What is Nordic Noir?

By | April 26, 2013
The Bridge Nordic

Nordic Noir is now appearing on international TV and film screens, after years of great sales of Nordic novels, particularly in the crime genre. Here’s a guide to the best Nordic Noir around.

Why Nordic Noir?

Nordic Noir is now appearing on international TV and film screens, after years of great sales of Nordic novels, particularly in the crime genre. There are differences in the countries included in the terms Scandinavian peninsula and the Nordic countries where the Norsemen roamed, but the phrases “Nordic Noir” and “Skandi-lit” tend to include art from all the nations of both geographic areas.

Nordic Noir comes from Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland, as well as the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, although the style is now being deployed by writers and film-makers across northern Europe and is even creeping into North American story telling.

The style is characterized by quite dark subject matter – giving us the ‘Noir’ – there’s plenty of crime and murder, but there’s also a good slice of political intrigue. The characters are well developed, with back stories that slowly emerge, and a key element of the story telling tends to be that no-one is really good or bad, there are degrees of both in everyone.

From Hamlet through Henrik Ibsen to Stieg Larsson and beyond there’s a long history of great writing from the region, and TV drama and film makers have plenty of Nordic gold to mine.

Settle down with some nice Nordic Potatoes for comfort and start watching…

Nordic Noir: What To Watch

Here’s a few of the big hitters for you to watch. We’ll look at each of them in further detail, but if you just want to skip straight in, go ahead and watch The Killing, Borgen, the Bridge, Wallander and the Arne Dahl series.

Do be careful when choosing which DVD to buy. Broadcasters in North America prefer to remake European dramas with American actors, family friendly dialogue and advertiser-approved content, so you may find that when shopping for a DVD you may get a poor Hollywood remake. Be sure to seek out the original. Again, those broadcasters and their distributors like to keep control of what you’re watching so many dramas don’t receive a Region One DVD release. Double check that your DVD player (or laptop) is region-free before ordering out of region DVD’s. Shoppers in Europe, Asia and Australasia have been doing this since the advent of the DVD Region format to side-step indirect censorship of visual art.

Check out whether Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video has it any of these shows available in your market before buying the DVD.

Nordic Noir: The Killing – Season One

The Killing is the British name for the Danish crime serial Forbrydelsen. Forbrydelsen transliterates as “The Crime”, but The Killing works better in English, it sounds more serious, and this TV show is serious. We start out with a missing teenage girl, and evidence that points towards murder. Over twenty one hour episodes we get to uncover what has happened as we work with the marvelous, complicated, dedicated detective Sarah Lund. Each hour covers one day in the investigation.

Set in Copenhagen and the surrounding area, the scenery is spectacular, with photography that seems to match the mood of every scene. We get to know the procedures of the Danish Police and the workings of Copenhagen city politics as the finger of suspicion points this way and that, gradually uncovering more information, revealing secrets from individuals’ lives and becoming ever more urgent.

The investigation isn’t the sole focus. We see what happens to the family of a teenage girl who disappears, and the cracks that appear in familial relationships as the grief and frustration grow. The inner workings of the police department are exposed as the pressure to solve the case quickly builds. There’s no sense of knowing from the cast. They simply weren’t told who the killer was, receiving their scripts weekly, so their performances have a real edge, as though they are genuinely searching for clues.

There’s two more series of The Killing, and they are both better than most TV shows, but nothing compares to the brilliance of the first series of The Killing. I’ve never seen a better crime show.

Nordic Noir: The Bridge

The Bridge (Broen/Bron) is a joint Swedish and Danish TV production. The title refers to the Oresund Bridge between Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden. We open with a body found lying exactly half and half in each country. A pragmatic middle aged Danish detective with marital fidelity issues is teamed up with a young, socially awkward, stickler for the rules from Sweden. The tension between their two styles and the curious friendship that develops between them forms part of the story.

As the detectives seek to solve the Oresund Bridge murder, the case becomes bigger, as the murderer claims more victims, deploying terrorist tactics seemingly to draw attention to social and financial problems on either side of the border, and the body count rises when local media outlets become involved.

