Summary and Keywords
Nordic noir is an emerging crime genre that draws on crime fiction, feature film, and television drama. The term Nordic noir is associated with a region (Scandinavia), with a mood (gloomy and bleak), with a look (dark and grim), and with strong characters and a compelling narrative. Such is the popularity of Nordic noir as a brand for crime that it can also, and somewhat confusingly, be associated with disparate, bleak dramas set in particular locations outside the Scandinavian region (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland), such as Wales, Italy, France, Mexico, and the United States. As such, Nordic noir is a global brand that attracts transnational audiences, and at the same time, it is a genre that offers a specific style of storytelling that has the look and feel of a regional, moody, and compelling crime narrative.
The approach to Nordic noir taken in this article analyzes the genre as multidimensional, involving production and institutional contexts, creative practices, and the practices of audiences and fans. The research uses empirical and theoretical analysis drawing on genre analysis, as well as production and audience studies, including qualitative interviews and participant observations with executive and creative producers, viewers, and fans. Nordic noir is not a fixed genre; rather, it is in a constant process of iteration as it mutates, hybridizes and migrates from one location to another, where it may be received and understood in different ways. The concept of “genre work” is useful in helping to capture and critically analyze Nordic noir from multiple perspectives, taking into account the complex ways in which this genre is a cocreation between industries and audiences. This is particularly evident in the case of the Danish-Swedish coproduction Broen/Bron/The Bridge (2011), which provides an illuminating case study of these processes at work. It is this constantly ongoing notion of genre work that illuminates the fluidity of Nordic noir, where its meaning and symbolic power is cocreated by institutions, producers, and audiences.
Introduction: The Roots of Nordic Noir
Nordic noir is a term associated with a number of books, films, and television series that have emanated from the region of Scandinavia in northern Europe, including the countries of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. A broader sense of the region can be identified in the use of the adjective Nordic, which also includes works from the countries of Iceland and Finland. Nordic noir (also known as Scandi noir) immediately suggests that these varieties of texts belong to a genre that is defined by a geographic location. However, as is common with most genre labels, the use of this term in popular and academic discourse can be attributed to a number of different factors and influences. Such genre work involves the cocreation of a genre by several actors, which might include the operations of the media industries themselves and the promotional practices involved; the contribution of the creative producers, including writers, directors, editors, and actors; and the commentary of various sectors of the media audience including reviewers, critics, fans, and the audience at large.
For example, Steven Peacock (2014, p. 2) traces the emergence of Nordic noir as a genre in a comment published in The Guardian by British TV critic Sam Wollaston in May 2012. Tacked onto the end of an extended review of a new David Attenborough documentary, Wollaston alerts viewers to the arrival of a new Swedish series, Sebastian Bergman:
Ah, a new Scandi thriller show – all Swedish this time – for the Borgen slot: Sebastian Bergman (BBC4, Saturday) […] It’s gloomy as hell, with a sociopath at its heart. And, of course, it’s excellent – great characters (Bergman, a grumpy bugger, is fabulous), it takes a hold of you and draws you in […] That part of the world seems to be this bottomless treasure chest of bleak, wonderful character-led thrilling drama. Nordic noir, the gift that keeps on giving.
Here, Wollaston associates Nordic noir with a region (Scandinavia), with a mood (gloomy and bleak), and with vivid characters and a compelling narrative. Although Wollaston is the first to use the term in print, it’s possible that it already had had some currency, given that he appears to assume that his readers will be familiar with it. Another dimension of the genre work involved is the fact that the series was to be shown on Sunday nights on BBC 4, in the slot previously occupied by seasons one and two of Forbrydelsen (The Killing) in 2007 and 2009, Borgen in 2010, and the first season of Broen/Bron (The Bridge) in 2011. As is apparent in this instance, therefore, both critical commentary and the scheduling practices of a TV network may contribute to the identification of Nordic noir as an emerging genre.
As further evidence of genre work, the distribution company Arrow Films released a number of DVDs of films and television drama in 2012 based on a series of detective novels by Håkan Nesser under the umbrella banner “Nordic Noir.” Since then, Arrow Films has also produced a newsletter directed at fans that includes updates on the writers, stars, films, and TV series that have already emerged, or are about to emerge, within Nordic noir. More recently, in September 2016, the British iteration of the Nordic Noir site included the following announcement:
With its roots in the ground-breaking TV dramas The Killing, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge, Nordic Noir has become a genre in its own right, influencing screenwriters far beyond the Scandinavian Peninsula. Here at nordicnoir.tv you’ll find everything you need to know about these dark and thrilling dramas, alongside details of complimentary series from all across Europe, and beyond. Njuta!
The “complimentary series” referred to here included a new Italian crime thriller, Suburra, and the trailer for a new Polish crime thriller, The Border, as well as a trailer for the third series of the BBC Wales drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland. Nordic noir, according to Arrow Films, has therefore become a genre “in its own right,” with specific characteristics that can be found in texts that are produced outside the Nordic region.
