Characterized by dark color palettes and shadowy compositions, morally grey (and typically male) protagonists, and double-crossing femme fatales, film noir came to prominence in the United States in the 1940s. Numerous films, including John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), arrested the attention of American viewers and brought them to the theater in droves. While the popularity of film noir during this particular era can be partially attributed to the genre’s roots in bestselling pulp novels and crime fiction, as well as the frequency with which big-name directors and actors were attached to noir productions (in conjunction with the waxing popularity of Hollywood’s star system), a much more somber reality lurked just beneath the surface of these films.
In essence, film noir — as it emerged and flourished in America in the 1940s — exposed a post-WWII generation’s emergent anxieties surrounding changing gender norms and the increasing threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of foreign foes. As an indelible record of the shifting mores and attitudes of a nation haunted by the ravages of war, film noir proved the maxim true: art reflects life.
Fast-forward nearly seven decades, and American audiences are once again riveted by noir of a different sort: Nordic noir, a distant cousin to its American ancestor. Nordic noir became an international sensation in the mid-2000s when the late Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) made its way to U.S. shores, onto The New York Times Best Seller List, and into a film adaptation — a remake of the original Swedish film — helmed by David Fincher. Ever since, many Americans have exhibited an insatiable hunger for bleak and moody crime fiction from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.
Jo Nesbø’s novels regularly appear on bestseller lists. The Kenneth Branagh-led British adaptation of Wallander (2008) is wildly popular. And as recently as November 2016, the streaming behemoth Netflix premiered Case, an Icelandic Netflix Original series. But why is Nordic noir so popular in the United States, especially given that we suffer no shortage of solid, accessible American crime fiction? As with any phenomenon, of course, the reasons are not singular, isolated, or monolithic. (For example, some critics and scholars point to the allure of the perception that Nordic noir is more sexually provocative and violent than its American counterparts, while others bring this point into contention.) But perhaps one of the more signifiant impetuses behind the genre’s popularity can be found when you account for how it’s not unlike 1940s-era American noir in its uncanny ability to reveal collective, albeit differing, subconscious angsts.Nordic noir’s bone-chilling revelation is that no matter how much or how far we progress as a society, we are nonetheless limited, hindered, and weighed down by our corrupt natures.
In short, Nordic noir is a cross-cultural phenomenon — at least in part — precisely because it uses ostensibly idyllic Scandinavian settings and genre conventions to highlight the limited efficacy of social and political action and reform.
While it’s somewhat obvious that one of the more distinctive characteristics of Nordic noir films, novels, and TV shows is that their storylines almost always occur exclusively in Scandinavian countries, the significance of these Nordic settings is inextricably linked to their sociopolitical critiques. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland are frequently cited as the world’s most prosperous and successful countries. Denmark, for instance, is regularly referred to as the “happiest country on earth” and as Nordic scholar Kerstin Bergman points out, “[p]eople from other parts of the world are often curious — sometimes even envious — of the Nordic welfare states with their high taxes that provide such things as free education, free healthcare, and free care for children and the elderly.” In other words, people tend to associate Nordic countries with political prosperity and a heightened sense of well-being.
Adding to these commonly held edenic perceptions of Nordic countries is their commitment to gender equality. Bergman notes that “Nordic Noir has numerous women authors” and that “in Sweden between 35 and 40% of the novels published in the 2000s have been by women.” The genre is similarly populated with a plethora of strong, independent female characters who seem to embody the Nordic spirit. Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is no doubt the most internationally recognizable and Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) of the hit TV show The Bridge (2011), whose success spawned a less-successful American remake, is tremendously popular among the show’s devoted followers. Even Nordic noir titles with male protagonists often feature memorable female characters — usually in a workplace environment, and not simply relegated to the domestic sphere — in secondary and supporting roles.
Considered as part of a larger picture, therefore, the social and political progressivism of Nordic nations — not to mention their ethereal, haunting natural beauty, from Iceland’s volcanic shores to Finland’s pristine, snow-laden forests — make them seem wholly blissful and idyllic, like lands of milk and honey. And it is precisely these assumptions that enable Nordic noir to function as an agent of social critique. Scandinavian crime fiction utilizes the sociopolitical associations conjured up by its Scandinavian settings in order to throw into question the very notion that Nordic countries are as progressive as people and studies would have us believe. And that, in turn, helps us understand its international appeal.
