Sunday, 9 February 2014


“Everything goes back to the beginning."
From Hollow Talk by Choir of the Young Believers (plus the theme tune to 'The Bridge')

Into the Dark Place

Nordic Noir, it seems, has now become an international marketing term. Perhaps strange when you consider it never seems to have been intended as any kind of export. Which kind of raises the question, what is it and how did it become so popular abroad? Okay, that's two questions. So we may as well add a third – how does the most recent entry, the second series of 'The Bridge' contribute?

The aficionado may want to know we're drawing from a narrow sample pool here, specifically the original 2009 film of 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', the Swedish TV series 'Wallander' starring Krister Henriksson (2005/13) and the Danish series 'The Killing' (2007/12). (Yes, this ignores a whole lot of stuff, including source novels and two whole other versions of 'Wallander'. Absent for the following respective reasons - I haven't read them and I don't like them so much. We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

In a brief comment the 2011 American remake of 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', I commented on Nordic Noir “reflecting the current crisis of social democracy in the Scandinavian countries.” Which in hindsight would seem a better description of capital-P political drama 'Borgen' (Denmark, 2010/13), and its more roundly positive view of social democracy's survival prospects. It's essentially about social democracy facing fresh challenges on a weekly basis, nested inside a meta-story of it rebranding itself with the growth of the New Democratic Party. It's not a story with a happy ending, in fact it is very keen to present politics as something without an ending, something perpetual. But its outlook is broadly positive. Which rather conflicts with something else I said - “a flower not wilted but poisoned at the roots.” Its this second phrase which now feels much closer to Nordic Noir.

If all the above examples are crime stories, Nordic Noir is less concerned with murder than with forensics. (It can have quite a love/hate relationship with action scenes, not knowing whether to dramatise or underplay them.) The singular title to 'The Killing', that's important. A single event, a murder or a disappearance, comes to act as a loose thread. Tug at it long enough and the whole cloak comes to be unravelled. Even when not based in novels, Nordic Noir tends to use novel-length plot lines, slowly uncovering a truth from beneath decades of suppression. (The exception being the standalone 'Wallander' stories, but then I've always seen that as something of a weakness of theirs.)

'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', for example, focuses on the wealthy Venger family dynasty. Ostensibly benevolent and patriarchal, a pillar of the community, they are slowly stripped back, revealing a trailing tangle of crimes including collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. (As potent a subject in Scandinavia as in France.) And with them is stripped the whole social model Scandinavia was supposed to uphold.

Hence Nordic Noir's patented setting in the 'dark place'. The cellar or the woods, the hidden place, the edge. Trailers for that most recent series of 'The Bridge' involved Swedish detective Saga indomitably shining her torch into the latest of those dark places (above).

Yet the social democratic model is given another face in Nordic Noir. The 'troubled' detective has of course become a genre trope, as seen in McNulty from 'The Wire' or, moving on to CIA operatives, Carrie from 'Homeland'. McNulty states openly at one point that its what makes him good for his job that makes him bad for everything else. Yet the detective is held to be obsessively dedicated, trampling over social niceties and shouting at adversity in the pursuit of his case.

When you look at Lisbeth Salander (from 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', below), Sarah Lund (from 'The Killing', below) or Kurt Wallander (from... oh, you guessed, below) a more appropriate word might be 'autistic'. Salander is a gifted outsider, a tight-lipped emo. Lund and Wallander are less dynamic challengers to the status quo than crumpled figures. Defeated by life, crime-solving is the one area where they can have control. Unable to cope with the world at large, they focus on a microcosm of it - like a kind of art therapy.

That two of these three figures should be women is sometimes held as a form of feminism, a further example of Scandinavia being 'advanced'. I think it's something else entirely. Society associates women with nurturing, empathic roles – care work, customer services and so on. The concept of an autistic outsider woman vies with these conceptions. But it's also noteworthy how institutions, particularly public institutions try to feminise their image to portray the right note of approachability. Think of the way the BBC has decided it's nickname is “Auntie”, despite the fact no-one else calls it that without being told to. (Its generally referred to by staff by it's original Orwellian name, Big Brother.) By giving the cop, the person society has assigned to uphold common decency, a female face, Nordic Noir plays up to this. But it then distorts that sympathetic female face into something far less recognisable.