So what is Nordic noir? As with any genre, there is a challenge in trying to pin down exactly what is implied by this label since, as is evident from the Italian, Polish, and Welsh examples cited previously, genres are not fixed; they are in a constant process of evolution as they mutate, hybridize, and migrate from one location to another, where they may be received and understood in different ways. It is, therefore, important to try and understand what is intended by the term Nordic noir by those who use it. For example, in his book Nordic Noir, crime reviewer Barry Forshaw (2013) does not attempt to define the genre; he merely sets out to list the authors, films, and TV series that he assigns to this category. Forshaw begins by identifying the Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö as “key influence[s]” on the subsequent development of “Nordic noir” with their series of 10 crime novels collectively titled The Story of a Crime, featuring Martin Beck, written between 1964 and 1975 (Redvall, 2013, p. 162). He then proceeds to discuss the work of a number of other writers, including the Swedish authors Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, and film and TV series produced within the five Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Finland, but nevertheless, he refrains from attempting to define the genre.
In terms of the global reach of Nordic noir as crime fiction, research has shown how successful marketing of the brand contributes to its widespread appeal (e.g., Bergman, 2014). In 2008, Henning Mankell was described as the ninth best-selling author in the world, having sold more than 35 million books and having been translated into more than 41 languages (Waade, 2011, p. 11). Seven years later, it was reported that Stieg Larsson’s books, including The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy and subsequent film adaptations, had sold over 85 million copies worldwide (Begley, 2015); in September 2016, Jo Nesbo’s website reported that in anticipation of two forthcoming American films and a TV series adapted from his books, Nesbo had been named one of The Hollywood Reporter’s 25 most powerful authors in the world, having already sold 30 million books.
Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas (2011, p. 3) also point to the powerful influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in establishing the police procedural as a literary form that could serve to “situate ideological and political critique,” but they observe that this was not in itself an original move. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were themselves inspired by the work of the American author and former policeman Ed McBain (they had translated a number of McBain’s “87th precinct” crime novels). In these books, McBain combines a plot involving the work of an investigative team with an ancillary narrative involving the private lives of the officers involved (Nestingen & Arvas, 2011, p. 3), a format that has endured to the present day and can be identified in many examples of crime fiction and TV series produced across the world.
Noir Fiction and Film
The American connection to the perceived origins of Nordic noir is of particular interest here. The term noir, in relation to the movies, was first used in 1946 by several French film critics to describe a raft of American films released in France after World War II that appeared to have something in common (Silver & Ursini, 1999). As Silver, Ward, Ursini, and Porfiriom (2010, p. 15) have noted, the use of the term noir, meaning “black” in French, signaled a perceived connection between these films and a number of crime novels published in 1945 in France under the generic title of “Serie Noire.” The majority of these were translations of American novels by authors such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Horace McCoy.
Two of the first films to be identified as noir,Double Indemnity (directed by Billy Wilder, 1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (directed by Tay Garnett, 1946), were adapted from books by Cain; the former also featured a screenplay cowritten by Wilder and crime writer Raymond Chandler. These literary crossovers establish a link between the label noir, as it has been used to describe a genre of fiction, and the genre name film noir. It should be noted, however, that the authors whose books inspired the films labeled as “noir” would have been unlikely to label their fiction as such. Indeed, the terms used to characterize books by these authors at the time were much more likely to be hardboiled or even realist, since these were the terms used by Chandler to describe the work of Dashiell Hammett in an essay entitled “The Simple Art of Murder” (Chandler, 1944).
The use of the term noir in relation to crime fiction and film has expanded over the years, often partnered with another term that suggests a differently inflected subgenre. This would include such geographic locators as Nordic noir and Scandi noir, Celtic noir (including Ireland and Wales), Tartan noir (Scottish), and Oz noir (Australian). There was even a wave of crime fiction written by women and featuring feisty female characters that was labeled Tart noir, although what noir might mean in each of these cases might well be open to interpretation (Smith, 2008).
As it is, the particular features of film noir have been hotly debated ever since Nino Frank identified a number of common characteristics in the four American films on which he was originally commenting in 1946: Double Indemnity, Laura (directed by Otto Preminger, 1944), The Maltese Falcon (directed by John Huston, 1941), and Murder, My Sweet (directed by Edward Dymtryk, 1944). According to Frank, similarities among these movies included an attention to the kinds of facial expressions, gestures, and utterances that render the truth of the characters in ways that were very different from the then run-of-the-mill police dramas. Another common feature was the intervention of a narrator in a voiceover commentary on the action (Frank, 1946, p. 18). While many subsequent films that have been labeled “noir” do not necessarily share these characteristics, the use of a narrator has remained a trope in a wide range of films and TV series that have attempted to emulate this noir characteristic ever since, including the teen TV series Veronica Mars, in which a female high school student moonlights as a private detective (Wilcox & Turnbull, 2011, Mittell, 2015).
According to Silver et al. (2010, p. 22), the “classical” period of film noir, which lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s, is characterized by films that explore the dark side of “the American persona” through a central character who (a) is caught in a double bind, (b) is filled with “existential bitterness,” (c) is “drowning outside the social mainstream,” and (d) constitutes a mirror of the mental dysfunction of a nation in uncertain transition. In other words, classical film noir reflects on the experience of feeling trapped, alienated, and alone in a specific time and place that is itself unsettled.
