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The Palatable Hero: Assad, the Arab, in The Keeper of Lost Causes

This essay explores the presentation of Assad, the Arab in The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvindeni buret, 2013), the first of the Department Q series of books by Jussie Adler-Olsen to be adapted to film. With the four films in the series having been released, it’s an important time to re-examine and celebrate the character’s evolution from book to film.

Assad is played by Lebanese-Swedish Fares Fares and partnered with troubled detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). In interviews around the film series Fares hints to working on the character with director Mikkel Nørgaard before agreeing to the role and Lie Kaas succinctly suggests that the point of telling the story again [from book to film] is to do something different. And different they did.

“During the 1990s, racial and ethnic conflicts are largely visible in an emerging sub-genre fixated on gangsters…In these narratives, the multiculturalist mindset of the late 1970s has utterly failed to materialise. Although these films and others focus on welfare poverty, dysfunctional families and racial alienation, many are poorly executed and rely on the ethnic stereotypes such as the brutal Eastern European criminal or underhanded Arab.” (Moffat, 2006, p.229)

Unlike the characterisation of the ‘Other’ (Wright 1998) in the likes of the Pusher trilogy (1996, 2005, 2006) and ‘New Jew’ (Wright 1998) imagery that has gone before, Assad is attractive, smartly dressed, with no wealth iconography like a big watch or gold chain. He greets Mørck warmly in fluent Danish. Assad is not the Arab Scandinavian cinema is used to, instead Nørgaard takes popular genre, tropes and iconography from gangster films and subverts it. As an audience well versed in genre films we recognise what we’re supposed to think of when we see Assad, and yet, don’t.

Emerging from the dark in the Department Q basement, Assad’s entry music is a blearing hip-hop track in Danish, framing Assad at the centre of an ongoing discussion within Scandinavian politics about race, identity, multiculturalism and cultural appropriation. Whilst hip-hop is synonymous with gangster iconography, the track, like Assad subverts our expectations. Rather than an ethnic Other rooted in culture from their native land, Assad is listening to a transitional genre in the local language with Lyrics which translate as “I’m the prophet you’re after” and “Don’t lie down and sleep long, no, I’m not lazy” raising questions about the stereotypes surrounding the lazy ethnic other entering Scandinavia and hinting towards the significance of Assad himself.

Assad’s character is never lazy, unlike the popular sidekick trope whereby the partner unwittingly causes the hero to explain the what, how and why of the story by repeatedly asking what, how and why? The story moves forward despite Mørck not because of him. Assad is the driving force of action and catalyst for narrative change who guides Mørck (and us the audience) through the story by generously explaining the what, how and why as the story evolves.

The audience is forgiven for not noticing Mørck’s inaction, as the narrative follows him, we meet Assad through his eyes and thus assume that Mørck is our bold and courageous leader, our hero. A hero can be defined as “The chief male character in a book, play or film, who is typically identified with good qualities, and with whom the reader is expected to sympathise”, whilst we come to pity Mørck, empathise with his compulsions, it is active Assad who is the chief of the narrative, rich with good qualities and the man who we can identify with. Step aside Batman, Superman, Spiderman, enter Assad, the hero we so desperately need.

Much like popular hero’s with singular Monikers Assad is only given a first name. The lack of family name, or surname implies that he is singular, without family or lineage. The lack of second name and Assad’s own referral to himself as ‘Arab’, a crushingly insufficient term to cover the 22 countries and many dialects and cultures which make up the Arab identity, give Assad a sense of not belonging to a specific country or culture. Yet, Assad is an employed non-ethnic Dane speaking fluent Danish, not attached to a second name, not rooted to Other, perhaps he is not stripped of where he is from but instead positioned very much in the here and now.

Julie Allan states that ‘Although no such thing as a Priori or unified Danish national identity exists, Danish society has long operated on the assumption that certain values, beliefs, and practices are intrinsic to membership in the imagined community of the Danish Nation.’ (p.5) As ‘Danish-ness’ takes on a new form through the inevitable influence of immigrants and those who reject change, is there a space for Assad within the revised imagined community of the Danish Nation?   

Assad, with no surname, continues to disrupt cultural norms of Danish society when it is revealed that he eats at the same restaurant every day. Not only evoking imagery of the gangster with the restaurant as a front for their criminal activity (Godfather 1972, Donnie Brasco 1997, Road to Perdition 2002). The dinner table is also synonymous with family and subsequent family values. Without a family to anchor Assad, he is without the moral compass. However, His counterpart Mørck also doesn’t have a family, but like many white male archetypical heroes who have gone before him (John McClane: Die Hard,1988. Martin Riggs, Lethal Weapon, 1987), Mørck had one once. Estranged from the wife and with a child Mørck is grouped within the ‘safe’ male as he’s single, straight and evidently respects the family model. Perhaps here the point of difference is that Assad’s character is not defined by his inability to sustain a family dynamic, free of the stereotype of the dysfunctional family (Moffat).

