Tag Archives: Swedish Crime

At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

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Showing at the Showroom: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

What started off as something rather unknown and unassuming has come full circle, and reached as satisfactory a conclusion as could be hoped for. The story of ‘The Girl,’ the hacker with sleuthing skill beyond expectation becomes the focus in the final instalment, where the injustices against her are brought to trial, but not without some daft low-rent action distractions en route.

First things first: those approaching the series for the first time are directed elsewhere, because this conclusion won’t make a blind bit of sense otherwise. The story picks up straight where the second one left off, leaving us slap bang in the middle of a bloody standoff, with Lisbet splatterd and dazed like some misplaced ‘last girl left’ evacuee from a horror film. When the next scene cuts to The Shady Conspiracy of Old Men discussing how best to silence a rogue agent, well that won’t make a jot of sense without any context. To the unprompted eye it’s just a living room full of aged Swedish actors (predominantly off the telly) discussing a ‘problem’ over some coffee. Not so much Jason Bourne, more like afternoon tea with my grandparents.

But where the weakness of the second installment lay in the shonky action sequences and general Bond-villian driven nonsense, the final film draws in some of the files-and-archives detective work of the first film to strike a tolerable middle ground. The story is split between the detective work of the journalists trying to patch together Lisbeth’s past for the case against the state, all while the shadowy agents of the very same system work desperately to cover their tracks. You wouldn’t know it from the start, but the film quickly sets about building some momentum towards a knockout courtroom confrontation.

Considering how anemic the Swedish legal system is in dramatic terms (think beige conferences suites, not wigs, gavels, and screaming lawyers) the film still manages to coax out some explosive confrontations as the film turns towards the dismantling of the titular Air Castle** of the original Swedish title. Having been through five hours of one hacker against the whole Swedish-model-of-social-responsibility-GONE-WRONG, well safe to say it’s quite cathartic to see it all so meticulously demolished, misogynist prick by misogynist prick.

Neither of the sequels ever hits the sure-footedness  of the first film, but if you’ve come this far then you’d be daft not to catch the final installment.  Just don’t make this the last Swedish film you see in the next five years…

Three out of Five.

[Note to Cinemas: please don’t make this the last Swedish film you screen for the next five years]

[Note to the Swedish Film Industry: please don’t make this the only film worth screening in the next five years. Seriously.]

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 26th of November 2010

** As with the Swedish titles of the previous installments, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest bears bugger all resemblance to the original: Luftslottet Som Sprängdes, which in literal translation is The Air-Castle Which Exploded. The term Luftslott/Air-Castle is an odd one, broadly speaking a lofty notion or institution built effectively on nothing but hot air. So to modify a straight forward translation that was suggested to me, consider The Bubble Which Blew Up. Or to take a further liberty: The Exploded Pie in the Sky. Now that would make a snappy title.

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A Swedish Crime Overlooked

No two ways about it, the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international  fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

By this measure Swedish critics easily dismissed The Girl Who Played with Fire, as well as the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their origin as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, yet there are still critics who seem proud to champion the film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning  Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: Insp. Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: Mannen På Taket (The Man on the Roof). Crudely pitched as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, ending in a dramatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. Another comedian assumes the role of Beck, and the older Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt underplays an already understated character brilliantly. As the frustrations of the inquiry slowly starts to unravel in Beck’s hands, the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Branagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection‘s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. The Swedish DVD release of The Man on the Roof idiotically doesn’t list that it has English subtitles, even when it does have them. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in the wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary, yet but my measure cringingly leaden original novel. At it’s heart the source material follows an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, desperately trying to maintain the façade of day to day life.  

  

The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the voice of two ethnic minorities, the whole thing rang thoroughly hollow to me. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension of it’s ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials. In the adaptation to the big screen a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from anglophone market until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but it just goes to show that Swedish rights holders are still oblivious to the value of what they have in their hands.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

hate to be one in a minority of Anglophones to say this, but the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Fast Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

Accordingly Swedish critics absolutely panned Played with Fire, as well as the Dragon Tattoo, and the films origins as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the Anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The Anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, there are still critics who seem proud to champion this film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: inspector Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: The Man on the Roof. Crudely billed as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, followed by a climatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. The frustrations of all their inquiry slowly starts to unravel at Beck’s hands, and the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Brannagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection’s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. While The Man on the Roof DVD doesn’t have English subtitles, there are fan translations out there. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Fast Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary yet but my measure cringingly leaden source material. Focused on an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, while maintaining the façade of day to day life. The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the dialect of two prominent ethnic minorities range thoroughly hollow to this reader. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension to the tales ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials.  

