An Americanised Norwegian Cinema?

To international audiences, it seems like Norway is facing an identity crisis. In the year that Nordic Council Film Prize-nominated Out of Nature (2014) swept through international festivals and marveled us with its stunning portrayal of nature, the inner soul and the true dullness of the middle class, Norwegians were spending their money at the cinema to see racing film Børning (2014) and disaster movie The Wave (2015), neither of which have been able to captivate audiences abroad. Both films come across as American-style movies, something which is likely to deter international audiences looking for European art cinema. However, Norway has a long tradition of preferring American films. In fact, looking at box office statistics over the last decade, American films always do considerably better than Norwegian films. For example, in 2014 the top film seen in Norway was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies which had 482,000 admissions, with the next in line being Børning with 100,000 less admissions,  and that is one of the films that this article focuses on for being able to break through to domestic audiences.

Norwegian Film Policy

In order to understand the contemporary shift in Norwegian cinema, it is important to look at the Norwegian film policy. One key aspect of Scandinavian cinema is their dependence on public support and subsidies. The emergence of talking films in the 1920s strengthened the English-speaking films domination of the European markets, and by the end of the second World War this phenomenon was firmly established. Since then, the national film sectors of Scandinavian cinema have fought to establish, maintain and revive their place in international cinema.2

The paper ‘The Rise of the Regions: Norwegian Film Policy and the new regional cinema’ is an excellent read for contemporary Norwegian film policy. In the article, Ingvild Bjerkeland also outlines two ways in which Hollywood has constituted a threat. Firstly, there is the enormous power of the American media. Public subsidies have been necessary in order for a national film production to survive domestically, or have any chance of reaching international film festivals and markets. In this regard, national film policy is a kind of protectionist scheme, fighting against stronger foreign companies. Secondly, there is a threat of cultural dominance. Film is an international medium with shared aesthetics, formal structures and themes, but the influence of Hollywood has been strong in cementing of these traditions. National film policy is thus concerned with the protection and promotion of national culture, language and identity. In this respect, Norway is no exception. Since the first national film policy was implemented after world War II, its main concern has been the promotion of a distinctive, unified national culture. It is this national culture that has allowed for Norwegian cinema to thrive into the modern day.

Norwegians and Nature

Nature is one of the most important aspects of Norwegian culture. For the small Norwegian population, the land means a vast and mostly wild area. Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that the strong initial connection to the land comes from the difference with neighbouring nations Denmark and Sweden.3 Nature is a major category in Norwegian culture. In Norwegian, natur or ‘nature’ is a term that refers to the outdoors or the ‘green’ material world; It is often preceded by the adjective “Norwegian” as in norsk natur. Norwegians consider themselves to be a part of nature. Miljø (literally middle or milieu) is best translated as environment that contains the anthropocentric notion that nature surrounds us. In anthropologist Marianne Gullestad’s words, ‘in Norwegian outdoor life, the human body is also part of nature.”5

Nature has therefore made itself an important aspect of visualising Norwegian identity in cinema. Sabine Brigitte Henlin-Stromme’s paper ‘Nature, nation and the global in contemporary Norwegian cinema’  highlights the comparisons between the forest, sea and mountains and Norwegian identity, linking some of Norway’s most well known films with key images of national identity as found in cinema. An excellent example of how nature is used in Norwegian art cinema is in Out of Nature, Ole Giaever’s second film after The Mountain (a similarly relevant example). The film is narrated through the intimate thoughts and concerns of its protagonist. Leaving behind his wife and son for a weekend hiking, where his imagination lets loose and he becomes free to contemplate his past, present and future. The highlight of the film is its solitude. With no one around him, Martin delves into the sorts of questions that have been nagging him day after day. He wonders if he should leave his wife, if he should quit his job, what kind of father he’ll be. Martin is only able to confront these grievances when he is surrounded by nature. Crossing streams, climbing mountains and masturbating behind trees are part of what allows Martin to discover himself and coincide with the concept that Norwegians are inherently part of nature. Out of Nature shows how contemporary Norwegian art cinema uses nature to its advantage.

Norwave, Børning and The Wave

Despite producing high quality art cinema, Norwegians have never favoured the style. Before the 1980s, Norwegian film production was relatively quiet and insignificant when compared to its Scandinavian neighbours. However, that all began to change in the mid 1990s and especially when Variety Magazine announced a new country to watch in the constant quest for the latest trend in world cinema, Norway. Between 1997 and 2003 there was a rise in Norwegian films that took a huge influence from American genre films and films that were romantic comedies, crime dramas and quirky comedies were released in the region. Gunnar Iversen asserts that it was the creation of the New Norwegian Film Policy in 2001 that was a major factor in the emergence of these high quality productions, and his chapter on ‘Learning from Genre: Genre Cycle in Modern Norwegian Cinema’ in Transnational Cinema in a Global North is an excellent read for those interested in Norwegian genre.

