This Is the Tale of a Nordic Soul*

The appearance of the term Nordic Noir is one which was recently constructed by the media and has become a popular catch all term to cover a variety of writing, film and television programmes being produced in the Nordic countries today.    However, at the heart of this term is crime fiction.   The translated literary branch of Nordic crime writing has become a hot commodity outside of its native area in the last 15 years.  Crime books and related films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and specific to TV series such as The Bridge are popular worldwide and have helped the brand of Nordic Noir to have continued growth in popularity.

When looking at the crime genre in general there are two points worth noting.  Firstly it is generally accepted that audiences around the world have similar expectations when it comes to crime writing and film, however alongside that it is also acknowledged as one of the genres where writers and filmmakers can easily include a nod to cultural traditions of the local area in the storyline, characters and the overall theme of their work.    Secondly it is known that if packaged correctly, audiences of this genre are open to accepting some narrative experimentation.  There have been many discussions about what makes Nordic Noir what it is.  I keep returning to the idea of isolation.   Barry Forshaw suggests that ‘Nordic soul sometimes…has the effect of lowering the emotional temperature of the narrative and according the reader a cool, balanced appraisal of the situations and the characters that are presented to us.’    Perhaps what I am calling isolation is part of this Nordic soul and that is what I would like to explore in relation to the visual aspect of Nordic Noir.

Recently on the television show ‘Scandimania’ Danish actor Soren Malling admitted that “the Danes do darkness.”  He suggested that one of the reasons the Danes have been found to be one of the happiest nations on earth is because they take time to embrace and discuss the dark side of life. There does seem to be a general acceptance amongst the Nordic people that I have encountered that one’s life will have ups and downs and that these should be acknowledged by society.  One could argue that this is one of the distinguishing points of Nordic arts in general.  Think of the art of Munch, the writing of Ibsen and Strindberg.  When one considers the Nordic Noir genre in television and film, the theme of isolation, not specifically physical isolation but particularly isolation of specific main characters in a group, is usually present.  The Swedes have a word which may convey the type of isolation that I would argue runs through the Nordic Noir genre, ‘ensamhet,’ which translates as loneliness, desolation or solitude.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘film as an art form…should communicate psychic states, not merely project pictures of external action.’   This idea is well presented in shows and films such as The Killing, The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, but it is also present in shows which have less distinct main characters such as Arne Dahl and The Protectors.  The characters of Lund, Saga, Salander, Hjelm and Jasmina El-Murad all exhibit a strong element of isolation within their lives in one way or another.   Another of Bergman’s cinematic devices is to portray a character’s psychic state through the use of close up facial expression.  A haunted, lonely facial close up is easy to picture if you recall any of the popular   recent Nordic Noir television shows or film.  Often the isolation of the characters becomes more and more apparent as we become more familiar with the stories.  The characters embody a struggle within the confines of everyday life that is sometimes painful for the audience to watch such as Lund’s relationship with her mother and son in The Killing.

Nordic Soul 1

Often in crime films and series it is the criminal who is presented as the isolated person.  Their isolation from society is often cited as a reason that they have turned to crime in the first place, but more often than not in these Nordic Noir shows the main character is portrayed as being just as much or even more psychologically isolated than the perpetrator.  Steven Peacock describes one aspect of isolation in the filmed Wallander series well when he says ‘TV versions present…Kurt Wallander as a loner who is constantly dragged back into affairs of state, the family, and the police force.  Despite his asserted strive for solitude, he reluctantly continues to gravitate towards community, while standing desperately alone.’  In these shows, in general, the storyline of the main character and their isolation within society is on a level with the perpetrator’s storyline and his penetration of society.

Consider not only the physical loneliness of Lund who struggles to let anyone into her personal physical space as well as how awkward she feels in social gatherings in the series, but specifically the psychological loneliness of her character. She is not a team player, she has difficulty maintaining professional and family relations and although she lives and she works in society she does not seem to be part of it.  It seems to happen around her.  Many of the same things could be said of Saga or Salander, a small difference being both of those characters acknowledge that they are different from others around them.  All of these isolated characters allow the audience to debate the worth of human life through their actions.  They are the ones who invite death into their lives.  Hjelm talks the armed hostage taker down in the first episode of the Arne Dahl series, Lund goes into so many dangerous situations we lose count of them, Salander too shows no fear in the face of multiple villains.  This device of allowing the audience to debate one of life’s eternal questions features heavily in Nordic film in previous generations.  Both Dreyer and Bergman were psychological cineastes and the teams who write, produce and direct these newer shows, the ones which have gripped audiences, continue in that tradition.