The language in the show switches between Danish and Swedish, and as I speak neither, some of the subtleties are rather wasted on me in the subtitles, and the jokes about accents are lost.

There looks to be a US version in the works with the US-Mexico border getting the nod ahead of the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit which I expected to be the setting. British and French TV are planning to bump of a politician in the channel tunnel for yet another remake. Watch the original, I’m willing to bet it will still be better, darker and more subtle.

Nordic Noir: Borgen – Season One

If you liked The West Wing, then Borgen will blow your socks off. Borgen literally means ‘Castle’, and that’s what the Danes call Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace, the place where the Danish Prime Minister’s Office and the Parliament is housed, alongside the Danish Supreme Court. That’s quite a concentration of power. There’s no President in Denmark because it’s a constitutional monarchy, so ‘Borgen’ is where the decisions are made and executed.

Borgen the series centers on the charismatic but complicated character of Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes Denmark’s first female Prime Minister early on in the show. As is common in much of Europe, Denmark’s government is made up of a coalition of different political parties who need to work together to choose a Prime Minister from among their ranks, the horse trading and compromises needed to maintain this style of government provide much of the political action for the series, but that’s not all.

The Danish press corps is well represented in Borgen, and the backroom shenanigans of TV and print press rooms are often front and center in the show, and their interactions with government through official channels, spin doctors and personal relationships can be fascinating. Borgen is in Danish with subtitles available in English, but you already know a lot of Danish words, for example, the Danish for ‘Spin Doctor’ is … Spin Doctor.

The personal aspect of life as a female politician is one of the most remarkable aspects of Borgen. In season one Birgitte Nyborg’s husband has agreed to take a two year career break to look after the house and family whilst she runs the country, just as she took a break so he could further his career in a previous job. It’s hard to imagine the President of the United States having to worry about who will pick the kids up from school, and whether there’s milk and juice in the refrigerator, but in the smaller governments of Europe these can be real issues.

Birgitte Nyborg is played by the immensely talented Sidse Babett Knudsen, and it’s interesting to see her switch seamlessly from her native Danish into English when speaking to leaders of other nations, and French when appropriate, her voice isn’t dubbed, that’s really her being a tri-lingual actress. Mikael Birkkjar plays her husband Phillip, with Pilou Asbak portraying Kasper Juul, her communications chief and closest adviser. There’s a strong ensemble cast that you’ll get to know and love as you learn more about political and domestic life in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Nordic Noir: What To Read

The books that many people feel started the big resurgence in international attention for Nordic literature. Not for the faint hearted.

Larsson’s writing style is interesting. He liked to write action packed scenes, then stitch them together into a story, rather than starting with a plot and filling in the detail.

This leads to a relentless pace in these books that just keeps you turning the pages.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a delightful introduction to the style. An old man steps out of his nursing home to avoid his 100th birthday party celebrations, and following a series of increasingly bad decisions and unfortunate incidents finds himself gaining a new group of friends, whilst leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

Nordic Noir:American Style – The Killing USA

Following the huge international success of the Danish national broadcaster DR’s series Forbrydelsen, Fox Television opted to remake the show in English, and to set the series in the USA. Forbrydelsen transliterates as ‘The Crime’, but when shown in Britain it was called The Killing, and the positive buzz created around it meant great pre-publicity for the Fox show.

Choosing to emulate the gray surroundings and maritime weather conditions found in Copenhagen, The Killing USA is set in Seattle, famed as America’s rainiest big city.

The initial plot follows the original closely, simply re-setting the characters on the west coast of the USA rather than the east coast of Denmark. This worked quite well and the story unfolded as the minute details of a murder investigated, the characters’ personal lives were revealed and the tentacles of politics found their way into the story.

There’s some fun in-jokes for lovers of the original. The detective wears a range of Scandinavian seaters, and the Larssen’s house has far more furnishings from IKEA than is the norm in an American home.

The story does then veer off into a more traditional American style with a greater focus on action that characters..

However, if you just can’t bear sub-titles (and you don’t speak Danish) then the first Season of The Killing USA gives you a feel for the Nordic Noir style, although perhaps I’d call it Nordic Gris – it’s just not quite dark enough.



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