Why are Scandinavians attracted to the dark and incomprehensive sides of human nature? Nordic Noir is often considered to be a specific genre of TV series, but you find it also in literature, film productions, video games and has even been extended to style, design and music. In this article we’re exploring Nordic Noir.
In my opinion, the Nordic Noir genre depicts a tension between the still and bland society in the Nordic countries. It has murder, misogyny, rape, mixed with racism that is illustrated as lying underneath. The setup is really dark but Nordic Noir remains a foreign term, as it is not used in the Nordic countries.
It might be the chilling temperatures, the long dark winter days and the vast stretches of bleak wilderness that have given birth to this grim crime fiction genre. Why does it fascinate me? The genre is not something that I consciously seek out, but maybe in one way or another I do because I find it fascinating and tremendously interesting. I find it exciting more than I find it unpleasant.
Its key elements include a murky atmosphere, dark narratives, and flawed protagonists. Its popularity may lie in the fact that it usually undercuts the dominant narrative of the Nordics as thriving states with happy people and successful economies – there is a dark underbelly here, too.
Many claim that the genre started in the 1990s Henning Mankell’s books on Kurt Wallander. The detective made the genre a mass phenomenon and was adapted in film and television. The hero of many mystery novels is set in and around the town of Ystad, near Malmö, Sweden.
However, in an article entitled Nordic crime fiction by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, you can read that crime fiction in the Nordic countries has a long history, with early examples being the Danish Steen Steensen Blicher’s Præsten i Vejlbye (1829) (The Pastor of Vejlbye, 1991) and the Norwegian Maurits Hansen’s detective story Mordet på Maskinbygger Roolfsen (1839) (The Murder of Engineer Roolfsen). But It is in the period since the Second World War, that Nordic crime fiction has contributed a growing number of globally successful authors.
From 1965-75, the Swedish author duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö laid the foundation for the genre with their ten-volume series about police inspector Martin Beck known as ‘Roman om ett brott’ (‘Report of a Crime’). The 1990s saw a new wave of crime writing when Nordic crime fiction began to emphasise social realism and criticism, gloomy Nordic locations and the trademark morose detective.
This period saw an increase in the popularity of writers like Norway’s Jo Nesbø, Sweden’s Stieg Larsson and Denmark’s Anders Bodelsen. Nordic crime fiction has been a significant sub-genre within crime fiction, and frequently uses the crime plot to interrogate many different aspects of the Nordic societies.
Related: Meet the Best Today’s Swedish Writers
From the printed page to the screen, these grisly crime dramas have gradually made their way from Scandinavia to the rest of the world. The multi-million industry now produces novels, TV shows, and movies to satiate a growing appetite for grotesque mysteries.
In films, the directing is plain and the writing style is without metaphor. The main characters are not without flaws and they also have their own issues and demons that they are battling. This makes them more relatable for the viewer hence the reason why they perhaps are so much loved by the public. The dramatic plots have viewers at the edge of their seats and immerse them in the exotic landscapes of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland.
Some critics have said that Scandinavian crime series are more “realistic, simple and precise… and stripped of unnecessary words”. Their antihero is usually a police detective worn down by cases in contrast to a simple hero who all can love and celebrate.
The visual aesthetics of Nordic Noir matches the morally complex mood and themes. The scenes are in desolate, haunting, snowy vistas and seeming calm and quiet neighborhoods. These settings are almost like a metaphor for the mysteries that await the detectives every day.
Nordic Noir has both contributed to, and benefitted from, the global ‘brand’ of the Nordic countries. It is a complex question whether the Nordics have intentionally and systematically ‘sold’ a particular brand to the rest of the world via institutions like the Nordic Council, or whether these images have been imposed by those outside the region. The University of Oslo Nordic Center has an ongoing Nordic study on Nordic Branding.
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy deals with misogyny and rape. Henning Mankell’s faceless killers focus on Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrant population. Both adaptations to the big screen and television were hugely popular in Scandinavia as well as abroad.