Since the identification of film noir as a genre, there has emerged extensive literature on the topic that encompasses the aesthetics and style, narration, themes, and even philosophy of noir (Conrad, 2007). Furthermore, as Silver et al. (2010) suggest, the term film noir has also been periodized and hyphenated, as in the terms Proto-noir and Retro-noir. In discussing the group of films that are identified as Proto-noir, Silver et al. (2010) point to the significant influence of a number of German-speaking directors who came to Hollywood in the 15 years prior to World War II, including Fritz Lang and the Austrian émigré Josef von Sternberg. Characteristics of their style include the use of “shadowy visuals and darkly cynical dialogue” (Silver et al., 2010, p. 41).
What is interesting about this suggestion of stylistic influence is that the American roots of film noir can themselves be traced to a set of tendencies that were already present in the wider screen culture. The fact that some of these cultural influences were European underlines the transnational circulation of industry personnel, aesthetics, and themes that have played a role in the emergence of what has been identified as a noir aesthetic from the early days of the global media industry. The roots of Nordic noir, therefore, are rhizomatic and draw upon a wide range of influences in both fiction and film.
Nordic Noir Novels and Television Drama
For British television scholar Glen Creeber (2015, p. 21), once again the origins of Nordic noir lie in “a particular type of Scandinavian crime fiction” that is “typified by its heady mixture of bleak naturalism, disconsolate locations and morose detectives.” Examples would include the work of Henning Mankell (1948–2015), whose crime novels, the first of which was published in 1991 and translated into English in 1997, have been adapted for television. There have been three versions of Wallander, including two in Swedish, the first with Rolf Lassgard (1994–2007) and the second with Krister Henriksson in the title role (2005–2006 and 2009–2010); and another made in English for the BBC and starring Kenneth Branagh (2005–2014). It is, however, the crime series that have been developed especially for television, including Forbrydelsen/The Killing (2007–2012), Livvagterne/The Protectors (2008–2010), Broen/Bron/The Bridge (2011–), and Den som dræber/Those Who Kill (2011–) that provide Creeber with what he perceives as the key features of Nordic noir on TV. These include “a dimly-lit aesthetic (hence its implicit reference to film noir) that is matched by a slow and melancholic pace, multi-layered storylines, and an interest in uncovering the dark underbelly of contemporary society” (Creeber, 2015, p. 22). Here, Nordic noir is associated with a particular look, a slow pace, and a complex narrative structure, as well as a particular social and political agenda.
With tongue firmly in cheek, British critic Clive James has the same opinion, at least in terms of lighting, mood, and pace, mischievously suggesting that in Scandinavian dramas, the ambience is indeed dark: “[T]he lights are turned off even indoors so that sometimes you have to search for your little green diode to make sure your TV is still on” (James, 2016, p. 108). And then there is the pace. According to James, it’s hard to get a job as a cop in a Scandinavian crime drama unless “you are as boring as hell” and spend a great deal of time looking at walls or at waves (p. 108). In terms of the former, he points to the character of Saga Noren in Broen/Bron/The Bridge, while noting that Krister Henriksson’s Wallander appears to spend a lot of time staring out to sea “as if wondering why Scandinavian waves are so small and dull” (p. 109).
In her account of the emergence of Nordic noir, Danish academic Eva Nordrup Redvall (2013) also acknowledges the importance of the social realist and critical tradition in Scandinavian crime fiction established by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, but goes on to reveal in precise detail many of the other forces that have contributed to the emergence of the drama series from Denmark that have been associated with Nordic noir. Redvall traces the emergence of these series to the earliest days of the TV industry in Denmark and the impact of both British and American crime dramas. More specifically, she reveals how art-house film director Lars Von Trier’s television miniseries The Kingdom (1994) was influenced by such American series as NYPD Blue (ABC, 1993–2005) and Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993–1996), particularly in the use of handheld cameras to create a sense of realism and liveness (Redvall, 2013). As further evidence of an ongoing American influence and openness to other ways of doing things, Redvall describes how in the 1990s, producer Sven Clausen was sent on a research trip to Sweden, Britain, and the United States to study the working methods of other production cultures (Redvall, 2013, p. 65). As for Forbrydelsen/The Killing, creator Soren Sveistrup has acknowledged his own fascination with the cult TV classic Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990–1991), created by film director David Lynch, as well as the American series Murder One (ABC, 1995–1997) and The West Wing (NBC, 1999–2006), especially the portrayal of power relationships in the latter (Redvall, 2013, p. 165).
Redvall’s detailed analysis of the television production context is also attentive to the specific role and mandate of the public service broadcaster Denmark’s Radio (DR) in the emergence of the Danish series that have been characterized as Nordic noir. In seeking to establish their own brand of drama, DR created an “official story” and identity for its productions, underpinned by a “dogma” listing 15 key principles that were to be applied to all drama productions (Redvall, 2013, p. 69). These include the key concepts of “one vision,” which establishes the creator of the series as the “guiding vision for the project,” an idea that draws on the American tradition of a showrunner; the use of “double storytelling,” which might include the layering of the narrative to focus on a murder mystery, a family, and a philosophical or political issue; the importance of “the producer’s choice,” which allows him or her to hire the staff rather than employing those already on a payroll; and last but by no means least, the concept of “crossover,” which refers to the hiring of people from the film industry to work on television series (Redvall, 2013, p. 69). In relation to the latter, Redvall is also attentive to the production culture of the personnel involved, as well as the scheduling practices, both in Denmark and overseas, that have helped to create a demand for Danish content in general and Nordic noir in particular. The subsequent internationalization of Danish television drama and its global impact have been the subject of much discussion and research by a number of Scandinavian academics in recent years (Jensen & Waade, 2013; Jensen, Nielsen, & Waade, 2016; Hill, 2016a, 2016b; Askanius, 2017).
