Notes on Nordic Noir as European Popular Culture

By Olof Hedling

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In 2009-2010 Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of books, featuring the pairing of investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, achieved an unparalleled international success. The books became a hyper-bestseller phenomenon, in crime fiction “perhaps comparable only to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)”.[1] Since the books had been published in their country of origin, Sweden, a few years earlier, a domestic feature film adaptation of the first volume was thus ready to be released at about the same time as the English translations of the novels were published. The allegedly Swedish film – actually a Danish, Swedish, German, Norwegian co-production, written, directed and produced by Danish talent Niels Arden Oplev – used Swedish dialogue, was domestically set in wintry, dark landscapes and starred home grown actors, at the time presumably unfamiliar to international audiences.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / Män som hatar kvinnor (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009), went on to sell over 1.217 million tickets in Swedish cinemas. In the neighbouring countries of Denmark and Norway it equally attracted much interest and a further 1.5 million admissions. In addition, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo continued to perform well all over Europe, in North America and in a number of additional territories around the world. In France alone it was theatrically distributed in no less than 554 copies. By 2011, according to The Council of Europe’s film database LUMIERE, 9,392,228 people had paid admission in 38 European countries and in the US to watch the movie.[2] Given that the main production company has stated that the film was launched in over 50 countries – more than ten more than those covered by the aforementioned figures – it does not seem exceptionally bold to speculate that the film has attracted more than ten million paying moviegoers globally. For a Swedish film these achievements are without precedent even if accurate comparisons are difficult to make due to a lack of international historic data.

In a recent inquiry into Scandinavian crime fiction – or Nordic Noir, Nordicana, or Scando-noir, while in French le polar polaire and in German Schwedenkrimi – it is suggested that it “has become a familiar brand in North America and Europe since the 1990s”.[3] This appears true if perhaps not perfectly nuanced. The description does not take into account the wider breakthrough, or the “paving the way” effect, that the Millennium trilogy spearheaded, leading to a more extensive awareness of the brand, to broader interest and distribution of books, television shows and feature films; also mirrored in a mounting international scholarly inquiry.[4]

Nor does it quite consider the audiovisual turn of the phenomenon. Here, the original film and its American remake, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011) stand out as pivotal moments, while being well supplemented by comparatively high-profile television serials such as The Killing / Forbrydelsen (Søren Sveistrup, 2007), The Bridge / Bron (Hans Rosenfeldt, 2011) and the various incarnations of Wallander (various authors, 1994-2014).[5] These were all broadcasted and distributed through several media channels across Europe and North America in a way no Scandinavian television production ever was previously, with perhaps the one single exception being Ingmar Bergman’s six-part series Scenes From a Marriage / Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973). A further aspect is obviously that several of the aforementioned series have spawned geographically relocated adaptations or reworkings by a predominantly Anglophone film and television industry. Additionally, the wide transnational dissemination of the crime genre has paved the way for other kinds of content from the region at hand, like for instance the Danish political drama Borgen (Adam Price, 2010).

In what follows, Scandinavian crime, in its filmic and televisual incarnations, will be considered on its relative merits as a transnationally successful, but regionally based, European popular cultural expression. Moreover, this brief inquiry will be conducted against a backdrop which briefly traces the history and some of the obstacles which historically have limited the transnational circulation of European popular culture.

The Limited Circulation of European Popular Culture

During the last hundred years or so, popular culture – films, popular novels and pop and rock music – from the individual nation states that together make up Europe, and with the notable exception of the British variety, have principally been met with suspicion by both distributors and audiences in neighbouring countries. It has, as a result, been called a “truism” to say that popular films within national or subnational genres have not travelled well.[6]

The transnational circulation that has existed within the field of theatrical feature film instead appears to have occurred within the more limited sector concerned with art film and auteur cinema, or, in short, “European Art Cinema”. Here, as Tim Bergfelder has noted, a more developed and well-supported infrastructure has been in place, consisting of, “a cross-European distribution network built on the marketing of festivals and prizes […], a mode of exhibition centered on the […] art-house cinema; and, finally, a network of journals and newspapers committed both to the spirit and to the industrial framework of this practice”.[7]