Nordic noir has led to a tourism boom in Scandinavian countries. Fans of Scandi Noir are eager to visit the locations that provided the backdrop of their favorite TV shows, movies and books.
If you’re intrigued and would like to take a deep dive into the dark world of Scandinavian Noir, we’ve rounded up some of the best Nordic Noir series and movies that you can watch while cozying up beside a warm fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate to comfort you.
Best Nordic Noir movies
This Norwegian thriller, adapted from Jo Nesbø’s 2008 novel, features the plight of head-hunter Roger Brown who moonlights as an art thief to pay for the lavish lifestyle he and his wife Diana aspires to have.
However, his quest takes a turn for the worse after he bumps into ex-Special Forces officer Clas Greve.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish psychological thriller based on the 2005 novel authored by Stieg Larsson.
Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) is a financial journalist who leaves his job after being convicted of libel for writing an article about billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerström.
Later, he is asked to find out what happened to a girl from a wealthy family who disappeared 40 years ago. With the help of a computer hacker, he sets off on his investigation and as he digs deeper, he discovers secrets that he never expected.
The Hunt (2013)
This acclaimed Danish drama film centers on the plight of a school teacher accused of pedophilia in the school that he teaches. After the accusations pile up, he loses his job. The movie is shot during the beautiful Danish autumn, enhancing its mood.
Swedish detective Jonas Engström (played by Stellan Skarsgård) travels to Norway’s arctic region to solve the case of the mysterious killing of a 17-year-old girl.
Things take a dramatic turn during his search for the hunter after he accidentally kills his partner and tries to cover it up.
Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)
This Danish film, based on the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, tells the story of a troubled detective assigned to a new basement-bound job called “Department Q” where he and his assistant, Assad, review case files and determine which ones can be closed.
One case about suspected suicide captured his attention, leading to an exciting investigation.
Nordic Noir series:
The Bridge (2011-2018)
This series is considered the one that started the Nordic Noir TV genre. When a woman’s body is found in the middle of Øresund Bridge, a bridge between Denmark and Sweden, Danish authorities consequently discover that there was not one murder, but two.
Danish inspector Martin Rohde and Swedish detective Saga Norén work together to solve the case.
This popular Finnish crime drama follows detective Sofia Karppi, a young female detective who recently lost her husband and is struggling to get back on track with her life while raising two children.
While investigating the murder of a social affairs consultant, she also discovers the body of a young woman at a construction site, which sets a chain of events that she didn’t anticipate.
Trapped (2015- 2018)
Trapped is about a real-life crime in a small coastal town in Iceland. Considering Iceland’s remarkably low murder rate (an average of less than two per year), the tale comes across as even more significant.
After a headless, limbless corpse is found in the harbor, a three-person police department tries to unravel the case. After a storm descends upon the town, they have no way to leave the area.
The Valhalla Murders (2019-2020)
In this crime drama, loosely based on a real-life story, Icelandic police office Arnar is sent back home from Oslo to help detective teams hunt down Reykjavik’s first serial killer.
Several victims were found brutally murdered, and after a chain of events, the team traced the murders back to a state-run boys’ home that shut down years ago.
Based on the bestselling Swedish novel by Malin Persson Giolito, the drama is told through the eyes of the protagonist, 18-year-old Maja, who is accused of murder after a school shooting took place in a school located in a wealthy suburb in Stockholm.
The storyline moves from the present day when she finds herself on trial and the events that led to the tragic day.
Scandinavian TV crime dramas are so different from action crime dramas that are characterized by car chases and fistfights. You know what you can expect in a crime drama. Dramas like the Wallander are often slow-paced with not much happening. But these dramas are usually so well written, performed in addition to having a brooding and atmospheric quality, along with superb cinematography.
Exploring Nordic Noir, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Photo by Michael Fousert/Unsplash