Creeber is concerned not only with the Danish and Swedish series that he identifies as noir, but also those crime dramas produced in other countries that he also classifies as belonging to the genre. For example, in his discussion of the British crime drama Broadchurch (ITV, 2013–), he identifies the generic tropes of Nordic noir in the use of the landscape to reflect the psychological state of the characters, the pacing, the double narrative, the moral underpinnings, and the use of music (by Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds), not to mention the pairing of a male and female detective, one social and approachable and the other awkward and socially inept (Creeber, 2015). Other series identified by Creeber as being influenced by the genre include the Welsh drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland (BBC Wales, 2013–), Shetland (BBC Scotland, 2013–) The Fall (BBC Northern Ireland, 2013–), and the first season of the American series True Detective (HBO 2014). According to Creeber (2015, p. 31):
What all these dramas have in common is their attempt to employ the detective genre to investigate the often lonely, desolate, and isolated lives of its characters. Location is often central to this project, offering a cinematic expression that allows its visual canvas to tell us much about the people, themes and sensibilities at the heart of these narratives.
Unlike American film noir, however, which is unreservedly bleak in its outlook, Creeber (2015, p. 2) argues that in its focus on communities that support each other, and the promise of redemption, Nordic noir is characterized by “an overriding sense of hope” that in the end, good will overcome evil. It is, however, important to note that evil will inevitably return in the next season, if a series is re-commissioned. As is the case in long-running crime series, there are only temporary resolutions to social problems, or crimes, encountered because the problems that the drama confronts are usually intractable, and the show must go on.
For some producers, the label Nordic noir has become unhelpful. An article in the online industry publication C21 suggests that many Nordic producers are seeking to actively avoid the perceived constraints of the genre. According to Noel Hedges, the executive producer of content at DRG, the U.K. distribution company owned by the Scandinavian Modern Times Group, producers are keen to “create something singular” and new (Middleton, 2015). This is an opinion echoed by Tony Wood, the chief executive officer of the U.K. distribution company Buccaneer, who considers that while Nordic noir may have peaked in 2015, “the appetite for well-made drama from those countries has spawned other high-quality dramas, very different in tone and subject. Many of those are doing great business globally. We’re a long way from [Nordic noir’s] demise” (Middleton, 2015). As evidence of this, Middleton points to the claims being made about the creation of the crime series Modus, based on the novels of Norwegian author Anne Holt. Josefine Tengblad, head of drama at TV4 in Sweden, sees this series (coproduced by the FremantleMedia-owned Scandinavian production company Miso Films and the German production house Nadcon) as an example of how the Nordic crime drama series is being given a “new treatment”; it is about a former profiler for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who returns to work after her daughter witnesses a murder. According to Tengblad, what makes this series different from Nordic noir is the fact that the story is mainly told from the point of view of the central character, who is not a police officer, and the police station barely figures in the narrative; this makes for a novel perspective of a crime drama where we usually expect to follow the detectives and the criminals throughout the narrative, this time someone else tells the story. Furthermore, the audience knows who committed the crime from the start, so that the series is a “whydunit” rather than a whodunit. What is interesting about these comments is that someone working within the Scandinavian TV industry views the term Nordic noir as being primarily associated with a particular type of crime drama—the investigative police procedural.
While there may well be figures in the industry who consider the label Nordic noir as restrictive and are eager to move on to the next best thing, in fact they will have little control over whether their series is classified as Nordic noir once it has emerged and becomes subject to critical scrutiny. This brings us to the key point, that Nordic noir is as much a creation of the audience, in all its global diversity, as of those who create it.
The study of a genre in general shows its multidimensionality, working across the different areas of production cultures, aesthetics, and cultures of viewing (Mittell, 2004). We use the term genre work to explore how Nordic noir is cocreated by cultural institutions, creative producers, and audiences. Genre work as a cocreation draws on structural factors in the cultural industries, using production studies and political economy to understand the context of producer-consumer relations, such as the production and marketing of Nordic noir by a Danish public service organization to transnational viewers. Genre work also draws on people’s voices and practices as audiences, consumers, or fans and participants, using audience studies and cultural studies to understand how and why people engage or disengage with a genre (e.g., the popularity of Nordic noir as weekend television, where viewers create a social ritual of “crime Sundays” in Sweden and Denmark).
The cocreation of genre work might imply equality of labor, but this analysis seeks to weigh the structural factors and systemic power issues within the craft and marketing of a genre alongside the significance of viewers’ identities, knowledge, and reflections on the cultural resonance of a genre within the context of their lives. In this sense, cocreation is not a cooperative endeavor, and while genre work can be a rewarding and empowering experience for producers and audiences, it is all too often a “tense relationship between different groups of people who are engaged in multiple practices” (Hill, 2015, p. 8).