With regard to television, a further pattern of exchange has been characteristic. Hence, the exchange and “copying” seem to have been concerned mainly with certain formats and the adaption of specific programmes particular to national institutional frameworks. The production, broadcasting and audience have, consequently for the most part remained domestic in nature.[8]

There are evidently exceptions to this outline. British audiovisual production, notably television series such as Downton Abbey (Julian Fellowes, 2010-ongoing) to take a recent example, and popular music have continuously been able to assert themselves across Europe and quite often globally. Similarly, while going back almost half a century, Italian cinema went through a highly successful phase during especially the 1960s and early 1970s, today perhaps only known because of Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood-starring Man with No Name Trilogy (1964-1966), but at the time also producing notable work in the thriller/horror and crime/action genres that were widely distributed and seen. While production soared, dominance in the home market was increasingly established, the films were successfully distributed in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, South America and the Far East. Consequently, it has been pointed out, “[f]or a brief and exciting moment, it appeared that Cinecittà and Via Veneto would challenge Hollywood and Beverly Hills”.[9]

Seen from a non-Anglophone perspective, the Italian push was at least in part spurred by practices such as co-production, nurturing transnational stardom- including importing talent from the US and abroad- dubbing the films into English, occasionally anglicising names, while incessantly monitoring genre trends – the historical epic, the western, the spy movie – and the like on the international scene. It has also been suggested that the films, in a sense, were “masquerading as American”, and additionally, that the practices represent a process of transculturation, whereby “subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture”.[10] In various ways these practices may be understood as strategies of cultural adaptation, familiarisation and can, in many ways, be seen as efforts to create a transnational European cinema product. For a time, the Italian practices apparently worked even if the films were often viewed with condescension.[11] Similarly, within other forms of popular culture, both Continental and Scandinavian pop and rock music acts (pop quartet ABBA and album-oriented quintet Europe in Sweden, generations of German producers of pop and disco come to mind), similar strategies have been deployed with comparable, both critical (held in low regard) and commercial (successful), results.[12]

What unites these kinds of strategies and attempts, can be explicated as an aspiration to minimise culturally diverse discursive practices or, in other words, a wish to diminish what has been termed the cultural discount, an effect which has been defined by the ways in which a media artefact rooted in one culture, and thus attractive in that environment, will have a diminished appeal elsewhere as viewers find it difficult to identify with the style, values, beliefs, institutions and behavioural patterns of the material in question. Included in the cultural discount are reductions in appreciation due to dubbing or subtitling.[13]

Together with this brief outline of the limited circulation of European popular culture, transculturation and cultural discount will serve as points of departure in the following discussion.

The Relative Transnational Merits of Scandinavian Crime

Assessing Scandinavian audiovisual crime, its increasingly wide distribution among geographically and linguistically varied audiences while having the earlier limited circulation in mind, several roads of inquiry present themselves.

Accordingly, it can be said that as a nationally or regionally grounded cultural form, Scandinavian crime has overcome an extended tradition of obstacles caused by cultural, and notably linguistic, divisions between different regions and parts that together makes up a heterogeneous continent. One explanation for this can clearly be ascribed to the previously mentioned process of transculturation. As is commonly acknowledged, contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction very much came into existence through the example set by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and their ten novels about inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues, written from the late 1960s on. As former translators of a number of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, they consciously made a break with earlier examples of Swedish crime writing. Instead they turned to McBain’s hard boiled tradition of police procedurals as a model, politicising the police procedural en route, while additionally establishing the genre firmly on Swedish turf.[14] Scandinavian crime can, as a result, be seen as an encounter between marginal and regional traditions and American/global popular culture, somehow resembling earlier European attempts like the Italian spaghetti western or the abovementioned musical endeavours.

