Category Archives: Nordic Cinema

Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret, Denmark/Sweden/Germany 2013)

An uncharacteristically 'sunny' image from THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikalus Lie Klas (left) and Fares Fares

An uncharacteristically ‘sunny’ image from KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES with Nikolaj Lie Kaas (left) and Fares Fares

This is the first adaptation of the crime novel series from Jussi Adler-Olsen. It’s a classy production written by Nikolaj Arcel, photographed by Eric Kress and starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Sonja Richter. (Richter and Kaas were leads in Open Hearts (2002).) Director Mikkel Nørgaard is making the transition to features after several TV series including Borgen. Everything works as it should but there is something lacking for me. Several commentators have suggested that the film looks like the first episode of a TV series. I can see this argument and it stands up when you consider that both of the series of Wallander adaptations included feature-length episodes that were released in cinemas. Perhaps if this had been a primarily Swedish rather than Danish production that is what would have happened here. But what do I know? This film adaptation was the major homegrown box-office winner in Denmark in 2013 and a second film adaptation is already in the works.

The crime narrative category here is the ‘cold case procedural’, which has already produced successful TV series in the UK and US. Adler-Olsen’s central character is Carl Mørck, a highly-respected and successful detective in Copenhagen who makes a wrong decision on a job and is ‘punished’/’hidden’ by his superior by being put in charge of ‘Department Q’ buried in the basement of police headquarters. The boss expects him to just file reports on cold cases but of course Carl starts to investigate them. He is assisted by Assad, played by the experienced Lebanese-Swedish actor Fares Fares. This is the character that gives the novels their unique flavour. Carl is sullen and resentful and never smiles but Assad is hard-working, sensible, pain-staking, conscientious etc. – but also cheerful and quite comic. The ‘banter’ between the two is engaging and, for me, is the saving grace of the novels. Some of the comedy comes from Assad’s less than perfect grasp of Danish and the cultural differences between the two.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

A more typical image of the stygian gloom of Department Q and the familiar wall of photos associated with the investigation.

The cold case here involves a junior politician from the Democrat party in the Danish parliament. She disappears on a ferry trip when she is travelling with her brother who has a disability which affects his social skills. The police report is perfunctory and the assumption is that the woman committed suicide by jumping into the sea. What follows is an investigation that uncovers a story that is frankly not that unfamiliar if you’ve watched/read a reasonable amount of Nordic crime fiction over the last few years. (Some plot points are similar to those in Killing 3 and The Bridge 2.) Through a series of flashbacks that are intercut into the procedural we soon get to realise what is going to happen to Sonja Richter as the missing woman – and eventually why it is all happening now. This is certainly ‘Nordic noir‘ in the sense that it is very dark, both in its look and in the theme – yes, this is another narrative in which a man does unspeakable things to a woman. But this time there isn’t an avenging female investigator (the books have been compared to Stieg Larsson). The other feature of ‘Nordic noir’ is the focus on a social issue/critique. Or at least it is in the Swedish instance. The Danish stories seem slightly different but in the only novel I’ve read from this series the theme does include a critique of inequality. It also seems to have more complex plotting than Keeper of Lost Causes. I will watch the second film when it is released as it promises a more critical edge in discussing the Danish middle classes. I’m also interested in how the filmmakers develop Assad’s character (and the possibility of a third, female, member of the team).

Chapter 4 of The Global Film Book includes a case study on ‘Nordic Cinema’.

King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, Norway/Pol/Ger/France 2010)

Stellan Skarsgard as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

Stellan Skarsgård as the Governor of the home and Benjamin Helstad as Erling.

I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.

Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.

An attempt at escape from the island.

An attempt at escape from the island.

The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . .  Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.

Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.