Genre work involves the labor of making, marketing, and distributing a genre, and it involves the way audiences engage in watching that genre, including processes of reflecting on this experience. The term genre work is also a play on dream work, a psychodynamic term that describes the processes involved in gathering psychic material and recounting and interpreting dreams, in order to better understand the relationship between our unconscious and conscious selves (Hill, 2007). For psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (2003, dream work is a never-ending process where we “dream-work” ourselves into becoming who we are, thus connecting psychoanalysis to the expression of self-experience. Genre work also refers to the psychoanalytic term working through, used by television scholar John Ellis (2000) to explain the way that television processes the material world into narrativized forms. The idea of dream work, as characterized by Bollas, is similar to Ellis’s notion of working through, but there are some subtle differences; working through describes the state in which we worry about and return to experiences in order to make sense of them, while dream work implies that we are always working on our psyche and that we never fully make sense of our experiences. This constantly ongoing notion of genre work helps us understand the fluidity of Nordic noir as a genre where its meaning and symbolic power are cocreated by institutions, producers, and audiences.
In the earlier sections of this article, we explored the roots of Nordic noir as rhizomatic and highlighted how the genre works as a combination of making, marketing, and distributing Scandinavian police procedural fiction influenced by film noir, crime novels, and television dramas. In this section, we focus on the work of audiences in shaping and reshaping Nordic noir. In his research on feelings and subjectivity, Stephen Frosh (2011) distinguishes human experience as involving both an immersive, in-the-moment, experience and a reflection, or memorializing, of this experience. Similarly, the idea of genre work involves immersive and reflective modes of engagement. We gather our generic knowledge prior to a viewing experience (asking, for example, “How does this television crime series relate to novels we have read?”); we experience watching, reading, or listening to Nordic noir (questioning, “How do we think and feel about this new series?”); and at the same time, we reflect on this experience (wondering, “Why does this series matter to us in the context of our lives?”). This last element is an intensely subjective aspect of engagement, where audiences see themselves as viewers, consumers, or fans and producers (reflecting, “That’s me watching this drama—what does this say about my identity, or my experience of living in a particular country?”). This reflexive mode of engagement is a significant part of genre work because when audiences watch, talk about, share, reflect on, and produce their own content for a genre like Nordic noir, they are transforming it into something far more powerful than its original elements: audiences give Nordic noir cultural resonance.
The Bridge Television Drama
To understand the genre work of Nordic noir in practice, we take as a case study the television drama The Bridge (Filmlance International and Endemol Shine), presented in a format based on the original crime series Broen/Bron (2011–, DR and SVT), set in the border territory of Denmark and Sweden. There are two adaptations of the original series set in Britain and France (The Tunnel, Sky, and Le Tunnel, Canal 5; 2013–2016), and the United States and Mexico (The Bridge, FX, 2013–2014); a further adaptation is planned that will be set between Estonia and Russia (2017).
The original Broen/Bron has aired in 157 countries around the world, and the third season won a Crystal award (similar to an Emmy) for the best TV drama series of the year in Sweden. We focus on the original drama Broen/Bron as a prime example of Nordic noir, with a strong regional audience base for the drama in Europe and an international reach for The Bridge (as its title is translated into English), on international distribution platforms such as Netflix. To avoid confusion, we refer to the international drama as The Bridge, and the original drama as Broen/Bron.
This case study is part of a larger project on media experiences, in collaboration with the production company Endemol Shine who are the parent company of Filmlance International. A range of qualitative methods place listening and respect for producer and audience practices at the heart of the research, using production and audience studies to examine how Nordic noir is cocreated by institutions, producers, and audiences. The qualitative empirical research was conducted during 2013–2016 and involved multiple methods: there were 40 production interviews with creative and executive producers in Filmlance and Endemol Shine, participant observations with Filmlance during drama production, over 170 individual and group interviews with audiences and fans, and participant observations with audiences in homes and at fan events. The interviews were primarily conducted face to face, in individual and group settings, at live events, with additional interviews conducted via telephone. The fieldwork took place in several countries (Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom), in multiple languages, and it was conducted by a team of researchers; the production and audience observations and interviews were conducted by the author, Tina Askanius and Koko Kondo (see more information at the website for media experiences listed at resources). All interviews were fully transcribed and analyzed using qualitative data analysis, where descriptive and analytical coding was combined with critical reflection of interviews in the context of field notes and participant observations.1
The Bridge has all the hallmarks of Nordic noir: It has a gloomy atmosphere evoking melancholy and fear, strong characters struggling with emotional issues, police procedural details, and a critique of society and politics. It also has elements that make it an original drama: There is the border territory and bridge between the two nations, which is central to the narrative; dual languages that add subtitling, or dubbing, to facilitate and broaden audience engagement with the storytelling; and a female detective who has difficulties communicating with people, suggesting a personality on the autism spectrum and inscribing a notion of otherness that becomes part of the human drama. The Bridge exemplifies Steve Neale’s (1980) idea of repetition and difference in genre, creating a drama that is similar to other Nordic noir, and at the same time making it distinctive in the global television market.
