The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs:

 

The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2017)

Noredin (Fares Fares) interviews the singer (Hania Amar)

The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.

This  film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.

Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid is a witness

The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing  his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.

The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.

Trouble in the streets.

In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.

Here’s the UK trailer:

The Commune (Kollektivet, Denmark-Sweden-Netherlands 2016)

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

Mealtimes come to represent the communal idea in the household.

I’m glad I finally got to see this at a public screening (thanks to Square Chapel, Halifax). The Commune is partly a nostalgia trip for those of us who lived through the 1970s – though I was younger than the main characters, I can still recognise the world depicted here (meant to be 1975). Co-writer/director Thomas Vinterberg has his own memories of life in a commune as a small child but his writing partner Tobias Lindholm was not born until 1977. How then did they do in creative terms?

I’m not sure how Danish communes compare with their Anglo-American counterparts but the commune in this film strikes me as a little unusual since it is based in a large suburban house in the suburbs of a coastal town. The house has been left to a couple in their forties with a 14 year-old daughter. Erik, the architecture lecturer (Ulrich Thomsen) wants to sell the house, but his wife TV newscaster Anna (Trine Dyrholm) thinks their family life needs a change and she urges Erik to agree to invite friends to join them in a communal household. My sense of communes tend to be of smallholdings and rural communities or urban squats. This one seems rather bourgeois. Erik and Trine seem too ‘established’ to be in a commune – but they are joined by a younger couple with a child and some singles. The narrative then finally takes off when Erik, still confused by his role in the new set-up, falls for one of his students, 24 year-old Emma.

The narrative promises an exploration of communal life with some great scenes by the sea with everyone together, but then it becomes the story of a marriage and a family and the commune becomes simply the difficult context in which the marriage founders. Having said that, I think the representation of the commune is fair. Quite a few reviewers seem to have assumed that a commune must be about ‘free love’ and that everyone would be swapping partners. That doesn’t happen, but for me it was the other absence that was telling. Reviewers refer to this group of ‘leftists’, but actually there is very little discussion of politics as such and little sense of political activity. I tend to agree with something else that I read, that this script might have been better developed into a TV drama series (or, at the least, into a longer film). Perhaps then some of the stories about the other characters might have been developed further.

I did enjoy watching the film. Vinterberg and Lindholm are too experienced and professional to fail to make a film like this watchable and Thomsen and Dyrholm are very good. Trine Dyrholm in particular makes a viewing experience worthwhile. She always gives everything she’s got. It’s good to see the 1970s too. I liked the decade and its political struggles. I guess we smoked too much, but the clothes were comfortable.

Masjävlar (Dalecarlians, Sweden-Denmark 2004)

Sofia Helin as Mia

Sofia Helin as Mia

As an avid fan of The Bridge (BronBroen) it was not long into Season 1 that I realised that I’d seen Sofia Helin before in a film I’d used on an evening class. This was Masjävlar (Dalecarlians) and it featured as part of a class I ran at the National Media Museum, linked to an exhibition of the photographs of Anders Petersen and JH Engström. The class was an attempt to explore certain ideas about the culture of central Sweden captured in the remarkable photographs taken by Petersen and Engström in Värmland County.

I was searching for Swedish films made in Värmland when I remembered Masjävlar which had played in the Bradford International Film Festival a few years earlier. It’s a film about ‘going home’ from Stockholm to the county of Dalarna in Central Sweden. Dalarna is the county east of Värmland and it is also known as Dalecarlia. The county has a strong identity and although it is not a very long way from Stockholm in geographical terms, it is culturally very different. In the film, Sofia Helin plays Mia, a woman in her early 30s who returns home to Dalarna for her father’s 70th birthday only to find that she is now at odds with her family in some ways. The film’s director Maria Blom based the narrative partly on her own experiences as a young woman from Stockholm whose father was born in Dalarna. She moved to the county herself around the time she wrote the original stage play.

My notes on the film for the evening class screening in 2011 can be downloaded here: Dalecarlians

This is a great little film that was immensely popular in Sweden and will be enjoyed by anybody who follows The Bridge and wants to know more about Swedish culture. Sofia Helin is excellent as Mia. A UK DVD is available from Drakes Avenue. Here’s a link to MovieMail.

Beck (Sweden 2015: Series 5)

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in Rum 302, the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.

Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.

The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.

The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.

In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.

Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.

Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.

The Hunters (Jägarna, Sweden 1996)

The hunters

The hunters

The Hunters was a big hit in Sweden in the 1990s but, as far as I am aware, didn’t receive a UK cinema release. It wasn’t until the success of Scandinavian TV noir dramas that UK distributors began to look out for Scandinavian genre films. Consequently it was only in 2012 that I learned about The Hunters when Arrow released its sequel with the English title False Trail (Jägarna 2, Sweden 2011). The original film was then given a UK DVD release.