Nevertheless, and despite the accomplishments, it is still possible to detect how the reception abroad of Scandinavian crime is, in certain ways, simultaneously marked by lingering forms of suspicion and limited tolerance in ways traditionally associated with the reception of indigenous forms of European popular culture. The cultural discount effect is still very much detectable, implying that the transnational circulation and viewing, at least of the Scandinavian version of Nordic Noir, conceivably is not as widespread as may have been assumed. As a concluding exercise to this brief examination, four such instances, all that is connected to the area of international distribution and consumption will be briefly assessed.

First, a comparatively straightforward display of a particular European audience’s suspicion towards non-Anglophone audiovisual entertainment can be seen when juxtaposing the UK ratings of the Swedish language Wallander series with the English language ones. Although the first Swedish series shown in the UK was produced in 2004-2005, it was first broadcasted on BBC Four, more or less concurrently with the first three Kenneth Branagh-starring episodes, starting in late 2008. Notwithstanding the fact that the Swedish series was in fact broadcasted in the UK, was much lauded in Sweden as a considerable occasion, the manifest interest of UK audiences must be described as narrow. While the first three Branagh episodes, broadcasted on BBC One, attracted between 6.63 and 5.72 million viewers, the audience for the first thirteen Swedish episodes stayed pretty consistent at just under a half a million.[15] In other words, the aggregated British audience for the Swedish language, subtitled versions were less than one tenth of the one watching Kenneth Branagh get acquainted with the Swedish surroundings around the town of Ystad.

Of course, the difference could be ascribed to issues such as star power, the unfamiliarity of the Swedish cast and the spoken language, differing production values, the channel of the broadcast and possibly also to that vague entity, the “quality” of the creation. To a certain extent, several of these factors may have contributed; however, the most decisive issue can probably be attributed to the way the Swedish language version had to be “translated”, through the use of subtitles. As Tim Bergfelder has remarked regarding the “translation” of non-Anglophone audiovisual material in Britain, “dubbing is habitually seen as a fundamental rupture in cinematic realism or verisimilitude and therefore largely rejected […] Subtitles, on the other hand, are viewed as a more acceptable form of translation, yet simultaneously the practice is perceived by the majority of audiences as ‘difficult’”.[16] Moreover, Bergfelder continues, “as a consequence this has […] created a fairly select and elite audience for foreign films in Britain”.[17] Apparently then, by just using the native languages, Scandinavian film and television, appears to not qualify as an extensively consumed popular culture in Britain from the beginning.

Second, a similar pattern can be detected when comparing the reception of the films based on the first book in Larsson’s Millennium series. As mentioned earlier, the “Swedish” film can in many ways be considered an international success, a circumstance which actually may be further highlighted by the fact that it was released by its UK distributor in both dubbed and subtitled versions. In a forthcoming study, however, Lucy Mazdon has placed this success factor under scrutiny; this includes comparing the film’s performance to David Fincher’s Hollywood remake. “While Oplev’s film was successful on the international market”, Mazdon writes:

It was successful for a foreign language film and, to some extent, because it emulated the conventions of Hollywood. The United Kingdom gross for Oplev’s film was $2,342,433, a respectable achievement. However, when we compare this with the UK gross for Fincher’s version, $18,796,728, we can see the huge challenges still facing non-English language cinema in English-speaking markets.[18]

In addition, Mazdon’s argument gains further vigour by the fact that Fincher’s film was widely perceived as having performed below expectationsat the theatrical box office.[19]

Third, spending the spring of 2014 at a large public university in a college town in the American Midwest, I had the opportunity to make some subjective observations into ways Scandinavian crime was known and perceived post the “paving the way” effect of Millennium. Immediately, I could not help but notice that the TiVo device in the house I rented from a retired professor was full of subtitled Wallander episodes. Likewise, my local, independent DVD and Blu-ray store published top ten lists regarding which “international” movies and TV-series their customers rented most frequently. As I checked during a week in early February, something titled Wallander series 1, produced back in 2004-2005, occupied the third spot, just behind two seasons of Downton Abbey. Wallander, consequently, was placed very highly while other, more critically valued, recent Scandinavian television productions like the acclaimed Danish crime procedural The Killing (2008), occupied a rather elevated position on the list as well. Moreover, people I came across often displayed a bit of knowledge of and interest in the phenomenon while expressing polite enthusiasm for it in general.