In the adaptation to film a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from Anglophone markets until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but just goes to show that Swedish rights holders still seem oblivious to the value of what they have.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

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Some Blue Eyed Revisionism

Men Who Hate Women (or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as the publishers will insist on calling it) is just a week away from it’s UK wide release, and the TV/newspaper wide coverage is starting to reach fever pitch. The booming voice has slipped into a TV spot even more breathless than the knuckleheaded advert discussed in the last post, and from a few adverts in the papers it seems like every publication and its’ dog is giving MWHW (aka TGWTDT) a solid four, if not five out of five.

Which is no bad thing, as I can’t think of a single Swedish title which has ever had comparable pre-release hype. Take your pick of any worthy or big Swedish classic, and I can assure you it’s never found 30 seconds of airtime during the advert break of Death Wish on ITV. The Swedish film industry has desperately been striving for an international breakthrough hit that will warrant the attention of the non-arthouse masses, and up until now repeated been failing at the task miserably. Case in point: the collossal flop that was Arn: The Knight Templar, a multilingual mess of a crusading action film. Built on a successful trilogy of books by a multimillion selling indigenous author, I doubt Svensk Filmindustri have ever thrown so much money in the direction of a single film. When said film then flops to the point of not even breaking the British or American DVD market, then you’re talking about a film of a sub-Seagal standards, without the comfort of the unintentional laughs.

Along comes another multimillion selling trilogy of Swedish books that are, shock horror, actually pretty good in the first place. But talk of not knowing a good thing when you see it, Stieg Larsson’s smash trilogy is optioned, and then commissioned for Swedish television. Recording starts, and it seems that halfways through the recording of the first book someone had the bright idea that maybe this could be sold much better internationally as a feature film. The rest as they say, is history.

It seems to be a trend that top-drawer television is growing to struggle with more and more, and the issue has been echoed in the UK with the Red RidingTrilogy . Another trio of feature length TV specials with a strong literary source, shot with big indigenous names in front of the camera, and genuine visionaries behind it the end product is programme which literarlly pops off the screen. The trilogy has been touring across the States garnering wholly justified ecstatic write-ups from every corner smart enough to look in it’s direction. To have the New York Review of books declare the trilogy ‘better than The Godfather’ carries no small weight. Even Swedish critics have been looking across at the trilogy with hungry eyes, calling for a similar mini-tour to put the ‘film’ back where it belongs: the cinema.

[for fine words on Red Riding and it’s striking/stifling use of location and landscape, you could do a lot worse than check out David Forrest’s take on ‘The North as Abstract’ over at Words on What I’ve Seen.]

While Red Riding has found it’s feet abroad as a markedly British art feature, the selling of the first part in what the distributors are calling ‘The Girl’ trilogy is being played on completely different terms. Audiences familiar with the Anglicized version of Wallander will be more than prepared for ‘The Girl’, as it comes from exactly the same production company (Yellow Bird Films), utilising a lot of the same crew in the production of the film. Both have a very similar feel, bleached colours palettes, following broken souls looking for answers in a series of brutal acts, which in part are endemic of Sweden’s national failings.

The audience unfortunate enough to be stuck in front of Death Wish last weekend will now be approaching ‘The Girl’ with anything BUT the above criteria in mind. The marketing engine can’t seem to decide if ‘The Girl’ being Swedish is a good thing or a bad thing. As previously discussed, the trailer remains mute, but for reasons known only to the advertising team, the promotional material would have you believe that Lisbeth Salander is blue eyed. The exact detail isn’t made clear in the books, and in a straw poll of two the verdict leant towards the literary Lisbeth having green eyes. What is certain is that actress Noomi Rapace has brown eyes, so there’s no doubt that some sort of photoshop skull-duggery is at hand. Which begs the question, why bother?

To present a a sharper vision of Swedishness? Sexy blue-eyed liberal foreignness, a scando marketing tag anyone can get on board with? Maybe if you consider the country in terms ‘racial purity’ and ‘ayrianism’, which last time I checked was one of the very cornerstones of what Stieg Larsson spent his life fighting against. A mountain out of a mole hill maybe, but bloody daft whichever way you cut it.

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European Silent Cinema Trailers

Or more precisely the case of the mute trailer.

The sad fact is that Brits, as a whole, can’t stand listening to foreign tongues. Much can be made of the abysmal standards of modern languages teaching in the British school system. Marry that with the ‘everyone speaks English, why bother’ attitude and you’ve got cause for the unashamed dislike of many things culturally ‘foreign’.

