writer: Agata Mayer
Nordic noir, also known as Scandi noir or Cold noir, has now gone beyond its original status of a Scandinavian narrative genre encompassing crime novels, movies and TV series. Having penetrated deep into the mainstream, it is an essential part of popular culture and Scandinavia’s claim to global fame.
Although it pertains only to Scandinavia, the term Nordic noir is not used locally and is itself an amalgam of English and French words. Until 2010, the genre did not carry a specific name, being described simply as Nordic or Scandinavian crime fiction. Introduced by Gunhild Moltesen Agger, a professor of Scandinavian studies at the University College of London and accomplished researcher of Danish media, with a focus on television drama, film, crime fiction and national identity in a globalized world, the term Nordic noir was subsequently picked up by British journalists.
Today, numerous articles on this topic are published in the popular press and scientific periodicals alike. The international successes of cinematic adaptations are meticulously analyzed. New aspects of the trend arise, local tourism is booming, catering to those who would like to visit places depicted in their beloved books and TV shows, and writing crime fiction has become a regular job and a handsomely paid professional career. In literature and film, Nordic noir has acquired timeless prominence, extending through decades and cultures. Although some argue that the genre has lost its genuine appeal and distinctiveness through excess supply and countless reiteration of similar motifs, Nordic noir practitioners keep on writing screenplays, proving that the opposite is true.
Until the 1990s, Scandinavian crime fiction was produced largely by male writers, famous examples being works by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson (the Millenium series) or Henning Mankell, another master of contemporary detective stories. In the midst of the decade, following the rise of feminism and the resulting shift of social roles, women took over the writing business, ushering in a new literary phenomenon known as femi-crime, which deals only with female characters. Its proliferation resulted in a reversal of traditional gender roles, motivated by the observation that Nordic noir had been too long preoccupied with the existential condition of men, especially in view of the modern trend to highlight women, a notion that is taken very seriously in Scandinavia.
Female writers, such as Camilla Läckberg, Liza Marklund and Karin Fossum, hailed as “Nordic queens of crime” by the media, introduced strong and independent heroines of the North, standing out from the crowd of weak and frustrated male characters.
The 1990s proved to be a turning point also with regard to cinematic adaptations of Scandinavian literature. Many books were internationally translated, which paved the way for big-budget movies based on the output of Scandinavian writers. Today, famous Scandinavian novels, movies and TV series are a source of cinematic inspiration not only in the United States, but also in France, Germany, the British Isles and, increasingly so, in Poland.
Mirror of the everyday
Nordic noir revolves around mystery and sinister intrigue, which fits in perfectly with the North’s air of melancholy. Set in the context of a detective riddle, committed crime, violence, power, corruption, abnormal behavior or some kind of obsession, the genre becomes a metaphor of current social sentiments, undermining the myth of a welfare state and pointing out to its defective aspects. Depending on the Scandinavian country in question and the dominant social issues, different topics are brought up, including politics, migration, foreign cultural influence, feminism or sexuality. Protagonists are often controversial and ambiguous, struggling with their identity, spirituality, nationality or lack of skill to communicate with others, suffering from depression, alienation or serious addiction. On the other hand, they usually exhibit extraordinary qualities, such as brilliant intelligence, keen observance and aesthetic refinement. They stand up to life and that is why readers are fond of them, being able to relate to the universal nature of their dilemmas. And all of this is presented against a backdrop of the sapphire-hued light of the North, a unique and intriguing characteristic, which is lacking even in other countries located within the same climate zone.
Black is black
It should be noted that, regardless of the artistic genre, the recurring Scandinavian theme of supernatural gloom, bringing to mind Nordic shamanism or ancient Viking sagas, serves as a means to express existential moods and doubts. Nordic noir practitioners often struggle with various illnesses, addictions and mental demons in real life, engaging in the creative process while intoxicated, under great suffering or on the never-ending quest for inner self, as in the case of the eccentric Lars von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn or the Swedish humanist luminary Ingmar Bergman, a master of moral reflection and the “vemod” feel. This is why the world seen through their eyes is so intriguing and mentally engrossing. Unlike with most Hollywood movies, it is devoid of fine-tuning, which entails more complexity and less accessibility for the average audience, but at the same time commands respect and makes for a truly genuine experience. This is the kind of Scandinavia that I discovered during long months of travel across remote native forests and mountains, learning local culture, gaining insight into ancient customs and often reaching locations where directors such as Lasse Hallström, Ingmar Bergman, Thomas Vinterberg, Susanne Bier or David Fincher shot their famous movies.
Thrill-seekers on vacation
The gloomy Scandinavian atmosphere attracts not only readers, movie-goers, TV viewers and artists. Nowadays, it also serves as a magnet for tourists from around the world. The Nordic noir phenomenon has given rise to movie-related tourism, often referred to as set-jetting, an activity consisting in traveling to iconic places featured in one’s favorite TV series, movie or crime novel. Fans of the genre undertaking a journey in the footsteps of Nordic noir protagonists are assisted by leaflets covering recommended trips and dedicated mobile applications. In Stockholm, such landmarks include sites depicted in the Millenium series. As for Copenhagen, there are specialized city tours focused on locations appearing in cult-followed TV series. Sightseeing operators argue that the harsh local climate adds to the experience and highlights other attractions, not directly related to the crime topic. Located in Skania, the small town of Ystad attracts visitors as the birthplace of Kurt Wallander, a famous police inspector invented by writer Henning Mankell. With a population of little over 18 thousand, Ystad has become a must-see for Wallander’s fans, the site of festivals and, most importantly, a movie production hub, represented by world-renowned companies such as Ystad Studios or Yellow Bird, the latter founded by Danish producer Ole Søndberg and… Henning Mankell.
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