Snabba Cash (Easy Money, Sweden 2010)

The three principal characters (from left) Jorge, Johan and Mrado

The three principal characters (from left) Jorge, Johan and Mrado

The obvious question about Easy Money is why did it take so long to get to the UK? Another crime fiction adaptation – from a bestselling novel by Jans Lepidus (2006) – which was a box office smash in Sweden in 2010 and it has already had a sequel with a third film due for release in October this year. Since ‘Nordic Noir’ arguably reached the peak of its popularity in the UK in 2011-12, why wasn’t this film released with the same kind of marketing drive that propelled the Stieg Larsson films and Headhunters into the UK Top 10? Partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t an English translation of the source novel published in the UK until early this year. But I suspect that the botched release has been more a product of a Hollywood battle over remake rights. Its eventual release via Lionsgate is announced as ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’. I confess that I didn’t notice this on my cinema visit and the film clearly missed its Nordic Noir audience as the takings were dire in the first two weeks. But don’t let that put you off. Easy Money is an excellent thriller and well worth catching in CinemaScope on a big screen.

In some ways this is a typical Nordic crime film, though the female lead character is rather underutilised. (She may appear more in the next film – in this one it is important that she doesn’t really know what is happening.) It’s really a hard boys’ thriller with three central male characters. I was confused when trailers and early reviews kept mentioning The Killing. It was only after the screening that I realised that the main character ‘JW’ (Johan) was played by Joel Kinnaman, who was also the lead in the American version of the Danish series. In Easy Money, JW is a young man with a double life – by day an ‘A’ student at the Stockholm School of Economics and by night a taxi driver. My early recognition was of Matias Varela, one of the team of police officers in the Arne Dahl TV films shown recently in the UK. Varela plays Jorge, a Latin American migrant who we see first making a prison break. The third lead is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) a Serbian hit man working for a ‘Yugoslav’ gang.

The key narrative idea is that the lure of ‘easy money’ is too strong for each of the three characters above. The stories are those of these three characters, from their perspectives. The police only appear at the end of the film. The Nordic Noir elements are the almost complete focus on migrant communities in Stockholm and Göteborg and the way in which each of the three central characters is driven by/constrained by a ‘social’ issue of some kind.Jorge has a pregnant sister who he doesn’t want to be drawn into gangland struggles – and a cousin who is a key contact in Germany. Mrado, separated from his partner, finds himself presented with sole custody of his small daughter, making his lifestyle quite complicated. Johan is effectively ‘living a lie’ and we can’t be sure exactly what his background is, but he is clearly conning his rich friends.

The key social/cultural/economic issue is however the international financial crisis of 2008 (i.e. after the novel was written) since it is Johann’s grasp of the situation and his ideas about how to exploit it which appeals to Abdulkarim, the gang boss who runs the taxi company. (It also helps Johann in his dealings with his wealthy friends.) I won’t spoil the plot but it involves the Arabs/Hispanics, supported by the Albanians trying to outwit the ‘Yugoslavs’ – with various agents switching sides. Director Daniel Espinosa, himself from a Chilean migrant background says that he knew these cultures in the Stockholm suburbs/housing estates and that’s why he fought to get the job. Before Easy Money hit the UK, Espinosa had already had his first Hollywood film with Denzel Washington, Safe House, released internationally.

The ending of the film ha resolution, but also leaves open the possibilities for the next episode. I will certainly try to watch Easy Money 2. The trailer below from Lionsgate is very ‘Hollywood’. It makes no reference to Scandinavian crime fiction and its popularity, which I think is a mistake – the film is mostly in Swedish. If you are a Nordic Noir fan, this is probably closest to the Arne Dahl series, though from the criminals’ perspective.

BIFF 2013 #9: Love Is All You Need (Den/Swe/Ital/Fra/Ger, 2012)

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

Trine Dyrholm is Ida

BIFF19logoSusanne Bier’s romantic comedy drama is the best mainstream entertainment film I’ve seen in a very long time. The film is partly in English and partly in Danish so the subtitling will unfortunately put off a lot of the audience who would enjoy it if they took the plunge. Given that it features at least one of the stars of recent TV Nordic Noirs perhaps that will entice a few more converts. This isn’t art cinema, it’s a mainstream film that happens to include subtitles. If Slumdog can make it, so can this film – although it could do with a better title.