A brief context of the development of a Nordic noir format like The Bridge highlights the influence of other crime novels and television on the drama, as well as the importance of location to the genre as a whole. The original drama Broen/Bron arose from the creative collaboration of crime writer Hans Rosenfeldt and film and television producers Anders Landström and Lars Blomgren at the Swedish production company Filmlance. The team wanted to tap into a cultural trend reflected in Swedish crime novels (such as Henning Mankell’s Wallender series) and multilayered Danish crime drama (such as Forbyrdelsen, DR, 2007–2012). They came up with the idea of Broen/Bron, where the opening scene depicts a body, composed of parts from two victims, posed on the Oresund Bridge, on the precise borderline between Sweden and Denmark. Crime detectives Saga Noren (from Sweden) and Martin Rohde (from Denmark) must solve the puzzling crime. This focus on place carries over into the actual placement of the series on public service channels in Sweden and Denmark, with both organizations cofunding this collaborative television series and scheduling it on Sundays as part of their quality drama strand. Broen/Bron has done very well for public service players SVT and DR. For example, the second season (2013) attracted over a million viewers in Sweden, most of whom watched it live on Sunday evenings, and the third season had an average of 1.5 million viewers, making it the top rated drama of 2015.2
The notion of place works in several ways. It draws a regional audience to engage with the drama in specific contexts: “Broen/Bron is relevant on both sides of the bridge. The things we talk about, the social problems are relevant to both countries” (executive producer Lars Blomgren, 2014). And yet this local context can also appeal to transnational audiences. Indeed, this close attention to the place and politics of crime in a border territory was the very idea that Filmlance formatted as The Bridge. Simply put, a format means that the creative idea for a series is formatted so it can be sold in various regions and countries around the world (Moran, 2009). The fact that the original Broen/Bron became a formatted drama tells us that Nordic noir has strong market appeal in an international context; it may have started out as a northern European trend, but The Bridge is an example of drama that has transnational appeal.
To understand its local and transnational elements, it is important to keep in mind that the creative genre work of producers is paramount to the series success; the quality of the drama comes first, and what follows is the business of television and the format industry. Such focus on quality is not always common in the television industry (think of soap operas, with their mixture of never-ending narratives, the need for daily episodes, and a reliance on advertising and product placement). Nordic noir, however, is often associated with ideas circulating around what is quality crime drama, with all the issues about perceptions of quality and taste that this entails (McCabe & Akass, 2007). In the next section, we explore the genre work of creative producers and audiences, highlighting engagement with Nordic noir as a distinctive style of slow-paced, intelligent storytelling where the characters in a police procedural are caught in a tangled web of family melodrama and regional political cultures.
Creating Nordic Noir
There is a tight team of creative producers in Filmlance that have an accumulation of crime genre knowledge that gives a distinctive quality to Broen/Bron. Director Henrik Georgsson (2015) described this as an instinctive understanding: “The word we say … is ‘Bronish.’ We are working tight together. We have a universe where we all know something about Bron, what Saga is, or how we use the landscape and architecture … so we have something in common to start with and then we can discuss what directions to take.” Georgsson’s comment on the “Bronish” quality of the drama connects to the genre expectations of the audience. One viewer, for example, a 32-year-old Swedish male receptionist, reflects on the generic tone, detail, and atmosphere as follows: “Bron dares to create this dark, gloomy, brutal reality.”
One way of creating the “Bronish” quality of the drama is through storytelling for Nordic noir, which viewers describe as a rich tapestry with many threads. Writer Camilla Ahlgren (2015) spoke of the process as “working in a very detailed way,” and she reflected on the pressure to create a Nordic noir series that did not repeat itself: “the story has to be original, something extraordinary, it has to be different.” There is a depth of understanding about the power of storytelling in Nordic noir. Henrik Georgsson (2015) explained:
The audience must think ‘who did it?’, ‘how this does connect?’ We try to keep that suspense all the time to make almost everyone interested. We do that from the beginning in the shooting and editing. You try to nourish the viewers’ own thoughts, give some space for that in the most effective way.
Similarly, editor Patrick Austen (2015) noted that they “had to tell the story right or lose the audience”; he talked about an imagined audience during the editing process, with the viewer at Austen’s back, tapping him on the shoulder, saying, “Hey, something is wrong here, or something is very right here.” This is a fine balancing act of editing the story, where the texture and tone of the drama relies on a combination of “rationally understanding what is going on and being emotionally moved at the same time” (Austen, 2015).
The pleasure in solving a whodunit is very evident in people’s discussions: “I love that I can sit and guess who the murderer is. I like being part of the detective work. You almost identify with the police officers, it’s like you see their work through their eyes” (a 38-year-old Danish male postal worker). This pleasure in the puzzle of the story highlights the playful engagement of audiences with the genre itself. In the following discussion in a focus group, Swedish viewers reflected on themselves in the process of genre work:
I like shows where you have to think and engage. It feels like you can solve the puzzle and lay out all the pieces. (23 year old Swedish male student)
You get very satisfied if you manage to figure something out before it happens: ‘Oh, I knew it!’ (23 year old Swedish female student)
But the best part is when you think you’ve figured it out and then they trick you. (21 year old Swedish female student)
These young viewers positively engaged with the heightened pleasure in solving a whodunit—that cat-and-mouse feeling of trying to figure out the crime (and being wrong most of the time).
The Cool Heart of Nordic Noir
The crafting of engagement with Nordic noir is connected to a deep understanding of what the genre evokes for its audiences—that darkly lit aesthetic that Creeber (2015) noted in his definition of this type of crime drama. One of the most distinctive aspects of Nordic noir is the careful layering of aesthetics and sound to evoke a melancholy atmosphere. Director Henrik Georgsson (2015) reflected on the chilling stillness of the show: “We work a lot with the atmosphere in the pictures and then in the sound and the music. I think a lot about how the pictures will work with the music later on, to give space for the music, for feelings and atmosphere in different ways.” Many in the production spoke of using dissonance (across image, sound, and color, for example) to help create this overall feeling of beauty and ugliness, or coldness and humanity. Editor Patrick Austen (2015) explained: “it has a visual energy that works well with contrasts.”