Also in the manner of Dreyer many of the shows are not heavy with dialogue.  At Nordicana recently David Hewson highlighted a scene in the first series of The Killing where the Birk-Larssens go to identify their daughter’s body in the morgue with Lund and Meyer.  The scene is over two minutes long and not one word is said, yet it is a powerful scene.   Using music, lighting, positioning and facial expression we experience different isolated emotions from all four characters in the scene, they are all present in that room but isolated in their own psyches with their own thoughts and agendas at that particular moment.  Dreyer said he wanted his audience to leave the cinema ‘gripped and silent’, viewers of The Bridge and The Killing surely felt this way as they watched the story uncover episode by episode.

Nordic Soul 2

Perhaps stemming from the literary tradition of crime writing such as the Detective Inspector Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo from the 1960’s the pace of many of these films and shows is slower than many audiences are used to for crime thrillers, giving the audience time to pick up on and perhaps relate to some of the deeper characteristics of the characters.  Indeed the stories are isolated incidents in time and during the time that the story is told we the audience become disconnected from real life and become embedded in this world of drama, intrigue, beauty and human tales.  If you take into account that the majority of the audience in the UK have to read the subtitles to understand the story then you can also factor this isolating quality into watching these shows.  Total concentration is required or great chunks of comprehension are lost.  One can watch or discuss but to simultaneously watch, read and discuss does not work as it may with a show without subtitles.  The viewer has to be fully engaged with what they are watching, reading and listening to.

The theme of isolation is also visually represented in the series The Killing and to some extent in The Bridge.  When they filmed The Killing they played with the tones and stripped out colour on the film so that the red of the blood would be isolated and thus emphasised when the audience viewed it.  This stripping back of colour and general use of dark tones meant that when colours were used they appeared more isolated and thus had more visual impact.  This technique had a strong part to play in creating the mood of the series and enhancing the storyline in a particularly visual way.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘there is no artform that has so much in common with film as music.  Both affect our emotions directly not via the intellect.  And film is mainly rhythm.  It is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.’ If you think about Frans Bak’s theme tune for The Killing, you may recall the rhythmic tune with eerie synth and vocal layered on top used at the beginning and end of the show, reminding the viewer of a pounding individual heartbeat, or you may remember Bak’s very simple piano piece ‘Sara’s Piano’ which could be interpreted as a two minute musical embodiment of isolation.  In The Bridge theme you can hear the same single, isolated note repeated on the piano in Hollow Talk by the Choir of Young Believers.  There is plenty of space and isolation in the music which compliments this particular lonely aspect of one of the defining qualities of Nordic Noir.

There are many facets which make these shows Nordic and Noir and this is just one of them; one that the Nordic people have been using for some time.  It is part of their cultural tradition and may be expressed in different ways in each country.  To the viewer the representation of isolation is distilled and presented in real world, physical stories in the Nordic Noir genre on screen.  Spiritual concepts such as love, beauty and forgiveness become more profound when juxtapositioned next to the fear, anger, sadness and isolation of the various characters particularly Lund in The Killing and Saga in The Bridge.  Nordic Noir is a subgenre of the larger crime genre for many reasons, some obvious and some not so distinct.   The subtle isolation used in the visual mediums gives us, the viewer, space to breathe, experience and move within the story and I propose that is an important part of what goes to make up the Nordic Soul which distinguishes Nordic Noir within the crime genre.

by Miriam V Owen

Bibliography and Works Cited

Steven Peacock, The impossibility of Isolation in Wallander, Critical Studies in Television, Vol 6: Issue 2: Autumn 2011pp37-46

Barry Forshaw, Death in a Cold Climate, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Philip Mosley, Ingmar Bergman: The Cinema as Mistress, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1981

Scandimania, Episode 2, shown on Channel 4, Sunday 9 February 2014

*This Is the Tale of a Nordic Soul by Miriam V Owen was originally published in an online journal called Infinite Earths  (Nordic Noir Special Edition in 2014). The webpages that hosted Infinite Earths can no longer be found so the article is now here. Infinite Earths focused on popular culture of all kinds from a range of perspectives: comic books, novels, films, TV and so forth. It had articles, personal histories, fandoms, and reviews. Although the initial concept for the website focused upon comics, the range was expanded due to the many cultural worlds of circulating in our present historical moment: Infinite Earths, Infinite Worlds, Parallel Thoughts and Divergent Opinions. Culture is the multiverse.


  1. Insightful piece that I plan to print off and re-read!

    1. Would be interested in your comments Barry

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