Scandinavians have been telling stories throughout the history of time. This tradition is deep in the ancient, pagan literature of the region, with the preserved sagas first written down in medieval Iceland. The sagas, created by and for people who led extremely difficult lives, are about love, death, and war, like all great stories. Fast-forward to the twentieth century, Nordic crime fiction began evolving into complex narratives where crimes were examined in a wider context as symptoms of a damaged society, and the term ‘Nordic Noir’ became popular among fans of the genre. Many scholars point to Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall and their ‘Martin Beck’ series for being the ones who started this trend. According to Agger, the influence of their ‘Story of a Crime’ series in ten volumes released between 1965 and 1975 can hardly be overestimated. Others have stated that Nordic Noir existed before them. Nils Nordberg argues that Norwegian Noir began with Mauritz Christopher Hansen. Hansen wrote over twenty stories, the earliest one being 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 Soderberg’s 1905 dark and brooding midsummer nights eve novel ‘Doctor Glas’. Wherever its origins, Scandinavian crime fiction has always been a staple of Scandinavian literature.

These days, Scandinavian crime fiction is plentiful and has captivated the minds of international readers. Novels have been adapted into television series and films, and original films and series have been created with the ‘Nordic Noir’ touch in mind. The current ‘Department Q’ series is the latest to jump onto this trend, with The Keeper of Lost Causes recently released internationally, and The Absent One due out in Denmark next month. The Killing became a cult hit in the United Kingdom when it first aired on BBC4, quickly embedding itself within popular culture. Sales of the chunky Faroese sweater worn by the show’s lead detective, Sarah Lund, skyrocketed, with the jumpers maker, Gudrun and Gudrun, were reportedly unable to keep up with the insane demand. The Killing and its fellow Scandinavian imports have become bona fide hits in the United Kingdom. The popularity, presence and nature of Nordic Noir throughout Scandinavia raises the question of what it is and how it became so popular. So, I’ve explored the internet and literature looking for what people (particularly the Brits) say about Nordic Noir, in attempt to find a definition. Also, I want to explore different reasons for why the ‘genre’ has become so popular.

First, it’s important to understand where Nordic Noir came from. The Swedish crime film emerged during the 1940s, the period during which the welfare model started to take shape (see Hägg). Broden states in his excellent analysis of Swedish crime film that “the ever-present violence and corruption in the welfare state is a central theme in contemporary Scandinavian crime.” In general, critical studies of modernity as a double-edged phenomenon have been an integral part of contemporary humanities for quite some time. In Scandinavia, this has largely revolved around the welfare state model. In brief, the welfare model represented the ideal modern society based on solidarity and ensuring safety and social welfare for everyone. The Scandinavian crime film genre reflects the dark side of this modernity, in specific the cultural anxieties and contradictions of the developing postwar welfare state. It fits nicely that post World War II was also the start of film noir. Though French critic Nino Frank coined the term ‘film noir’ in 1946, it was Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay ‘Notes on Film Noir’ that best described the trend of the 1940s and 50s. In it, he wrote that noir is not so much genre based as it is defined by “the more subtle qualities of tone and mood.” According to Schrader, the movement was a direct product of post World War II disillusionment, the desire for realism. With the concepts of film noir and the history of Swedish crime film in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that Nordic Noir stemmed from a reaction to Post World War II, blending ideas of film noir, Swedish crime stories and the concerns of the welfare model.

So, Nordic Noir comes from a combination of Scandinavian crime literature and the film noir genre. However, how can a series be defined as Nordic Noir? The Economist described Nordic Noir as having three key elements: language, heroes and setting. As language is more about literature than film, I’ll focus on the heroes and the setting:

