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Scandinavian Noir: Dark Art Mirroring Reality

During a recent trip to Copenhagen, Wyoming Paul found the seamy crimes of The Killing and The Bridge were never far from her mind. //

Scandinavian television has become Big, worthy of capitalisation, in the crime-thriller division. Shows such as The Killing, Wallander, Morden and The Bridge all bring a depth of darkness to our TV sets which other regions of the world can’t quite capture. The characters, too, tend to have the moral complexity and rawness of real, breathing people, instead of the stylised heroes and villains that we’re used to.

The crimes are personal, but these shows also often bring in the political. The Bridge killer ‘the Truth Terrorist’ uses chaos to highlight the injustices in society, while The Killing spins criminal doubt around political figures. Dread, suspense and eerie half-light combine in Scandinavian television in terrifically chilling style.

The most well-known Scandi show, The Killing, is perhaps the best starting place for Nordic noir. It’s a crime series, but isn’t swamped by detective work, giving equal weight to Copenhagen politics and the harrowing ways in which each season’s murder affects the private lives of the characters.

Season one is based around the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Nanna, investigated primarily by detective Sarah Lund and her rough-edged partner Jan Meyer. Lund, like many female stars in these Scandinavian shows, is enticingly curt and below par when it comes to dealing with her personal life. Not because of any traumatic past, typically used to create depth for TV heroes – just because she’s – as my dad says – “an oddball”.

The sense of unease and uncertainty created by the endless twists, along with artfully placed foreboding music and the wet gloom of Denmark make the show truly captivating. What really makes it, though, is that this dark chill seems to embody a very real world, with very real characters.

This Nordic noir phenomenon isn’t limited to TV. Scandinavian crime-thriller novelists dominate their genre – Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Lackberg and Henning Mankell. There is also John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, a novel (and cult movie) that actually makes vampires horrifying and interesting again – no sparkles here, just baths of blood, paedophiles, and a young toothy girl jumping onto innocent necks from a tree.

Scandinavian noir was never far from my mind during recent trip to Copenhagen with my sister. It hit me on a few occasions during our stay: the feeling of not being in a major European city, but instead inhabiting a culture heavy with decapitated bodies, mystery and killers, that I had seen many times before from my own living room.

This sense of uneasy familiarity spread through me most strongly during an accidental voyage out of the city and into the emptiness that lay just beyond. My sister and I had miscounted canals (which is, I’m sure, a common navigational error in Europe), and ended up very much alone, following a grassy path that led between a river and a line of extremely disconcerting abodes.

The houses were no bigger than garages, derelict, and brightly coloured, in a style that made me think of old travelling circuses which had ended their travels here and grown sour. Mist hovered over the reed-infested water, rain spat from the grey above, and rusting outdoor furniture and children’s toys lay abandoned in the overgrown lawns. There was paint peeling from many of the houses, and each gave the sense that there was someone waiting quietly inside.

Once we got out from behind the houses and onto the main road, we found that this one road was basically all there was. On one side of us, small houses with large unkempt yards that felt like the dwelling place of the villain in True Detective, and on the other, huge empty fields. The only vehicles on the road were trucks, and I felt certain (due to the fear socialised into all women) that all the drivers were male, strong, and best avoided.

This experience of mid-winter Copenhagen made me start to think that the Scandinavian thriller hit was simply a clever use of some obvious natural resources. Just like New Zealand can campaign itself as ‘clean and green’ because of all the, uh, green, Scandinavia creates some of its cultural success from the ‘dark and disturbing’ present all around. I can imagine the thought process going something like this:

‘What have we got a lot of here, other than democracy and high tax rates?’ ‘We’ve got quite a lot of grey.’

And grey it is – the buildings, the canals, the sky. Daylight is brief in December, making an appearance between 9.30am and 4.30 in the afternoon, with no real evidence that it is the sun’s doing rather than a giant grey LED.

The cities put a lot of effort into hiding their winter grey, with the effect that places like Copenhagen become giant twinkling snow globes for a little while, pretending that there isn’t an eerie quiet and emptiness lying at the borders. Television producers, however, accept the darkness of Scandinavia. They dress it up in thrilling stories, bottle it, and let us dive into the part of the Nordic countries which the Scandinavians themselves, and guests like myself, are keen to avoid.

Visiting a place you’ve seen on screen makes the media experience slightly more intimate, giving another layer of understanding to the story. Perhaps, also, watching all these Scandinavian shows made me see Denmark in a different and darker lens.

Would I have insisted on holding my sister’s arm as we walked in the gloom through Assistens Cemetery if I had never seen Nanna running through the forest in The Killing? Would I have imagined that the truck drivers were potential predators if I had never seen the sawn-in-half body in The Bridge?

Probably. But the memory of those chilling shows made the feeling so much deeper and more profound.

New Nordic drama ‘The Legacy’ starts on Sky Arts in April

Lightbox Subscribers: Watch AMC’s acclaimed adaptation of ‘The Killing’ on Lightbox here

Everyone else: click here to subscribe to Lightbox

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