The film is completely conventional. There are still a few surprises in the way scenes play out, but this is a genre piece. The central character Ida, beautifully played by Trine Dyrholm, is a woman in her forties recovering from breast cancer and a mastectomy. Shocked to discover her husband (Kim Bodnia from The Bridge TV serial) in flagrante with someone from work, she has to get her act together to attend her daughter’s wedding in a villa in Italy owned by the groom’s father, Philip (Pierce Brosnan). She bumps into Philip, literally, in the airport car park. He’s a widower and a seemingly grumpy owner of an international fruit and veg company. You can probably make up the rest yourself. In the best traditions of the Lancashire weddings on Coronation Street, a lot is said and done or not done. So why is the film so wonderful? Partly it is the quality of the acting, partly the script (by Bier and her long-time collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen) but mostly, I think, it is the sensitivity of Susanne Bier’s direction. She can move a scene from the comic to the dramatic and back with such skill that you can’t see the join. Visually the film is stunning. OK, Sorrento is very photogenic but here the colours are pushed to the edge of being beautiful and nearly, but not quite, pushed over into kitsch. If I remember rightly, Susanne Bier studied architecture at some point and the use of the villa is fascinating with several shots, as per Jules et Jim, of the balconies in the morning as the characters come out to look at the sea. The titles of the film are enchanting. I’m not so sure about the music but that’s a minor quibble. In the international market some will be surprised to see a warm comedy from Bier after the success of a string of melodramas but one of her first big successes in Denmark was a romantic comedy (The One and Only in 1999 – which, since it stars Sidse Babett Knudsen would be worth a UK distributer digging out).

In a rather cold review Lesley Felperin in Variety says it’s a film for the middle-aged, which is probably true. But given that in the UK we have been offered a whole stream of films for older viewers, I would argue that this film is far better than the Marigold Hotels and Quartets of the last few years. Susanne Bier is one of the most skilled directors working in European cinema. Compared to Hollywood films (made in the US or the UK) this is a more intelligent and more grown-up romantic comedy drama than we are now able to get from the studios. It reminds us that many years ago we could go to see films by Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks or George Cukor – comedies with great actors and scripts with witty dialogue. What do we get now? Such films do still exist but they are confined to specialised cinema since Hollywood patronises its mainstream audience. Perhaps it needs Susanne Bier to show the studios how it’s done? I don’t really see why younger audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film and it needs to be recorded that Molly Blixt Egelind who plays Astrid, Ida’s daughter, the bride is very good and reminded me a little of Uma Thurman.

BIFF 2013 #8: A Highjacking (Kapringen, Denmark/Kenya 2012)

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

Roland Møller and Johan Philip Asbæk in Kapringen

BIFF19logoTobias Lindholm must be currently one of the hottest screenwriting talents in Europe after his work on Borgen and The Hunt. Here he adds directing to his talents in a taut and utterly gripping account of the hijacking of a Danish freighter in the Indian Ocean. Lindholm’s script is an exercise in paring down the drama to just two locations – the shipping offices in Copenhagen and the ship itself. In Copenhagen two of the Borgen actors known to UK audiences, Søren Malling and Dar Salim, are in contact with the ship’s cook (Borgen‘s Johan Philip Asbæk), who the Somali pirates have chosen as a negotiating tool as part of a deliberate strategy. The pirates have their own negotiator, Omar, who speaks good English. He remains a mysterious figure throughout – what is his situation, is he being used against his will, or is it all an act? To counteract this the shipping CEO (the Malling character) recruits an expert negotiator played by a real Copenhagen-based security consultant. All the direct negotiation is in English.

