Tromsø on Screen: Exploring the natural world through Erik Skjoldbjærg’s INSOMNIA

Regarded as one of the early ‘Nordic Noir’ films, Insomnia follows detective Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swedish police officer now working for the Norwegian Kripos, who is sent north to investigate the killing of a teenager, Tanja. He plans a stakeout as an attempt to catch the killer, but it all goes horribly wrong. The setting of the stakeout is obscured by thick mist, making the visibility rather poor. In the mist, Engström accidentally shoots his colleague, Vik, instead of the killer.

When Insomnia was released, it was considered the Norwegian arrival on the international film scene and even began a term called ‘Norwave’. It generated a lot of interested at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and, along with Pål Sleataune’s Budbringeren, was considered the start of a new direction in Norwegian cinema.

The film’s director, Erik Skjoldbjærg, set out to make what he calls a ‘film blanc’ – that is to say, a film that combines the psychological darkness of classic Hollywood film noir with the uncannily bright atmosphere of the arctic summer and its unrelenting daylight. Skjoldbjærg, who grew up in Tromsø, where the film is set, consciously resists exoticising the northern landscape. In a statement published on Stellan Skarsgård’s website, Skjoldbjærg comments:

“So many crews had used the landscape in an epic manner, but I had never experienced that when I was growing up, so I wanted to give the film a sparse, unspectacular look. We tried not to build classical compositions. Instead, we wanted the eye to wander, to create a certain discomfort, almost exasperation at the impenetrability of the enigma.”

Insomnia is set in and around the far-north city of Tromsø, above the Arctic Circle in Norway. However, in this film it is not the city itself that is in focus, rather it is the force of nature that encompasses towns and cities this close to the North Pole. The film is set over the summer, where the sun never sets and the constant daylight can be troubling for locals and outsiders. Every year, tourists flock to Tromsø not for the city, but what the natural world around it has to offer: the midnight sun in the summer and the northern lights in the winter. Exploring Tromsø as a tourist destination shows endless images of the natural world over the city itself, all graced with bright and visually stunning scenes of what living this far north has to offer.

Tromsø in the Midnight Sun  Source: http://tromsoadventure.no/
Tromsø in the Midnight Sun
Source: http://tromsoadventure.no/

However, Skjoldbjærg, having grown up in the region, chose not to show this glorified side to life in the north. Instead, the world he shows is set in a pale, muted light that washes out everything it touches. The constant sunlight proves troubling and frustrating for the film’s protagonist, to the point that it starts to mess with his sanity. In contemporary Norwegian cinema, and in films from the far-north, it is common for nature to be a character in the film (many Icelandic films are currently using similar ideas), but in this film nature is used not just as a character, but as the consequences of living in a city like Tromsø, far above the Arctic Circle.

Engström suffers from insomnia due to Tromsø’s natural world. The colours that Skjoldbjærg chooses to use illustrate the feeling Engström suffers from. The grey tones of the cinematography emphasise the moral ambiguity or ‘greyness’ represented in the film, especially considering much of Engström’s actions. The wild, natural landscape, the rocky beach, the verdant green hills and the snow-capped mountains are representative of the wildness and lack of self-control that is pulling at Engström’s sanity. Engström can not sleep in this place, no matter what he does. There is a scene in which a hotel staff member helps him cover the windows with thick curtains, which stands out as something many tourists wouldn’t consider and can even be shocked by, but something the locals have to deal with every summer.


At the end of the film, we are shown the state of the waterfront, less idyllic with its wooden boards and peeling paint, a clear metaphor. Just as the waterfront and its buildings, while now abandoned and run down, appear to have been once quite beautiful, it is shown that Engström at one point was a brilliant investigator, but the consequences of Tromsø’s nature have worn him down and the midnight sun has driven him quite mad. Overall, it seems Skjoldbjærg ventured far from the tourist images of the midnight sun, and instead used the brutal force of far-north living as a way to illustrate the growing insanity of the police detective, a type of insanity that no doubt can affect the local community. As much as ‘winter depression’ is common during the dark months, the consequences of summer can affect individuals. The images of Tromsø as seen in Insomnia are far-removed from the ones we’ll see in the tourist brochures.

Further reading:

The Landscape and Mindscape of Insomnia

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.