglee’s, and Channing Gibson’s Murder One (ABC, 1995-1997), 24, and Prime Suspect and that Forbrydelsen, unlike Twin Peaks, doesn’t deconstruct the noir genre or have the humour Twin Peaks has. There are other similarities and differences between the two shows. Yes the rain and darkness of Twin Peaks are there in Forbrydelsen and The Killing but this may be because Twin Peaks and The Killing were filmed in the Pacific Northwest, the former in Washington state, the latter in Vancouver, both of which have rainy climates, while Forbrydelsen is filmed in rainy Copenhagen. On the other hand the darkness, both physical and metaphorical, that characterises Twin Peaks, Forbrydelsen, and The Killing may simply be due to the fact that all three are the television children of literary noir, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and their American descendent film noir. Finally, two things that make Forbrydelsen very different from Twin Peaks is that Forbrydelsen doesn't have any of the supernatural surrealist elements that were a central part of Twin Peaks—something Lyons and Bianculli note—and Forbrydelsen has a much more linear narrative as opposed to the surrealist narrative "structure" of Twin Peaks.
Nordic Noir Online Sites:
Vicky Albritton’s Nordic Noir Blog: Nordic Thrillers, Suspense, and Crime Fiction
Scandinavian Studies, Nordic Noir Book Club, University College, University of London,
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