Heroes

Using the conventions of the noir genre, the characters can be seen as morally ambiguous individuals who prefer being by themselves. They are described as ‘socially awkward, goal orientated and fiercely determined, there is an emphasis on reality over fiction’ and this makes them relatable to the viewing audience. In Nordic Noir, it is common to find a strong female characters. Considering Sweden was generally considered to be the forerunner of the sexual revolution, it’s little wonder that Stieg Larsson kicked off the Nordic Noir heroine movement. Barry Forshaw, the author of ‘Death in a Cold Climate’, told the UK Huffington Post that heroines like Lisbeth Salander reflect the strong women who have come to dominate Swedish society in the aftermath of this revolution. Salander was one of the first female noir heroines to share all the qualities of the male noir character, such as her antisocial personality and an obsession with her job. In a way, Lisbeth transforms into the very men she is fighting against, going so far as to rape her abusive guardian with a dildo. Saga Noren of The Bridge is very similar to Salander. Her behaviours are manlike: she drives a Porshe because of its size and speed, she eats packaged meals so she can work more hours, and she simply shops for sex at the clubs when she feels the urge. Martin Rohde, on the other hand, takes on the traditionally female role, which is symbolised in his castration at the beginning of the first season. Borgen revolves around Denmark’s first female prime minister, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, and the compromises she must make to run the country while at the same time raising her family. In an unfamiliar role reversal, Christensen’s husband takes on the role of the dissatisfied homemaker, even resorting to having an affair when he tires of the scheduled sex dates and public facades necessitated by his wife’s position. Soraya Roberts provides an excellent analysis on female characters in Nordic Noir, and I recommend looking at his article for a detailed overview.

As a whole, these shows relish the portrayal of the female characters as flawed yet sympathetic, complicated yet engaging, presenting complex and authentic visions of women in positions of power. “There’s a tendency in American television to default likability with your characters” says David Hudgins in Jace Lacob’s study of Nordic Noir. “In Borgen and The Killing, they are not afraid to show the darker side of these people… Authenticity ties into that. You’re seeing these people as they truly are, and even when they fucked up, you end up having empathy for them.” The Nordic Noir characters are flawed, real people. They don’t always act as a hero should. They lie, they cheat, they don’t always strive for a happy ending. The sense of redemption that is nearly always present in British or American dramas is shaky at best here.

Setting

The countries that the Nordic writers call home are prosperous and organised, a ‘soft society’ according to Jo Nesbø in the ‘The Economist’ article. However, the stories usually unfold in bleak, chilling landscapes, permeated by a sense of isolation and loneliness. Jeremy Megraw says that a vital narrative component is the bleak Scandinavian landscape which serves to mirror the thoughts of the characters. Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia portrayed this perfectly – a cop slowly being driven mad by the constant sunlight and his ever-present guilt over the death of his partner.  Nodding towards classic crime themes of isolation, The Legacy swaps urban locales for the birch trees of the Danish hinterland, much like The Hunt did. Sweden’s current export Thicker Than Water follows a similar pattern, taking it a step further by placing the Waldemar family on the remote Åland Islands. The locations here are exotic and typically Scandinavian, the isolation injecting added tension into the intertwined plots.

An interesting look at Nordic landscapes is Headhunters. The film benefited from an unusual amount of publicity; in the United Kingdom, this undoubtedly owed to the prevailing fascination with Nordic crime fiction. Neil Archer provides an excellent comparison between the novel Headhunters and its film adaptations. One of the points he makes is the lack of the Oslo location in the film. To that extent, the film is not as ‘Nordic Noir’ as people suggested. If references to location or specific cultural or political contexts are there, they are more likely perceived through shared areas of knowledge and familiarity; but because of the films photographically representative nature they are not marked in the way they would inevitably be in literary narration. For a novel and plot that fits so well into the Nordic Noir genre, why are the locations ignored? Archer argues that this is because of film distribution to places such as the United Kingdom. While this implies that perhaps the landscape is not as important as made out to be, it also suggests that not every Scandinavian export fits into ‘Nordic Noir’.

Marketing and Success

The presence, popularity, and nature of Nordic Noir throughout Scandinavia raises the question of where it came from and why it has become so popular. Critics have pointed to the impact of a number of broader historical, cultural, political, economic and demographic factors, and I’ll now show some of the major theories as to why Nordic Noir is so popular.

