Locarno: The Nordic Noir Wave

Posted by Tara Karajica on 9.9.2013


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Sweden)

Tara Karajica is a member of the second annual Locarno Critics Academy. You can follow her on Twitter at @TheFilmProspect.

In the last few years, a cold crime wave coming directly from Scandinavia has made us, and cinema, shiver. Following the success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo saga, based on Stieg Larsson’s bestselling trilogy, it has revived a deep-rooted genre in Scandinavian literature that is presently fuelling a new cinematic current. And this year, it reached film festivals as well, especially Locarno and Berlin.

In fact, Scandinavia’s long tradition of crime fiction and film, with the printed word and the moving image tightly bound, dates back to 1960s and 1970s Sweden when authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö worked together on 10 crime novels about Martin Beck, an oppressed detective working at the Stockholm Homicide Squad.


Those Who Kill (Denmark)

Now, the genre is daringly toying with international recognition, its dark wave feeding crime stories to a greedy international audience. The authors and filmmakers set their stories in highly debauched, corrupt and crime-ridden regions with protagonists as isolated and remote as Scandinavia’s bleak landscapes. Sweden has dominated the trend for various decades, but now, Norway, Denmark and Iceland are actively participating in the construction of a regional network of novels, TV and films that have molded and defined the modern cultural products of the aforementioned countries. For instance, between 2007 and 2012, 12 adaptations of crime writer Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum novels have been released in Norway. Likewise, the criminal world of Dane Elsebeth Egholm has inspired Those Who Kill, another Nordic noir series.

Moreover, a new generation of directors is emerging. Niels Arden Oplev (known for the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Daniel Espinosa (Snabba Cash) and Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) have already achieved international fame, but other names are coming up, such as Norway’s Morten Tyldum and Denmark’s Nicolai Arcel and Mikkel Nørgaard. The latter two’s latest collaboration, The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i Buret), based on the bestselling novel by Jussi Alder-Olssen, enjoyed a critically acclaimed world premiere at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. Obviously four more films, based on the remaining novels of the saga, are also planned. Nørgaard looks forward to making them as he eagerly wishes to return to this series, hoping the audience will rejoice with him.

With his second feature film, Nørgaard wished to explore a new direction, especially regarding the atmosphere, and to take a Southern European style and bring it to the Nordic crime. He finds it important to nourish, preserve and be proud of the "melancholia" that is entrenched in the Northern countries. Instead of pushing away the darkness, he embraces it in his film, a tactic that may explain the head-spinning success of the Scandinavian crime genre today. Films like Headhunters and Jackpot (both based on novels by Jo Nesbø, who became popular in the wake of Larsson), the Pusher and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogies, Black’s Game (presented at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival) and Easy Money share in Nørgaard's dark vision.


The Keeper of Lost Causes (Norway)

Similarly, Hollywood and the UK are becoming smitten with the Nordic noir genre. English-language adaptions of Scandinavian crime films, TV series and novels are everywhere, from Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia to David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, American versions of popular TV shows like The Killing and The Bridge, and a British version of Henning Mankell's Wallander series starring Kenneth Branagh. Martin Scorsese is planning to direct an adaptation of The Snowman, one of Nesbø’s ongoing Harry Hole series that follows an alcoholic police officer. AMC has just run its third season of The Killing, based on the Danish television series Forbrydelsen and Fox has made a TV movie remake of Those Who Kill, the above-mentioned series based on the works of Danish author Elsebeth Egholm.

While Mikkel Nørgaard does not plan to cross the ocean in order to create an American version of his recent work, he does not rule out the likely possibility that somebody might be tempted to do so in the future. As a matter of fact, according to lead actor Nicolaj Lies Kaas, the success is "to be as local and domestic as possible, to keep the ways of one’s own world" a beautiful and charming thing that can be exported. In that sense, and to stress the powerful success of this wave, The Keeper of Lost Causes has already been sold to various territories.

The myriad remakes and adaptations are a strong affirmation for these Scandinavian authors and filmmakers. Yet, the original books, films and TV adaptations that are inherently tied to their Nordic environment and serve as direct witnesses of the current social situation in Scandinavia. The crime fiction gushing from Nordic geysers will keep flooding bookshelves and big and small screens, no matter how cold and dark they are. Our never-ending appetite for these stories is not only a validation of the Nordic lore tradition of "melancholia" but also a reflection on the dark times we all live in.

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