The Hunters turns out to be a genre classic full of familiar elements. It is no surprise that it was a big hit or that Hollywood attempted to persuade writer-director Kjell Sundvall to remake it in an American setting. That didn’t happen but the film is intriguing in the mix of universal and Scandinavian elements – something which in turn perhaps explains the contradictory critical responses to the film. Its narrative is basically the same as in the sequel. The central character, Erik, a Stockholm policeman played by the familiar figure of Rolf Lassgård, returns to his home town in the far north of Sweden, ostensibly for his father’s funeral. Later it is revealed that he has left Stockholm after the trauma of a recent case and has been transferred to this rural backwater. He is reunited with his brother who stayed on in the family home. One of Erik’s first tasks as a new local policeman is to investigate illegal poaching of game in the area (the film begins with the killing and butchery of elks by unidentified poachers). It soon becomes apparent that there is a local conspiracy between some police officers and officials and local hunters. Matters become personal for Erik who is ostracised by many in the local community and who soon finds himself suspecting his own brother to be involved in poaching. The situation worsens when a Russian fruit-picker is accidentally shot. Eventually, another familiar figure arrives from Stockholm, a female prosecutor who joins up with Erik to forward the investigation. A grisly climax is inevitable.

In the early parts of the film I was reminded of Cimino’s The Deerhunter with the depiction of local hunters as a boisterous male group with generic character types, the leaders, the clowns, the weak members – a dangerous camaraderie fostered by alcohol. I reviewed the sequel soon after seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark 2012) which also focuses on the secrecy and conspiracies of small town life. That film is essentially a melodrama about the persecution of the central character. The Hunters too becomes partly a family melodrama about Erik’s relationship with his brother Leif and their relationships with their father. But I’m also reminded of Carlos Saura’s celebrated 1966 film La caza (The Hunt). Saura’s film works as a metaphor for life under Franco’s regime in Spain – the hunt provides the explosive setting for men to argue between themselves, to be aggressive towards women etc. In Swedish narratives there are important resonances in the choice of settings and in particular the journey from the far North to Stockholm and the ‘return of the natives’ back from Stockholm (at one point Erik is presented with an award for ‘returnee of the year’). The elements in the story do sometimes feel hackneyed – a Filipina working in a bar, a man with learning difficulties caught up in the intrigue, Lief’s brother’s passion for opera – but that’s only because we’ve encountered them in the years since in various Scandinavian noir crime dramas.

The Hunters is strong genre entertainment. It’s nearly two hours of action with strong performances especially from Lassgård and from Lennart Jähkel as Leif. It serves as an interesting example of Swedish commercial filmmaking and is especially useful as a starting point for studying ‘Nordic noir TV’ as discussed in Chapters 4 and 9 in The Global Film Book.

Arrow Official Trailer for the DVD release:

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, Norway-Sweden-Den-Ger 2014)

as Lars

Stellan Skarsgård as Lars

Kraftidioten got very good reviews at the Berlin Festival in January but has been released by Metrodome on just 25 screens in the UK. That’s a shame because it is an enjoyable black comedy with a star cast offering great entertainment value. The film’s Norwegian title refers to the ‘power idiots’ who operate in part of the Norwegian north country (represented generically rather than precisely in a snow-covered mountain landscape with occasional trips to the city which looms out of the snow like Oz). The ‘idiots’ are two groups of gangsters controlling the local drugs trade. Unfortunately, one group has incurred the wrath of an upstanding ‘citizen of the year’ played by Stellan Skarsgård as the driver of giant snow-clearing trucks. Provoked beyond his tether by the murder of his son this character proceeds to ‘eliminate’ gang members one by one until he finds the real culprit – thus the English title. Each ‘disappearance’ is marked by a simple death notice.

The chief idiot is a Norwegian gang leader from a local crime family. He’s a pony-tailed vegan living in a show house stuffed with designer monstrosity furniture who compounds the initial idiocy by wrongfully attacking the Serbian gangsters who control the other half of the market. The film is marketed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘comedy’. It is extremely violent but there is plenty of dry and dark Nordic humour, which I think should appeal in the UK. I’ve read at least one comment from elsewhere which thought the film was a serious drama.

Alongside the Swedish star Skarsgård the starry cast includes Bruno Ganz (Swiss) as the Serbian gangster leader and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Katrine from Borgen) as a divorced wife (otherwise this is a very male film). The international casting reflects the usual co-production arrangements of the three Scandinavian countries with Germany. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to both Tarantino and the Coen Bros films, especially Fargo. There is something in these comparisons and they may well have influenced Danish scriptwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland – two highly-experienced creatives. However, much of the humour strikes me as Norwegian/Swedish, drawing on representations of a welfare society and the familiar discourse of ‘new immigrants’ in Scandinavia. Skarsgård’s character’s Swedish identity is highlighted when he is praised for being the best kind of Swedish immigrant. In contrast, the Norwegian gangster insists that the Serbians are actually Albanians. The nearest comparison I could make is with Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film was a big success in the UK and if you enjoyed it, you should enjoy the slightly drier and more comedic scenes here. I should add though that this is slightly less of a thriller and its relatively slow pace stretches to 116 minutes.

The UK Trailer (which does include some of the best moments, so don’t watch if you already know you want to watch the film):