Broen/Bron has a cool heart, a contrast in visual energy that viewers greatly appreciate. For example, a 24-year-old Danish female student described the drama as “very beautifully made. It is dark and gray, but aesthetically pleasing.” Another viewer, a 30-year-old Swedish male clerk, noted that “the locations might be ugly, but they can be very clean and stylish in another way.” Many viewers were seduced by the “dark romance of the city” (in the words of a 23-year-old Swedish female webmaster). Others commented on the tensions between the speed of the storyline and the slow tempo of the atmosphere overall; for instance, a 42-year-old Swedish female case worker stated that “it keeps building expectation and suspense.”
There is a “quiet unconventionalism” to the drama, as sound designer Carl Edström (2015) described it. Henrik Georgsson (2015) explained how they crafted this feeling: “you know they have this expression in Swedish ‘vanlighetslarm,’ normality alarm, it has to be something unusual, it can’t be just normal.” The opening music to the series is crucial to viewers, establishing a tone of foreboding: “the music has an enormous effect on the atmosphere. And that has a tremendous impact on your experience when watching this type of show. It creates a sense of unease when you watch it” (a 32-year-old Swedish male receptionist). Such engagement with music and sound signifies the stillness that reviewers note when describing the genre and the characters’ state of mind (James, 2016). One Danish viewer, a 36-year-old female pharmacist, commented on how “the sound and light create the same atmosphere as Saga; it reflects her dark side.” This viewer even experimented by watching the drama without sound, just to feel the value of the soundscape in the quiet unconventionalism of her experience.
This heightened fear of everyday settings and people is distinctive to this example of Nordic noir. It is the feeling of fear in the apparently safe environment of the home or home city: “they make the city look scary and give that feeling that anything can happen. I’m such a wimp sometimes. I need at least four pillows to get through an episode and I keep telling my husband to tell me what is happening [laughs]”(a 40-year-old Danish female blogger). Normality is misleading: for instance, a scene in season two of Broen/Bron resonated with viewers because a piece of fruit became a portent of death: “When the woman dies after eating an apple, I haven’t been able to take an apple out of the fruit basket at work” (a 42-year-old Swedish female teacher).
It is this dissonance between normal life and violent death that draws viewers to the drama. Take the weather, a factor in Nordic everyday life. Rather than film the series in the short summer months, Broen/Bron is filmed during the long winter period to give it the dark and melancholy atmosphere that is so common to Nordic noir. This viewer, a 50-year-old Swedish female project manager, noted how the weather symbolizes the genre:
That’s something I like with the Scandinavian series, it can be completely unglamorous. It can be raining for an entire series. Nobody cares, and I like that. It’s sort of mundane. It’s so grey, it’s so foggy, it’s so boring. And that’s just how it is. But we live here anyway and go about our lives. (50 year old Swedish female project manager)
The very mundanity of the weather becomes a backdrop to the narratives of fear and melancholy in the crime drama: “It’s wet, chilly, cold, and there is this sense of the bittersweet nature of life” (a 26-year-old Swedish female salesperson. One viewer, a 27-year-old female Danish social worker, described this feeling as “the creepiness of the mundane”; she added that “it makes me feel very insecure because it gives you the impression that anyone could start to poison people … that’s also what makes it easy to relate to and what triggers so many emotions … the mundanity of ‘a woman takes a bite of an apple and dies.’ That’s when it gets scary.”
From Nordic to Noir
The ways in which audiences engage with the drama highlight the genre mix of Nordic noir and melodrama. For executive producer Lars Blomgren (2014), this dual identity is a strength of Nordic noir: “Crime is a family drama on steroids. The center of our universe is the family. The worst problems you see here are family problems, so basically all the crime stories are about entering people’s home where there is a tragedy or distress.” Such a comment is echoed by the writer, Camilla Ahlgren—“every story is something to do with the family; we have worked hard to find different stories about the family and society from a new angle” (Ahlgren, 2015); and the director, Henrik Georgsson, who states that “it is very much about close family relations; it could be seen as a critique of society” (Georgsson, 2015). The mix of crime story and melodrama works together to shape “a sense of fatefulness” (a 32-year-old Swedish male receptionist) in the drama. In the following commentary, focus group participants reflected on the moral landscape:
Everybody is weighed down from the start, and you know that everybody will be weighed down when it ends too. It sounds weird but that’s what draws me in, there’s something about the hopelessness that I like. (23 year old Swedish female student)
Right. The more depressing something is the better it is … if everyone was happy and everything was going well … it’s a bit stupid, a bit naïve. You can tell how well made it is, the gloomier and more serious it is. (24 year old Swedish female student)
… It always feels like it’s all really hopeless: ‘Oh no, everything is going to hell.’ And then something happens that makes you feel a tiny bit of hope. They always trigger that sense of hope: ‘Oh, it might work out.’ And then: ‘No, it won’t.’ And then: ‘Well, it might.’ I suppose that’s where the suspense comes from. Things are always on the brink of destruction. (23 year old Swedish female student)
This feeling of being weighed down, the vulnerability of human relations, is strangely compelling to audiences and their engagement with the genre.
