With Nordic Noir in vogue, how did some of the world’s most content countries produce drama so bleak?
The Nordic Noir obsession has swept the UK in recent years: not only have Sarah Lund’s jumper and Sara Norgen’s olive Porsche become celebrities in their own right, Scandanavian fever has swept the Western world and the place, the fashion and the furniture have become commonplace in Sunday supplements. Everybody wants a slice of the Nordic pie.
Nordic Noir is bound up with the imagery of snow and ice; winter abounds, apt for a genre that deals in chilling its audiences
Nordic Noir is bleak, gruesome and dark, literally and metaphorically. Winter abounds. It’s bound up with the imagery of snow and ice; apt for a genre that deals in chilling its audiences. They turn the classic whodunnit on its head completely – stories are told in a new, compelling way (The Killing, for example, featured one killing in 20 episodes). Like many of the best dramas, most of these Nordic Noirs have been based on literature. “We have a darkness in our landscape that comes through in our writing, our directing and our acting, and is at the very core of the Nordic Noir thing,” said Adam Price, the Danish writer of Borgen.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, which include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, are another recent success story. They have sold more than 60 million copies and have been made into Swedish and US films. But anybody who has seen any of the aforementioned will know that viewers aren’t in for an easy time – if, after a tough week at work, brutal murders, loneliness, mental illness and rampaging killers on the loose aren’t your scene, then it’s probably not the genre for you. So why – worldwide – has Nordic Noir proved so successful, and is there any correlation between the themes and the countries producing the shows?
It’s not gone unnoticed that the countries which have produced Wallander, The Bridge and the like have lower gun crime (Iceland is awash in guns, yet it has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world), better economic conditions and lower depression rates, despite the weather and admittedly bleak landscapes (according to the Telegraph, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland are all among the world’s ten happiest countries). It’s not accidental that Nordic Noir also features strong female characters; gender equality has its roots in the Nordic model of social equality. Higher taxes also mean that Scandinavia has generally better services. Is it that many of these dramas have come out of content countries that like to imagine the worst of humanity simply because they feel comfortably happy and freer?
There’s a sharp juxtaposition between the image of these wealthy, healthy countries and the social instability in Nordic Noir
Denmark was voted the world’s happiest country in the World Happiness rankings last year, with Norway following close behind and Sweden in fifth place (Britain was way down the list at 22nd). There is a sharp juxtaposition between the image of these wealthy, healthy countries and the social instability that’s featured in these successful dramas. Are they made out of some sort of cathartic need to indulge in problems that the countries don’t suffer from? Is it simply a case that, because there are less social hardships in Scandanavia and people are generally considered happier, more rounded and more secure in themselves and their national identity, that they then can indulge in the worst kind of human deeds while smugly cuddling up on their Ikea sofas in their minimalist houses?
Sofia Helin, who plays the near-emotionally dead, Porsche-driving detective Saga in The Bridge, disagrees, arguing that perhaps these series pick up on seeds of instability, tension and change – the unravelling of modernity: “There is no paradise on earth…the Swedish system is becoming less and less secure, and more and more people are living harder lives.” In the wake of the recent recession, all countries have been alerted to the fact that capitalism is flawed, corruption in political systems is rife and the threat of terrorism never goes away.
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We all know that modern technology can be used for good, but also evil. The family is a unit that is becoming more and more threatened. Immigration – a strand brought out in The Killing and The Bridge – is a tense issue in most countries, and a hot political potato. Nordic Noir picks up on the universal worries that affect all. Death is a constant pervading fear for everyone, and that’s the main driving point of all these dramas – we are all vulnerable. These series play on our fears of modernity, just like film and literature did in the interwar period (TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example).
Saga Noren, like Sara Lund, is a strong female character. They possess similar characteristics: driven by work, they are brilliant, but their social lives suffer. Noren has an inability to empathise, whereas Lund chooses not to. They both represent the modern world, in their addiction to work and technology. They choose themselves over others – something all of us are guilty of at times.
The rise of Nordic Noir has coincided with new social fears affecting many different societies
Helin has a point – the US and other European countries also produce tough drama full of similar issues. Think The Wire, or Luther - even soaps base themselves in themes of social realism. Nordic Noir usually combines a mystery with the issues of the day, so a murder mystery becomes harder hitting, and subsequently more real, as it’s shrouded in politics, corruption, immigration – issues that we are inundated with every day over breakfast TV and in newspapers.
Nordic Noir is unique in its appeal: it’s not accidental that the rise of Nordic Noir has coincided with many new social fears that affect many different societies. It seems to have blended an old-fashioned tradition of using cinematography of a stark, beautiful landscape to complement horrific human atrocities. The makers of the genre may feel freer to make such comments on society, but they are ultimately affected by the themes, too. Nordic Noir is beauty and horror combined. It’s haunting, and it fascinates – and unites – us all.
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Featured image: ZDF
Inset images: DR; Nordisk Film