Watching the many great Nordic Noir Dramas that have recently been shown on television, you might be forgiven for thinking of Scandinavia solely in terms of their long, dark winter nights and drizzly downpours. Yet there is another side to the coin of life in the north, their long summer days where the sun barely sets, or does not set at all. While the darkness of the North seems to hide a multitude of crimes, the light of the North has been used to highlight not only the crime and the beautiful landscapes of the North, but also to highlight and examine the mindscape of the criminal and the detective, as in Erik Skjoldbjærg’s directorial debut, Insomnia (1997).
Insomnia is a psychological thriller par excellence. In its own way it has a very noir tone, yet it is almost a reverse noir, for the light of the summer dim is used to illuminate the actions and the guilt of the detective, Jonas Engström. Engström, formerly with the Swedish police but now working for the Norwegian Kripos, is sent north to investigate the killing of a teenager, Tanja. He sets a stakeout in order to try to catch the killer; only for it all goes horribly wrong. As they emerge from the dark tunnel‒one of the few slices of darkness that we actually see in the film‒on to the beach, the rugged and beautiful landscape is partly obscured by thick mists. The summer sun is dull and the visibility very poor. In this mist, as much inside Engström’s sleep-deprived mind as the local landscape, Engström accidentally shoots his colleague Vik, instead of the killer. Though initially wanting to tell the truth, Engström soon finds it preferable to go with the opinion of the rest of his colleagues that Vik was killed by the killer.
Set in and around the city of Tromsø, in the far North of Norway,Insomnia features some truly stunning rocky scenery, almost permanently illuminated by the midnight sun, with only the tiniest sliver of twilight delineating the days. Here there is no darkness, and nowhere to hide. Rather than showing the almost constant daylight as bright and light, what we get is a muted pale light that washes out everything it touches. If you’ve ever suffered with insomnia, you’ll recognise that washed out feeling that it gives you, and we can visually see that feeling through the light as well as through Stellan Skarsgård’s fine performance as JonasEngström. The grey tones of the cinematography emphasise the moral ambiguity or ‘greyness’ represented in the film; after all, Insomnia‘s protagonist is far from a good guy. The wilder, natural landscape, the rocky beach, the verdant green hills and snowcapped mountains are all representative of the wildness and lack of self-control that is pulling at the edge of Engström’s sanity. This is wonderfully contrasted with the urbanscapes of Engström’s office, his hotel and modern life, which all represent the human order and Engström’s shreds of sanity.
Engström cannot sleep in this place of light, no matter what he does. His attempts to block out the light and to block out responsibility for his own actions are equally futile, and he certainly can find no peace as he is plagued by guilt for his killing of Vik. His lack of sleep, coupled with the wild landscape, sets the scene for his lies and his mind to unravel. Soon he is haunted by hallucinations of Vik. Engström’s behaviour becomes increasingly odd and desperate, so here we see the character, as well as the film and its plot, unfold. When Hilde Hagen is assigned to investigate the circumstances of Vik’s death, Engström realises that he must tamper with the evidence in order to make it fit his version of events.
To make the situation even more complex, the killer witnessed Engström shooting Vik and sets out to blackmail him. The two men, the killer and the crime novelist, meet up and decide to frame Tanja’s boyfriend. Engström plants his gun under the boyfriend’s bed, but the investigator Hagen does not buy the boyfriend as the killer. Soon new evidence points to the real killer and Engström realises that he is in real trouble. Engström tracks the killer to a ramshackle run-down waterfront, and, as the killer tries to flee, rotten floorboards give way and he drowns, as Engström looks on. As Engström watches the killer drown, he too is drowning in psychological turmoil and lost in moral ambiguity, for he lacks the ability to make rational decisions or to take responsibility for his own actions. He is stuck in a labyrinthine lie of his own creation.
The state of the waterfront, with its rotting wooden boards, peeling paint and constant lit state, provides a clear metaphor illustrating for the viewer the tattered state of Engström’s mind, robbed as it has been of sleep for so long. Just as the waterfront and its buildings, while now abandoned and run down, appear to have once been quite beautiful, it is shown that Engström was, once upon a time, a brilliant‒if somewhat unorthodox‒investigator, but life and most importantly his own mistakes‒his sleeping with a witness and his shooting of Vik‒have run him down, and the midnight sun has driven him half-mad. In Insomnia the landscape reflects the mindscape of Engström, and the 24-hour daylight offers the viewer unrelenting insight into his character, the impact of his poor choices‒due to his insomnia, and ultimately his descent into madness.