The dual stories of crime and melodrama were most apparent in the third season of Broen/Bron (2015). The producers had established the sense of place and characterization in the first two seasons and used season three to focus on a strong social, moral, and emotional story, rather than an explicitly political and geographical one. Audiences responded positively to the emphasis on moral ambiguity and “broken relationships” (a 23-year-old Swedish female student). There was an understanding that the crime story and the family constellations were a social commentary on Nordic individualism and the post–welfare state, where tensions exist across family and togetherness, and isolation and loneliness. One viewer described season three as “a story of vulnerability” (a 35-year-old Swedish female librarian), especially the character of Saga, who was seen as symbolizing the cool heart of the series overall.
The Swedish and Danish dimensions of the story were less apparent in audience responses to season three compared with previous seasons. “You can’t really tell when they cross the border: ‘Now they’re in Sweden. Now they’re in Denmark.’ I don’t think they focus very much on that” (a 24-year-old Swedish female student). Audiences have become used to the world of Broen/Bron: “I think they’ve succeeded very well in painting Malmö and Copenhagen as some form of Scandinavian capital. It almost feels like it’s one city” (a 23-year-old Swedish male student). The drama heightened a sense of the fictional landscape of the region and the mutual understanding across cultures, compared to the reality of difference that people experienced day to day. This notion of difference was a sobering thought, given the context of world events, global migration, and the closure of borders in Europe during 2015.
For season two of Broen/Bron, audiences referenced other Nordic noir dramas, highlighting their knowledge of this emergent genre. For example, one viewer reflected on her enjoyment of this series in relation to other Scandinavian crime, saying that “this is a refreshing set-up in comparison to The Killing, in which there were 10 characters and we knew from the beginning one of them had to be the killer. This is more open and harder to guess who the killer is” (a 27-year-old female Danish social worker). But for season three, Broen/Bron was often discussed alongside other dramas, such as the American television series Homeland (Showtime, 2011–), a sign of its widespread international appeal rather than regional identity: “It’s an absolutely amazing show. I love watching it! … that and Homeland, those are the only ones we watch together” (a 41-year-old Danish female copy editor).
This serial engagement with the genre is richly suggestive of the cocreation of Nordic noir by cultural institutions, creative artists, and audiences. This genre work is something that is not static, but constantly connecting with wider genre developments in crime drama as a whole. Earlier in this article, we noted that television industry distributors and critics have started to mention that the wave in Nordic noir is over; while still marketable, the genre is not the “must see” content that it once was at the height of its success (with The Killing, for example). The creative artists behind Broen/Bron, attuned to changes in audience tastes, have subtly shifted their focus from Nordic to noir elements, understanding that audiences are a step ahead of them in their engagement with the drama. Thus, the genre work of Nordic noir at this time highlights the blurring of boundaries between the local identity of the genre and the melodrama of noir, with its focus on the ambiguous morality of the world in which we live.
These developments suggest tensions arising from the genre work of Nordic noir and how it might be changing over the next few years. The feeling that audiences are perhaps tiring of the “Nordic” in Nordic noir increases the pressure on executive producers and broadcasters in the commissioning process and renewal of long-running series such as Broen/Bron. It also places high expectations on creative producers to offer something different—something better than before. These genre expectations can inspire the writers or the production team, but it can also be a burden (risking overcomplicating a storyline, for example).
A problem for Nordic noir is that the quality of the production (its complex narrative, attention to detail, and emotionally dark tone) can become subsumed by commercial imperatives from commissioners or distributers who wish to keep the genre afloat. The case study of Broen/Bron shows the genre work of producers and audiences in crafting and shaping Nordic noir as quality drama; every detail of landscape, color, light and sound, snowfall, dialogue and plot twists, editing, and acting pulls audiences into a powerful narrative that has long-lasting cultural resonance.
The genre work of Nordic noir is also about feeling a strong connection to the drama; such a connection comes from the creative values of the production team and audiences attuned to these values of quality and distinctiveness, character identification, regional identity, and sociocultural commentary. The continuing success of Nordic noir lies in its ability to touch people deeply through strong and multilayered storytelling, where the drama becomes “part of you, I get emotionally involved; it’s like you enter that world and you live in it” (a 39-year-old Swedish female communications officer).
Conclusion: Nordic Noir as an Evolving Genre
As this article has revealed, the emergence and evolution of a genre involve a degree of detective work. In the case of Nordic noir, this has required some backtracking in order to trace the origins of the genre in the transnational flows of crime fiction and film noir. At the same time, we have tried to make sense of the ways in which the term has been used by critics and commentators, the creative teams involved, as well as audiences as they endeavor to make sense of a series of crime dramas that appear to share a set of common characteristics. These include similarities in the images, the color palette, the musical score, the themes, the pacing, and the types of characters that are deployed. However, while the term Nordic noir has been primarily associated with crime fiction and dramas produced in the Scandinavian region in the past, it has now been appropriated for dramas produced in other geographic locations that appear to share the same qualities. As it is, Nordic noir remains a highly marketable genre, but at the same time, those who have produced it in the past are well aware of the need to reinvent and renew the genre before audiences become bored. As is the case with all genres, Nordic noir is on the move. This article has attempted to capture a moment in its evolution.
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