Norwegians were becoming more aware of globalisation as a cultural phenomenon that affected them personally. In film, this started to show as films that were a mixture between American genre and European art cinema. Andrew Nestingen has termed the films to be ‘medium concept’ films, which are:

“mainstream narrative films that are relatively straightforward to market and at the same time engage the aesthetic and cultural political registers of the art film tradition… medium concept can be understood as filmmaking that involves the adaptation of genre models and art film aesthetics”7

This mixture between the two ‘genres’ first occurred in the 1990s when audiences started to reward filmmakers who rejected European art cinema and embraced certain Hollywood genre conventions. Most of all, audiences demanded that films exhibit a sophisticated construction of Norwegian identity in the face of global entertainment culture. These genre films are seen as offering a cultural difference to the dominant Hollywood films. While this died down in 2006 with the release of more humanist dramas (such as Reprise), in the last couple of years we have seen a re-emergence of genre films, particularly with Børning and The Wave.

Børning and The Wave have been able to become widely successful due to being a medium concept film that uses the notion of nature to resonate deeply with the Norwegian audience. This is not a unique concept in Norwegian cinema, rather in the films of the 1920s that had to fight against the emergence of the talkies, Norwegians turned to rural melodramas that feature storylines based around arranged marriage, dangerous love and the virtues of family life. In Nordic National Cinemas Gunnar Iversen discusses the role of the landscape and the rural environment in fostering Norwegian cinema as ‘a cinema of opposition’8 in relation to Hollywood, and while Børning and The Wave may not need to rely on similar themes to reach todays audiences, they have adapted the concept and made it contemporary.

Børning takes inspiration for American racing movies like Need for Speed and The Fast and the Furious. Anders Baasmo Christiansen stars as Roy, a divorced garage owner who isn’t too happy when his ex drops off their daughter and reminds him that he will be taking care of her for the next two weeks. Roy’s sufficiently sulky and that is only furthered when his daughter sabotages his vintage Mustang before a street race. As he’s being taunted by a cartoonishly competitive Toyota driver named TT, an offhanded rematch challenge escalates into an epic road rally from Southern Norway to the North Cape, a distance of over 2000 kilometres. Much like an American film the story is almost non existent, rather serving as an excuse to get into a car and drive, though not much racing is shown. The cars are largely impervious to damage, gear changes are emphasised and leaps from things onto other moving things requiring you to suspend all logic are encouraged.

Where the film lacks in narrative it makes up in shots of the Norwegian landscape. The films director Hallvard Bræin has worked as a Director of Photography (most known for Trollhunter), so it’s not surprising that the film prioritises the Norwegian countryside over the cars that were supposed to be the fetishized centre of attention in the racing genre. He mainly sticks to long shots showing cars driving through mountains, along fjords and on spectacular coastlines. This in turn makes the film look more like a group of car enthusiasts going on a relaxing cross country trip. This is how Norwegian culture merges with the American genre – rather than focusing on cars, stunts and speed, the film focuses on relaxation, nature and humour. In a way, it almost represents one of the various Norwegian slow television programs.

Critics in Norway focused on the use of the landscape in the film. “He [Hallvard Bræin] has also managed to exploit the fact that the length of Norway is a rather spectacular affair, without resorting to tourist brochure masturbation. Indeed we see a beautiful landscape that no one who has ever driven a car along a road in Norway would recognise” Natt og Dag says, giving the film a 5/6.9  “It turns out that American car films can also work on narrow, Norwegian roads”10 says FilmPolitiet.  Many critics also praised the films humour, saying it is a family film that will sit well with audiences. And sure enough it did, winning Best Film at the Amanda Awards (beating Out of Nature and 1001 Grams).

Whereas most disaster films exploit relatively far-fetched ideas, The Wave anticipates a dauntingly plausible disaster scenario. According to the films director Roar Uthaug, with three hundred unstable mountains in Norway sooner or later his countrymen will have to contend with the sort of massive landslide and subsequent 250 foot tidal wave he so enthusiastically imagines crashing down into the fjord. The fact that The Wave starts off by explaining the evidence speaks volumes of how the disaster movie has been translated for a Norwegian audience.

The story takes place in the small community of Geiranger, nestled in the mountains, where a close-knit family lives on a remote fjord. Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) works at an early warning centre with a crew whose job it is to keep one eye on the mountain and another on a panic button, should worse come to worst. Kristian and his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) are packing and preparing to move to the city, where he has accepted a job with an oil company. The screenplay uses the first house to build the quiet before the storm. While Idun goes to work in a big tourist hotel filled with unsuspecting guests, Kristian bids farewell to his four coworkers on the mountain. There he has his first presentiment that something is wrong. His coworkers mistake him for a madman and refuse to evacuate the town at the height of the tourist season.