The production was based in Mombasa and the ship itself was once hi-jacked so there is a basis of authenticity which is built on in terms of the script. These hi-jacking negotiations can drag out for weeks and months as time is always on the side of the pirates. The brilliance of the script is to emphasise the waiting but also to provide sufficient moments of increased tension and then release without resorting to the kinds of Hollywood conventions in a film like Argo. Lindholm opts to keep the emotional pressure built up in the families back home in the background, placing it instead on the CEO Peter and the decisions he makes. Malling plays the role very effectively. The whole negotiation process raises the obvious questions about the ‘uncaring capitalist ethic’ – how much is the shipping company prepared to pay, how long will they allow the suffering on the boat to continue? On the other hand, would paying too much too soon encourage the pirates to raise the takes? I don’t know the Danish government policy on hi-jackings but Lindholm keeps external agencies completely out of the narrative and that’s probably a good idea. I’ve seen some questions about the representation of the Somali pirates and it’s also worth noting that there are other crew members on the ship who are not given any real screen time. They too will have friends and family back home somewhere in India or South-East Asia. Someone needs to write a script about them as well. It’s probably asking too much of Lindholm to do that on this project, but it is something that Danish writers need to consider as they make more forays into global stories (not that other film industries are necessarily better at doing this, but Danish film and TV is on something of a roll at the moment).

This is a terrific thriller with not a wasted second. Johan Philip Asbæk is particularly good – I noticed that he had a personal coach to help him put on the pounds and a beard to make a convincing ship’s cook. With its Borgen stars to the fore this should do very well in the UK if Arrow can manage to promote it (and the Susanne Bier film) effectively.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen, Norway 2011)

from the left: Alma (Helene Bergsholm), Sara (Malin Bjorhovde) and Ingrid (Beate Stofring) give the finger to the small town's nameboard.

from the left: Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and Sara (Malin Bjorhovde) give the finger to the small town’s nameboard, watched rather disapprovingly by Ingrid (Beate Stofring). (Image courtesy New Yorker Fims)

I’m sure I’m not in the target audience for this intriguing little film (76 mins) but I enjoyed it and I’m very happy to support it. It topped the Norwegian chart on its cinema release which is no mean feat for a low-budget picture without much of a plot. But it succeeds because of its central performance and because of the approach of director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen towards what is strangely a rare topic for films – the sexuality (indeed the lust) of teenage girls.

The film is based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen which offers three linked stories about different women in a small Norwegian town. Director Jacobsen chose to focus on just one story – about Alma (Helene Bergsholm), tall blonde and beautiful and still only 15. She lives with her mother in a tiny town in Western Norway, set in beautiful countryside but with virtually nothing for teens to do except get drunk at parties or behind the youth centre. We first meet Alma furiously masturbating to the (rather jolly) chat of Stig the phone sex operator. Her mother is commendably unphased by her daughter’s horniness (but appalled by the phone bill). Alma’s fantasies extend to imagined lovemaking with a classmate, Artur – and potentially with other desirable males. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish what is fantasy and what is reality but Artur appears to do something to Alma that she reports to her friends, the sisters Sara and Ingrid. Before long her story is out and she is ostracised by all the teens in the area. This is the real social issue – growing up in small towns where everyone knows your business. The sub-plot involving Alma’s best friend Sara supports the central theme of representing ‘real’ young women. Her sister Ingrid represents the ‘opposition’ and her older sister now at university also plays an important role (hers was one of the other stories in the novel). Jannicke Systad Jacobsen was careful to create a fictitious small town made up of locations in Western Norway and to cast the roles in the Loachian manner, i.e. young people from the region itself. Both Helene Bergstrom and Malin Bjorhovde were high school students without any acting experience before they took on their roles.