Whilst discussing medium concept, Nestingen states ‘It is plain that these films can be treated as genre cinema, but all of them raise serious questions about identity…to convey these questions and points of criticism’ (2008). Director Mikkel Nørgaard asks his questions about Danish culture through the ethnic and non-ethnic Danish detective duo. The course of the investigation takes Assad and Merck into the Danish countryside where they must engage an elderly ethnic Danish woman in conversation. Mørck says to Assad that he (the ethnic Dane) should do the talking as this woman (a symbol of a wider demographic within Denmark) will have only seen people like Assad on the TV. It demonstrates Nørgaard’s awareness of the fictional presentation of Arabs within Danish cinema as well as terrorist imagery which has populated world news in recent history. This scene is also perhaps the most direct reference to why Mørck and Assad have been partnered together, not just to compare and contrast, but instead Mørck’s presence makes Assad a more palatable hero. 

Later in the film when Assad and Mørck decide to directly violate orders and thus break the Danish convention of conforming, Assad agrees by stating that his Danish is not so good. A joke on the surface, it’s also a neat metaphor for how Assad, although assimilated, has the capacity to choose not to conform to Danish convention and still work towards the collective good. Assad’s choice is Mørck’s compulsion. He has no intention to conform and is repeatedly critical of the system that he operates within. His desire to go against the grain is presented as defective and as such he is presented as flawed.

As an Ethnic Danish counterpart to Assad’s ‘Arab’, Mørck acts as an inevitable collective representation for Danes – propped up by a welfare government he believes, almost to a fault, in individual rights (the female victim who is sexually active and arguably promiscuous is never judged for her sexuality). He’s willing to risk his life, and those of others to protect the Danish freedoms. Frequently incapacitated, asleep, drunk, unable to communicate with others or really look after himself, Mørck is a flawed archetype. Whilst Mørck plays into popular character tropes of the crime genre, it is the action that his inaction inspires in Assad which is most noteworthy.  It is Assad who works to better understand Mørck and not the other way around – a metaphor for the attitude towards immigrants wishing to enter Denmark, and Scandinavia alike which is eloquently surmised in In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, 2014). The discussion of adapting to communicate with other’s is furthered when Mørck becomes aggressive and despondent when a disabled Dane cannot communicate with him. Again, is it Assad whose actions act as a catalyst for positive change in the narrative, he adapts and is therefore successful where un-changing Mørck failed.

This theme of inability to change is mirrored and emphasized in the cyclical nature of the narrative surrounding Mørck. As the film comes to a close we watch the bloodied Mørck lose consciousness on the floor of another crime scene, reminding us of how the film opened and he ended up in Department Q, it is not Mørck’s fantastical story arch or gritty determination that the audience is stirred by but instead the dedication of his new partner, Assad, who despite being more gravely wounded, has finally brought about the close of the victim’s lengthy torture. Enter Assad, the new Danish Hero. *

Bibliography:  

Nestingen, Andrew (2008) ‘Medium Concept. Scandinavian Genre and Art Film Hybrids’ in Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia, fiction, film and social change. pp 48-98

Moffat, Kate (2006) ‘From Imperfect Strangers to New Citizens: Screening race and ethnicity in Nordic film history’ in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema, Volume 6 Number 3.

Allan, Julie (2012) Icons of Danish Modernity: Georg Brandes & Asta Nielsen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

References:

Wright, Rochelle (1998), The Visible Wall: Jews and Other Ethnic Outsiders in Swedish Film, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Film References:

Coppola, Francis Ford (1972) The Godfather. USA

Donner, Richard (1987) Lethal Weapon. USA

McTiernan, John (1988) Die Hard. USA

Mendes, Sam (2002) Road to Perdition. USA

Moland, Hans Petter (2014) Kraftidioten. Norway

Newell, Mike (1997) Donnie Brasco. USA

Nørgaard, Mikkel (2013) Kvinden I Buret. Denmark

Winding Refn, Nicolas (1996) Pusher. Denmark

Winding Refn, Nicolas (2004) Pusher II. Denmark

Winding Refn, Nicolas (12005) Pusher III. Denmark

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