But despite these recurrent encounters, one may have reservations about how they reflect the wider reception of Scandinavian crime in the US. After all, this was a university town and most of the people whom I met, as well as the customers frequenting the particular independent rental store, were most likely on the extreme part of the scale regarding factors such as cultural orientation, educational level, language skills and general know-how about foreign cultures when compared to the overall population. Getting out of this environment, visiting the mainstream rental chain Family Video, Swedish language Wallander was nowhere to be found (the British produced one was, however). Similarly, the cable channel where the Swedish version was shown appeared rather on the margins, its programming largely consisting of subtitled shows.

Consequently, as far as the viewing of Scandinavian crime in the US goes, at least in its subtitled form, the viewers somehow resemble the kind of fairly select and elite audiences that Bergfelder, in a continuation of the argument about the “difficulty” of subtitles, points out is often typical of art house cinema consumption. The subtitles, the Swedish dialogue, the authenticity and its situated position outside the mainstream with regard to the US cultural sphere, thus appear to be the somewhat paradoxical attractions to the existing, what must be considered far from mainstream, audience.

Fourth and finally, the remake industry and the geographically relocated adaptations that Scandinavian crime have so far propelled, can evidently be seen in a number of perspectives but still must be seen in an ambiguous light.[20] On the one hand, remakes seem to work as some kind of acknowledgement of recognition. They are also a source of further income for the original producers through the selling of rights. They thus serve as a kind of financial note of acceptance in that the stories and the concepts apparently are considered of more than just of national or regional interest.

On the other hand, however, the Anglophone remakes are also testimony to the viewpoint that the original Scandinavian productions are in some sense lacking or, put another way, too associated with the effect of cultural discount. Rather than to simply buy the rights to the original and broadcast it, broadcasters and distributors clearly consider it to be less of a risk, putting up considerable extra funds for a new production. Despite the huge cost, treating the original as just a pre-sold property while producing anew, having American or British actors deliver the dialogue in English and perhaps letting them inhabit a more familiar environment to where the story has been relocated, appear to be the established, presumably secure practice to create a wider international appeal.[21]

To conclude, coming from a somewhat geographically isolated part of Europe, stereotypically associated with slow-paced, broody dramas and art cinema à la Bergman, if with any kind of films and television shows at all, the increasing transnational distribution and reception of Nordic Noir represents an indisputable advance. However, whatever the perceived success, the above accounted for instances of reception, particularly in the US and the UK, testifies to a situation where the effect of cultural discount still lingers on. Despite strategies of cultural adaptation, transculturation and attempts at making the geographic margins familiar, efforts to create transnational European audiovisual popular culture beyond the Anglophone sphere still seem hard fought. Notwithstanding Europeanisation, globalisation and transnationalism, the clash with the remnants of a traditional national identity and language remains.

 


[1] Kerstin Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir (Milano; Udine: Mimesis DeGenere, 2013), p. 27.

[2] See “Lumiere: Database on admissions of films released in Europe”, The Council of Europe, <http://lumiere.obs.coe.int/> [Accessed 10/06/14].

[3] Paula Arvas and Andrew Nestingen, “Introduction: Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction,” in Scandinavian Crime Fiction, ed. Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), p. 1.

[4] Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction, p. 27.

[5] The more than forty instalments of Wallander, starring Swedish actors Rolf Lassgård and Krister Henriksson or British actor Kenneth Branagh, seem to be internationally recognised as movies or episodes made primarily for television and or DVD distribution. This is in a sense true since German, Scandinavian and British television companies have supplied the main funding for the productions. Nonetheless, in Sweden, and occasionally the other Scandinavian countries, several of these instalments have been theatrically distributed and exhibited as well. Due to earlier regulations regarding Swedish film support, which some of the instalments have received, this was a mandatory procedure to be eligible for such production funding.