Turn Me On, Dammit! reminds me of the Swedish film Fucking Åmål! (1998) (boringly re-titled Show Me Love in the UK and US). Åmål is a small town in Western Central Sweden and the film explores the romance between two teenage girls who despair at living in ‘fucking Åmål’. The ‘taboo’ in that film was the possibility of teenage lesbian sex, but the real problem was the language of the title. The film however became the biggest film of the year in Sweden. Turn Me On. Dammit! has been very well received in North America, but has only now been scheduled for release in the UK – and only on DVD.

tmodI found the film enjoyable precisely because Helene Bergsholm as Alma seems so ‘normal’ and Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s approach is very refreshing. The slide from reality into fantasy and the desire to communicate that is frustrated by lack of confidence and experience is something that most audiences are likely to recognise from their own adolescent fumblings. It’s really for young women to say whether the film ‘works’ and there are many reviews out there and some suggestions as to why this is an important film as well as an enjoyable one. Mainstream film and TV is obsessed with comedies about teenage boys losing their virginity but teenage girls are too often trapped in a version of the Madonna/Whore typing. They are either ‘dangerous nymphets’ or princesses waiting for Prince Charming. It would be fascinating to study this film alongside American teen sex comedies and the Twilight films.

I urge all film and media teachers to check out the film and decide for themselves whether this shortish feature would be a worthwhile teaching text. The DVD is released in the UK on 25th March by Element Pictures Distribution and can be ordered from Amazon UK.

New Yorker Films has created a very good ‘official website’ for the film’s North American release with stills, a press book and very good background texts.

Here’s an illuminating review from  The Globe and Mail, Toronto . . .

. . . and the North American trailer (with added Orson Welles soundtrack!):

Above the Street and Below the Water (Over gaden under vandet, Denmark 2009)

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Anne (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Ask (Nicolas Bro) at their counselling session in Above the Street, Below the Water.

Missing Borgen already and need a fix of Sidse Babett Knudsen? This UK DVD release offers an enjoyable family melodrama with a star-studded cast and some comic scenes. It’s presented in CinemaScope framing and acts as an almost ‘real estate porn’ promo for life on the Copenhagen waterfront. The strange title refers to the close proximity of three couples living around one of the more attractive canals in Copenhagen city centre.

Sidse Babett Knudsen is Anne, an actor preparing for a performance as Ophelia in a new production of Hamlet in the waterfront theatre. She is married to Ask (Nicolas Bro – the Justice Minister in The Killing 2). The marriage isn’t going well and he is having an affair with Bente (Ellen Hillingsø), a drama critic separated from Bjørn (Anders W. Berthelsen – the shipping magnate in The Killing 3). Bjørn is now drinking away his time and living on his boat moored on the canal where he is overlooked by Charlotte (Ellen Nyman) who works as a counsellor and who is currently listening to Anne and Ask fight  through her sessions. Charlotte is married to Carl (Nils Ole Oftebro), the director-manager of the theatre where Anne is to perform her Ophelia. Carl appears to be a ‘serial shagger’ of any passing woman who might be amenable. As well as these interconnections, the children of Anne and Ask and Bente and Bjørn are also in contact – and are seemingly more ‘sorted’ than their parents.

I confess that I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It’s slight but has several redeeming features, not least the chance to see Sidse Babett Knudsen in a very different role. She is flustered, forgetful and liable to lose it. She’s also 10lbs overweight and unable to get into her dress as Ophelia and she looks positively ‘raddled’ – a far cry from the perfect Birgitte in Borgen. She’s also brilliant. (Her son in the film is played by the very young Emil Poulsen who repeats the role so successfully in Borgen). All the cast are very good and the director Charlotte Sieling (with plenty of experience directing episodes of The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen) makes sure it moves at a good pace. I’d starting watching it late at night thinking I’d just fit in the first 30 minutes – but I watched the whole film because I got caught up in it. If you don’t like the intertwining narratives of soap opera or the coincidences of melodrama, this won’t be for you – but plenty of us do and this is a very good example of the genre. It’s definitely worth seeking out on rental or download.