Many of us like to watch Scandinavian shows and films because we think of the land as exotic. The fact that the countries are sparsely populated and have a cold climate with lots of snow in winter help make it attractive for the crime series. Perhaps the success of Scandinavian crime is that it portrays an alternative view to how we see the Scandinavian countries. As Martin Beck experienced, Sweden is not a perfect country. In the 1950s and 1960s, the country seemed to be on its way to become a dream state where people were really equal and truly free at the same time, but the optimism made way for a more realistic image or even downright pessimism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, due to economic problems and a changing world outside Sweden. The unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was the symbol of the righteous welfare state, contributed to the downward spiral.

Another perspective is the marketing and distribution side. Yellow Bird is the pan-Scandinavian production company that came to prominence through the hugely successful Stieg Larsson adaptations, and who are also behind the Wallander series (see Andersson et al) and as co-producer of the English-language series of the same name. As has been outlined, Yellow Bird’s increasingly confident and expensive production and publicity strategies – a former tagline was ‘We turn bestsellers into blockbusters’ reflects both a globalised structure of approach and an intended global reach in terms of their product. The company describes themselves in the following way: “Yellow Bird is now one of Scandinavia’s largest drama production companies, specialising in international co-productions that reach a big audience outside their home markets.” The Danish production model is different. Here, the TV crime series are usually developed independently of a literary basis, primarily by Radio Denmark, the leading service broadcaster. It is striking that this does not prevent international attention and export. The police series Unit One and The Eagle received Emmy Awards in 2002 and 2005 respectively, and were also distributed to the Nordic countries. The Protectors is an action drama focusing on Danish bodyguards and their tasks, received an Emmy in 2009. In addition, The Killing has been nominated for Emmy’s and won the international BAFTA in 2011. At DR-Drama, Ingolf Gabold and Sven Clauson said that the strategy of independent development is one of the main reasons for the success of Danish TV Drama (see Gemzøe). Perhaps this is because the Danish literary crime writers have not been able to compete with the Swedes.

Another possible reason for its success is the highly detailed and well worked style of production. The Huffington Post wrote an article stating that in British fiction, generally speaking, there’s a crime and it’s finally solved – but also the biggest social issues are being discussed, such as immigration. Much of The Killing’s appeal may simply have been down to its exoticism. The Killing took twenty episodes to solve one murder – a series length, and the slow rate of progress, that would have been unthinkable in a UK production. Both Borgen and The Bridge are visually stunning, with as much attention paid to the production design as to the plot. The Legacy follows in this tradition as well. Some critics, as Patrick Kingsley notes, trace Denmark’s rise to Dogme95, the Danish cinematic movement which advocated a minimalist realism in the face of artificiality of contemporary cinema and the genre films of Hollywood and which counties prominent Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring and Thomas Vinterberg. Kingsley, however, claims that The Killing’s excellence is less the product of Dogme’s aesthetics than the ambition fostered in Denmark. According to Bernth, Dogme “opened up people’s eyes to Denmark. And we opened put o the world.” (see Ron Helf)

One of the more different responses to the success of Nordic Noir is Ben Pitcher’s discussion as a British love for ‘whiteness’. Pitcher spoke on the Australian ABC network recently about Nordic Noir. He describes it as providing a solution to a kind of crisis of white identity in multicultural Britain because it provides an idea of where white culture comes from. There is a long-standing tradition between whiteness and the north in Romantic imagination. The north is seen as a place of coldness but also of values and characteristics. A journey to the north is also a journey to the origins of whiteness. Pitcher says that when watching The Bridge and The Killing, he wondered what about these shows that seemed so attractive. In Britain and other places they watch the shows because they are excited by what they see. “We lust over peoples modernist kitchen furniture. How much paternity leave they get. Indulge in the idealised fantasies of Nordic culture, attitudes, politics. Social democracy is still very aspirational. Nordic Noir brings these elements into a single package – Nordic culture provides a fantasy about what white people are like when they are left to their own devices – this strong idea that the Nordic countries are predominantly white places.” However, this concept isn’t real. In reality the Nordic countries aren’t as ethnically homogeneous – they have all kinds of social problems – but as suggested, Nordic culture seems to provide a kind of crisis to white identity.