[6] Tim Bergfelder, “National, Transnational or Supranational Cinema? Rethinking European Film,” Media, Culture, Society 27 (2005): p. 325.

[7] Bergfelder, “National, Transnational or Supranational Cinema?,” p. 318.

[8] Eggo Müller, “European Crimewatches: Aktenzeichen XY’s European Circulation in a Comparative Perspective,” Media History 16(1), (2010): p. 83.

[9] Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, (New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 143-144.

[10] Dimitris Eleftheriotis, Popular Cinemas of Europe: Studies of Texts, Contexts and Frameworks (New York: Continuum, 2001), p. 108; p. 101.

[11] Bergfelder, “National, Transnational or Supranational cinema?,” p. 327.

[12] The German producer and singer-songwriter Frank Farian (real name Franz Reuther) and his creation, the vocal group Boney M can exemplify this trend. Boney M scored several number one hits such as “Daddy Cool” and “Ma Baker” and enjoyed huge record sales all over Europe, and some in the US, during the second part of the 1970s. Farian’s name change, his decision to align the music with the burgeoning international disco trend, have the group sing in English (he sang all male voices himself) while putting together three photogenique women and one man from the Caribbean, all with English names (doubtless intended to suggest some form of African-American origin) together with having the album’s cover art in English can be seen as practices very similar to those used by Italians when making and distributing westerns in the 1960s. At the same time, the albums were recorded in Frankfurt, produced by Farian/Reuther and consisted of songs written in German, Italian (and occasionally English) but all translated into English. Swedish group Europe, similarly, anglicised their names, consciously practiced their English pronunciation when singing and at first possible moment approached producers with international experiences of making commercially successful hard rock. In 1986 the group scored a substantial hit with “The Final Countdown”, a number one in 26 countries although only a number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. In line with the moniker Italian Spaghetti Western, Boney M might perhaps be described as “German Kraut Disco” and Europe as “Swedish Meat Balls Hard Rock”.  To compare these examples with the aforementioned practices in Italian film in the 1960s, see Dimitris Eleftheriotis’ above cited chapter in Popular Cinemas of Europe: Studies of Texts, Contexts and Frameworks (New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 93-133. Additionally, see the general discussion about cultural imperialism, authenticity, hybridity and the use of English in popular music in David Hesmondhalgh, The Cultural Industries, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: London et al.: Sage, 2013), pp. 301-304.

[13] Colin Hoskins and Rolf Mirus, “Reasons for U.S. Dominance of the International Trade in Television Programmes,” Media, Culture & Society 10 (1988): p. 500.

[14] Arvas and Nestingen, “Introduction: Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction”, in Scandinavian Crime Fiction, ed. Andrew Nestingen and Paula Arvas, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 1-3. See also Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction, p. 22.

[15] Numbers have been collected at several sites but generally those ascribed to the British Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) have been used, <http://www.barb.co.uk/> [Accessed 13/06/14]..

[16] Bergfelder, “National, Transnational or Supranational cinema?”, pp. 327-328.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lucy Mazdon, “Hollywood and Europe: Remaking The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in The Europeanness of European Cinema, ed. Mary Harrod, Mariana Liz and Alissa Timoshkina, (London: IB Tauris, forthcoming).

[19] Cf. Laura Hertzfeld, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Lots of hype, but weak box office. What gives?,” Entertainment Weekly, <http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/12/26/dragon-tattoo-box-office/> [Accessed 13/06/14].

[20] Examples of remakes are The Killing (Veena Sud, 2011), set in Seattle, The Bridge set in El Paso and Ciudad Juaréz and The Tunnel (Ben Richards, 2013) set in Folkestone and Calais.

[21] Constantine Vereis, Film Remakes (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), p. 3.


Notes on Contributor

Olof Hedling teaches film studies at Lund University, Sweden and has published extensively on the phenomena of European film policy and regional film and television production. He has been the co-author and co-editor of Historical Dictionary of Scandinavian Cinema (2012) and Regional Aesthetics: Locating Swedish Media (2010). He spent the spring of 2014 as a Hildeman Award Fulbright Fellow at the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.