In her essay “‘Men Who Hate Women’: Masculinities, Violence and the Gender Politics of Nordic Noir,” Katy Shaw elaborates on the genre’s sociopolitical critique, arguing that Nordic noir is: “[A] contemporary body of writings with historical roots in a heavy political subtext that betrays a wider dissatisfaction with both the demise of the welfare stare and the ideal of post-war utopianism in contemporary Scandinavia.”
To put it another way: there is trouble in paradise, and Nordic noir gives voice to the forbidden thought that the utopia might be a sham.
Consider, for instance, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestselling Department: Q series, which revolves around a police inspector named Carl Mørck who is tasked with creating and heading a new department (the titular “Q”) dedicated to investigating cold cases. Throughout the series, Adler-Olsen routinely pits Mørck against his superiors in the police department, who hide behind bureaucratic red tape and prioritize publicity over and above results. Then, of course, there’s the hit television series The Killing (2007) — not to be confused with the American series of the same name — with its intricately crafted tale of political corruption. Even more recent is the Icelandic noir Trapped (2015), in which a murder and a snowstorm lead a small town police department to uncover a deep-seated and sinister political unscrupulousness that leads all the way back to the nation’s capital, Reykjavík.
These are just a few examples but they’re far from exceptions to the rule. They’re indicative of a larger theme of political corruption that confutes the assertion that Scandinavian countries are Elysian.
Moreover, while Scandinavian crime fiction does indeed feature many strong and independent female characters, it often also makes use of sexual assault/abuse imagery to undermine the myth that gender equality has been attained. In fact, as Kersten Bergman astutely observes, one of the reasons that Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy “became one of the most widely discussed… [works] of Nordic crime fiction” is because of the scenes in which the protagonist is violently raped and subsequently returns to rape her assailant.
Katy Shaw even goes so far as to claim that Larsson’s work shows that “masculinity expressed by violence lies at the heart of the bourgeois neoliberal state.” At the very least, the recurrent specter of sexual abuse and violence in Larsson’s trilogy and scores of other works, including the TV shows The Bridge and Jordskott (2015) as well as Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels, points to an underlying depravity that casts these allegedly utopian societies in a much harsher light.
It’s tempting to examine the sociopolitical critique made by Nordic noir and conclude, as some like Bergman have, that the genre is popular among international audiences because it makes people feel good about themselves and their country to know that even the so-called happiest nations on earth are corrupt. If Sweden is actually as shady as Henning Mankell’s Wallander says — so goes this line of thinking — then we Americans don’t have it too bad. And while there’s a lot of merit to this argument, there’s more to the story.
The impetus for Nordic noir’s international appeal and its embedded sociopolitical commentary is not simply that, since all societies are corrupt, we can all take solace in our privileged positions in the capitalist West. It is also that all of the crime in Scandinavian crime fiction unearths our primal fears and realizations that we cannot bring about our own salvation — not even through the very best and most noble sociopolitical endeavors. Ultimately, therefore, with its corrupt, self-serving politicians, depraved and perverted antagonists, and deeply and tragically flawed protagonists, Nordic noir’s bone-chilling revelation is that no matter how much or how far we progress as a society, we are nonetheless limited, hindered, and weighed down by our corrupt natures. Or, as the prophet Jeremiah said long ago, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”
In a very real sense, then, Nordic noir and the surrounding fascination functions as a sort of cultural Freudian slip — an incarnation, admission, and acknowledgment of the reality that our hearts are naturally inclined towards evil. These Scandinavian crimes stories tap into our nature as “liturgical animals” and disclose our collective, deep-seated desire and need to confess our guilt and find ourselves pardoned. In spite of all the blood and murder and sex, Nordic noir fandom is not altogether unlike the weekly ritual in which citizens of every tribe, tongue, and nation gather together to say, “Forgive us trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And that is as startling and engrossing a premise as any ice-laden murder mystery.