Friday, September 16, 2011

It’s Grim Up North

I finally got round to watching The Killing (or Fobrydelsen, to use the original title), which most English viewers will by now know actually translates to “the crime”. And for somebody so fond of Scandinavian crime as me, it was positively - cliché alert - criminal that I had yet to be acquainted with Sarah Lund’s splendid collection of knitwear. When it was originally screened back in Denmark I was living in London, blissfully ignorant of the jumper fever that had gripped the nation. It certainly didn’t grip my family. When the BBC decided to finally broadcast it, I was based in Berlin. True, the Germans acquired the rights too and then dubbed it. But I didn’t want to see Das Verbrechen, I wanted to see Forbrydelsen. It was already quite amusing watching the subtitled version with my English boyfriend and noticing that many of the colourful expressions with which Copenhageners regularly pepper their speech had not made it into English. “Tager du pis?” became the prim “are you being serious?”. Even taking into account differing cultural expectations, it was always my impression that a great number of Brits swear like perpetually pissed sailors. Which is one of the reasons why I feel so at home here.

Anyway, my Berlin bubble kept being burst by news of this paradigm shifting Danish export that held BBC4 viewers - my people - enthralled every week. The Guardian was crushing so hard on Sarah Lund’s Faroese wool - henceforth referred as THE JUMPER - that it even made the smooth grey Mad Men suits turn green with jealousy. The Killing was even threatening to usurp The Wire’s crown and to steal its status as THE MOST NUANCED PORTRAYAL OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY EVER. People would ask me if it was always this dark in Denmark (it’s called winter) and how you pronounced “Theis Birk Larsen” or “Vagn Skærbæk” without dislocating your vocal chords (you can’t). And did Danes really wear THE JUMPER? It soon became clear that I was contractually obliged to see it, lest I risk expulsion from the Guardian guild, particularly before the broadcast of the second series this autumn when I would be back on the island. So I dutifully bought the entire series on iTunes and prepared to go on a Scandinavian noir bender, because if it was anything like The Wire the default mode is always “boxed set binge”.

I liked it. I really did. It was a bittersweet treat to have so much screen time dedicated to the family of the murdered girl. It was a reminder that every crime has its victim, a rather obvious point but rarely one developed in the standard formula followed by crime fiction, where the focus is on the investigator. And the acting was solidly lead by the very talented Sophie Grabøl and the eminently watchable and charismatic Lars Mikkelsen (he and his brother Mads Mikkelsen take up far too much prime estate in my head. The scene where Lars takes off his shirt - to show his vulnerability of course - made my ovaries stand up and give a loud standing ovation). Perennially rainy Copenhagen was bathed in lush non-light that made perpetual winter look positively attractive. Hell, it even made me homesick, a feeling I normally only experience in summer. 

Now I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, as if anybody at this point would notice, but groundbreaking it wasn’t. Maybe BBC 4 viewers haven’t read and watched as much crime fiction as I (probably a good thing), but to me it was blindingly obvious who it was from around episode 3. The meta-narrative was just too predictable. It was meant to be dark and gritty, which normally translates into the expected shattering of domestic bliss and the crumble of institutions that are dear to us, like democracy. And it was it was 20 episodes long, so you could watch the first three episodes and the last two and not miss too much background, apart from more red herrings than a Christmas Day smorgasbord. You _know_ that the suspect in episode 4 was not going to be the killer. But then maybe he was, because I had repeatedly been told that The Killing challenged more conventions than an Iranian art house film at Sundance. In fact, since I’ve heard it had such a shocking ending, I spent considerable time building increasingly byzantine theories to dissuade myself from the textbook ending I had already sensed earlier in the series. I was desperately seeking subversion, I _wanted_ to see semiotic subversion everywhere, like a poststructuralist third-wave feminist analysing Almodóvar cinematography. This never came. As much as I enjoyed watching it, it would have been a less neurotic experience, and therefore slightly anticlimactic, if viewers had filled in my Scandinavian bingo card beforehand. I could thus have more accurately assessed its revolutionary credentials.

I would like people to complete it _before_ the start of season 2 due this autumn:

1) Does it assume GRITTY means REALISTIC?

2) Does everybody end up depressed and miserable? And by everybody I mean everybody. Scandinavians are very literal people. We’re not only talking about the victim/s family/partner/friends but also the police, and neighbours, and distant relatives and acquaintances. And their Facebook friends. The police’s Facebook friends. The Facebook friends of Facebook friends. That random guy in episode 2 who was asking for directions. His Facebook friends. In fact everybody involved should just join Google+ and add each other to the all-engulfing circle of misery.

3) Does there seem to be a shortage of lightbulbs / sunlight in general?

4) If the investigator is male, is he an alcoholic? Does he have - at least one - a failed marriage? If she is female, does she get branded mentally unstable at some point? Does her long-suffering partner leave her at some point? (I presume that Sarah Lund is also familiar with this convention and has already prepared for this inevitability by dating a psychologist.)

5) Does anybody have time to finish eating their already harried kebab, pizza or burger grabbed from the local take away run by the token friendly “totally integrated” immigrant to remind the viewer that Scandinavian capitals are like SO MULTIETHNIC (read “gritty”, see point 1)

6) Corruption: is something rotten in the state of Denmark (read: EVERYTHING, see point 2)

7) Is the happy Scandinavian welfare model just a mirage? Are you being shown the dark underbelly of this seemingly perfect society where everybody is actually miserable, or will be soon (see point 2) and from which not even their stylish knitwear or flair for interior decoration can protect them?

8) Do bad things happen in woods? Do people go into woods despite knowing that bad things happen in woods? Are they familiar with Hansel and Gretel?

9) The weather heightens the misery:

Choose between these options:

a) It’s raining, ideally a constant drizzle that makes everybody soggy and miserable. A corpse appears. Everybody’s day, especially the corpse’s, just got more soggy and miserable.

b) It has been heavily snowing, and a frozen corpse of woman appears the day after. It’s always a woman and she is always described as a macabre ice figure or a morbidly beautiful snow queen. I think there’s some metaphor or deep cultural commentary here. So far I’ve only managed “don’t be a woman when it snows in Scandinavia”.

c) There’s a heat wave, i.e. More than 20 degrees celsius and a less than fragrant corpse appears in the woods (see point 8). The investigator/s spend the entire book sweating like an overripe stilton. Apparently nobody has heard of air conditioning in Scandinavia. This mystery is never resolved.

10) It stars one of the Mikkelsen brothers, preferably shirtless. If it contains both, just drop everything and alert me immediately.This point might not be necessarily related with any of the ones above. Or the article at all.

I will add more points as they occur to me but that should do for the moment.