In film circles this manifests itself in the bizarre notion of someone being ‘not too keen on subtitles’. By extension of the same logic you should have audiences biased against films with a lot of red in them, as ‘it’s quite demanding of your attention’ and ‘you can’t really relax when watching a [red] film’. In reverse the liking of predominantly [red] films is seen as a pretentious affectation, and some of those who actively seek out [red] films wear it as some sort of badge of honour. ‘If you didn’t see the original [red] version then you may as not have seen the film. The Hollywood remake is far too bland and unimaginative, and it overlooks a side of the film which is inherently [red] y’know?’

But laboured analogies aside, and Cannes and Oscars gongs aside, Brits can very rarely be sold on foreign language films. [Try convincing a class of undergraduate students that an American film is actually foreign and you open a whole new tin of worms.]

How then do you sell a foreign language feature to this stubborn audience? Quite simple: you make it mute. Which is not to say that you hark back to the good old days of silent cinema, but that you keep all the characters in any trailer from actually saying a word. It’s absurd to think of it, but once you notice it you’ll quickly realise that no one ever says a word in foreign language trailers.

The story which first flagged the idea was when audiences apparently walked out of The Lives of Others precisely because it was full of foreign speak. The trailer had led them to believe that it was in English, and would the box office very kindly refund them as this was obviously cut and dry deception of the highest order. That anyone would assume that a film about the Gestapo could ever be in English makes you wonder how apocryphal the story actually is, but the point remains. The scary fact is that The Lives of Others presents a very clear example of the muting process in action.

US Trailer :

The film’s initial release in the US was two months before it came out in the UK. Looking at the US trailer we can see it is 1min49secs long. Look at the UK trailer and you can note is only 1min27secs long. The only difference is that the UK trailer as had every iota of dialogue snipped out of it.

UK trailer :

Dumbed down trailers are nothing new, but to think that the only way cinema advertisers can engage with British audiences is by actively deceiving them is a return to a very sorry standard. The boom of foreign language films in the UK and US through the fifties and sixties was of course fuelled by the now totemic work of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and de Sica. The dark underside to this was that these films were often actively marketed as seedy and salacious imported films for ADULTS ONLY. While the sexual/emotional frankness matched with the chance of seeing some boob kept the seedy cinemas of Soho filled with Bergman, one particularly noteworthy advert in the New York Post sold de Sica’s Bicycle Thief as a sexual film of transgressions. Social realism doesn’t sell. Sex does. Go figure.

Arguably the selling of The Lives of Others taps into that as well, with the American DVD cover showing the Gestapo’s auditory voyeur sensationally listening in on the saucy bohemian playwright making passionate love to his creative muse. That’s not really what the film’s about, but it gets the Dirty Mac Brigade in all of us to at least pick up the DVD and have a closer look at it.

The two strategies of obscuring a film’s nationality with overplaying its sexy-sexy foreignness is coming to a nadir with the English language release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish trailer released last year plays up to the film’s strong narrative pull, the slow uncovering of a grander conspiracy through hard-nosed investigation and archive sifting. The two main characters Lisbeth and Mikael get reasonably equal billing, and the trailer culminates in quick cut action. It’s pretty representative of the film as a whole.

Looking at the dubbed German trailer a lot is made of the original novel which was incredibly popular in Germany. Again the detective novel aspects of investigation, archive cracking and the unlocking of secret codes is foregrounded, culminating in some breathless but unexplained action.

Get to the UK trailer and the frying-pan-around-the-head bluntness starts with the bass-y voiceover of reckoning from the spirit of Don LaFontaine. ‘HER JOURNEY HAS BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION. HER SECRETS HAVE CAPITAVTED MILLIONS. THIS YEAR…’

The whole film is about Lisbeth and her secret, and lots and LOTS of action. The British distributors have even acquired the domain www.thegirl.co.uk for the film, just so we all know who the focus of the film is supposed to be. Poor acne scarred Mikael doesn’t get a look in, and heaven forefend if we should catch a glimpse of paper, or perhaps a file of archive materials.

And of course no one besides Hollywood -Voice-Over-Man gets a word in edgeways. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for the Hollywood remake that’s already being negotiated. Shame that they can’t highlight the film’s inherent [red]ness, and how like pretty much all modern films from [red]land, that it’s largely about the failing of the [red] social model. After all the original [red] title was Men Who Hate Women, but I guess that wouldn’t trip off Hollywood-Voice-Over-Man’s tongue so well. But what do I know, I’m just half [red] anyways.

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