Though the film has little to add to the genre, The Wave makes the most of its unique location. It’s an appropriate setting for an abrupt transition from peace to an unstoppable destruction. The Hollywood Reporter described The Wave as hitting every major genre note with a Norwegian accent.11 ScreenDaily said ‘There’s nothing like a tsunami and its cinema. In The Wave, resource-rich debt-free stable Norway is the victim of its greatest nature. If the cinematic test for this project is whether or not a small nation can  make a credible disaster film on a grand scale, Norway and director Roar Uthaug sweep a seaside village away and terrify you with realism”13 Despite positive reviews and worldwide sales, it is unlikely the film will be popular with international audiences.  Despite this, it seems unlikely that the film was made to do well overseas. In fact, the film broke box office records when it opened in Norway, and pulled domestic cinema out of a slump that was seeing one of the worst ever years for domestic cinema admissions.

It is interesting to note that The Wave received many references to American disaster movies, while Børning did not. In Norwegian reviews, The Wave is compared heavily to its Hollywood cousins. Osloby says “The Wave is an impressive production. In Hollywood it would cost twice as much to make. They [the producers] have developed a good flair for creating movies being phenomena, and thus belongs to an American movie tradition that gets recognised in this country.”13 Further reviews also demonstrate this point: “The Wave is Norway’s first disaster film, and it is gratifying to note that we have succeeded on the first attempt. In Norwegian film one is currently very keen to intimidate American productions, and the risk is that one ends up being poor man copies of Hollywood movies. But director Roar Uthaug ventures into the deep and avoids sinking. The Wave is not least a clear sign that Norwegian film production is no longer wet behind the ears” and further says “Here’s what separates The Wave from regular disaster film. This genre suffers paradoxically a lack of excitement. The deaths frame around anonymous support characters, without having to be convinced that the protagonists are in danger of suffering the same fate. The Wave, however, establishes what is by no means improbable that the main characters could end up losing their lives or someone they love. Although the CGI wave makes a big impression, the filmmakers realised that human despair is much more pervasive than a cavalcade of spectacular disaster sequences.”14  – and that seems to sum up perfectly how Norwegian cinema improves American genre for their local audiences.

Overall, by combining the Norwegian cultural association with nature and the American genre film, it seems that contemporary Norwegian cinema is turning into a genre hybrid that will please domestic audiences and hopefully boost cinema admissions. With no signs of slowing down (it has been announced that Norway is working on an ‘Indiana Jones-style action film’) it will be interesting how Norway continues to adapt American film.

Stastistics via the Norwegian Film Institute

1 – Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Nature, an Aesthetic Norm,” in Essays in the History of Ideas. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1948) 69-77. Quoted in Leo Braudy, “The Genre of Nature,” in Refiguring American Film Genres, ed. Nick Brown, 282 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

2- Bjerkeland, Ingvild (2015) ‘The Rise of the Regions – Norwegian Film Policy and the new regional cinema’ in Nordisk kulturpolitisk tidsskift, vol. 01

3 – Thomas Hylland Eriksen “Norwegians and Nature” http://folk.uio.no/geirthe/Nature.html

4 – Marianne Gullestad, “When Nature is more important than Culture,” in The Art of Social Relations, (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1992), 204.

5 – Henlin-Stromme, Sabine Brigitte. “Nature, nation and the global in contemporary Norwegian cinema.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2012.

6 – Gunnar Iversen (2005), ‘Learning from Genre: Genre Cycles in Modern Norwegian Cinema” Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition, Ed. Andrew Nestingen and Trevor G. Elkington, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

7 – Nestingen, Andrew, and Trevor G. Elkington. 2005. “Introduction.” Transnational

Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition. Ed. Andrew Nestingen

and Trevor G. Elkington. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

8 – Gunnar Iversen, Astrid Soderbergh Widdling & Tytti Soila (1998), Nordic National Cinemas, Taylor and Francis

9 – Silke Sommerseth, Børning er så gladharry og velspilt at lukta av norsk film forsvinner I eksosen” in Natt og Dag, published 8/8/14 – accessed 16/11/15

10 – Birger Vestmo, Børning, in FilmPolitet, published 13/8/14, accessed 16/11/15

11 – Deborah Young, The Wave: TIFF Review, published in The Hollywood Reporter 12/9/15, accessed 16/11/15

12 – David D’Arcy, The Wave: Review, published in ScreenDaily 11/9/15, accessed 16/11/15

13 – Kjetil Lismoen, Bølgen: Familiedramaet I stormens senter løfter filmen, published in Osloby on 16/8/15, accessed 16/11/15

14 – Atli Bjarnason, Bølgen holder vann – og mer till published in Natt & Dag on 17/8/15, accessed 16/11/15

CategoriesFeatures Issue 11
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.