Ultimately, of course, this is a question which is rather tricky to answer. Since its swift rise to stardom, Nordic Noir has become a genre unto itself. And like any good genre, it has certain elements and tropes that must be adhered to, that we can just see repeating time and time again. The genre can even be difficult to define. Recently a new Swedish series called Crimes of Passion premiered in Britain, and fans of Nordic Noir were excited to watch it. However, upon its premiere, many found it didn’t live up to the expectations associated with Nordic Noir series. On Monday following its premiere, The Guardian published a review of the series titled ‘Crimes of Passion: ‘you don’t have to be dark to be dark’ with the caption “not everything is Nordic Noir”. We asked a survey on the Cinema Scandinavia website about which series is the most Nordic Noir, and received a large variety of responses. To some, the responses may be wrong, for example The Killing isn’t based off a novel, and there are no detectives in Let the Right One In. However, all the response highlight the fact that Scandinavian film and television has this very distinct feel to it, and maybe that’s what Nordic Noir is. The Scandinavian feeling. Scandinavian film and television is on the rise, and for now, it is the Scandinavians who are leading the way. New shows have been announced for the 2015 season and September will see the release of the historical drama 1864, Denmark’s first major period drama, and the country’s most expensive television series to date. Nordic dramas, it seems, are just stretching their wings.

We asked: “What is the quintessential Nordic Noir?” View results here: http://www.meta-chart.com/s/7cbc1dcd

Further Reading:

Agger, Gunhild (2010), ‘Approaches to Scandinavian Crime Fiction’, Crime Fiction and Crime Journalism in Scandinavia.

Agger, Gunhild (2011), ‘Emotion, gender and genre: Investigating The Killing’, Northern Lights, 9 (1).

Andersson, Lars Gustaf, Sundholm, John, and Widding, Astrid Soderbergh (2010), ‘A History of Swedish Experimental Film Culture: From Early Animation to Video Art’, Mediehistoriskt.

Archer, Neil (2013), ‘And then as farce: Globalization and ambivalence in Jo Nesbø and Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters (2011)’, New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, 11 (1), 55-69.

Broden, Daniel (2011), ‘The dark ambivalences of the welfare state: Investigating the transformations of the Swedish crime film’, Northern Lights, 9 (1).

Bunbury, Stephanie, ‘Scandinavian Film Festival Brings Nordic Noir Down Under’

Collins, Andrew, ‘Crimes of Passion: ‘You don’t have to be dark to be dark’

Forshaw, Barry (2012), Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan)

Frost, Caroline: ‘The Bridge, Headhunters – Why are we so hungry for Scandinavian crime fiction?’

Gemzøe, Lynge Agger (2010), ‘Vi har førertrøjen!’/We Wear the Yellow Jersey!, in G. Agger and A. M. Waade (eds), Den skandinaviske krimi. Bestseller og blockbuster, Göteborg: Nordicom, pp. 195–211.

Hägg, G. (2005), Välfärdsåren: Svensk historia 1945–1986/The Welfare Years: Swedish History 1945–1986, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand.

Helf, Ron, ‘More Than a Scandinavian Night? Forbrydelsen, Nordic Noir, and the Cultures of Criticism’

Johnson, Alice, ‘Stieg Larsson’s Success Fuels Interest in Nordic Noir’

Kingsley, Patrick, ‘How Dogme Built Denmark’

Lacob, Jace, ‘Forbrydelsen, Borgen, The Bridge: The Rise of Nordic Noir’

Megraw, Jeremy, ‘A Cold Nights Death: The Allure of Scandinavian Crime Fiction’

Midgely, Neil, ‘How British television fell under the spell of Nordic Noir’

Miller, Laura, ‘The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives’

Pitcher, Ben, ‘The Racial Politics of Nordic Noir’

Pitcher, Ben, Interview on ABC Radio

Roberts, Soraya, ‘It was a Dark and Snowy Night’

Schrader, Paul ‘Notes on Film Noir’ Film Comment; Spring 1972; 8, 1 pg. 8 

Simpson, Lee, ‘The Lure of Nordic Noir’

Stephensen, Nigel, ‘Dark and Deadly, The Nordic Noir Hits Keep Coming’

The Economist, ‘Inspector Norse’

An Introduction to Swedish Crime Fiction and Nordic Noir

‘N is for Nordic Noir’

‘Nordic Noir Dominance is Over’

CategoriesFeatures Issue 6
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.