And if they export well? By design or (more likely) accident, all of this does in some way play up to popular stereotypes about well-meaning but melancholic Scandinavians. (Such as the popular supposition that Sweden has an unusually high suicide rate.) They commonly use the bleached look common to modern dramas – silver-grey skies, muted blues and greens. (Prompting Sam Wollaston to ask in the Guardian, “are there really no primary colours?”) Us foreign viewers can innocently fancy that Scandinavia actually looks that way.

In fact it's the two popular perceptions of Scandinavia handily rolled into one. They live in some liberal utopia of tolerance, overly generous welfare and designer furniture. But of course it's a sham, they're all secret drinkers and depressives. Our prejudices were correct, we knew it all along! While of course we can simultaneously be responsive to the plot lines. Even if these dramas have been incubated in Scandinavia, the two-headed monster of neo-liberalism and narrow nationalist xenophobia haunts our lives too. We can imagine we're watching somewhere strange and remote to us, even as we're able to relate to everything. It's like the way the best angsty, alienated music is made by youths. The rest of us can relate to those feelings, but youths are likely to be carrying them at their strongest.

Crime As Creative Art

'The Bridge' had its first series broadcast in Scandinavia in 2011, making it something of a late entry in the Nordic Noir stakes - after the phrase had passed into common currency. And so, perhaps deliberately, it chooses to vary from the formula - taking something of a chess move away from the others.

Though there's an autistic similarity of sorts to Salander or Lund, Saga is not cut from the same cloth. For one thing, with her patented Scandinavian blonde locks, sports car and leathers, you could make an action figure out of her relatively easily. (Though perhaps you could also have a Sarah Lund, with swappable jumpers.) Even Saga's name seems to border on a superhero codename. She's less dysfunctional than differently functional. In some ways she's more like the “high-functioning sociopath” of 'Sherlock', fused with the vulnerable Pinnochio innocence of Data in 'Star Trek Next Generation'.

And this is underlined by the premise. Both Lund and Salander have a male companion when they make their investigations. But the concept of 'The Bridge', heralded in the title, is the odd-couple relationship between Swedish Saga and Danish Martin. (It is almost hilarious the way a show with such an insular-sounding premise could find a foreign audience. The titles underline this by presenting the word “Bridge” in Swedish and Danish side-by-side. They're precisely one letter different.) While Saga is brilliant but cold and remote, Martin is instinctual, worldly while world-weary and something of a philanderer. Their mis-communications are quite often played for laughs. (Perhaps there's even some Spock and Kirk in those moments.)

However, the real difference is over the structure. There's the same general format, where a single incident snowballs into large-scale events. But the criminals are less hidden in institutions, their one discovered moment unravelling their deceit, than criminal masterminds outside the system. While Nordic Noir is not exactly scrupulous about credibility, 'The Bridge' dances furthest from believability, sometimes straying into 'Seven' territory. And these crimes have at least an ostensible political motivation. Chesterton's comment “the criminal is the creative artist, the detective only the critic” could have been coined for 'The Bridge'.

In the first series, the Truth Teller is committing an ostentatious series of crimes, all publicly announced, with the claim this is to draw attention to social problems. It's suggested he wins a fair degree of public sympathy, despite his murderous methods. It's like taking things on a step, where the failings of a nominal social democracy have become a given.

This is mirrored in the second series with an eco-terrorist cell. While the series pulls a switch half-way through, which both muddies the waters and makes matters more similar to the first , let's focus on the cell for reasons... well, of familiarity.

BBC4 have in recent years reserved the Saturday night timeslot for foreign dramas, something a bit arty and brainy while still a bracing thriller. Though both 'The Bridge' and French cop show 'Spiral' (above) have been shown in this slot, they are quite different beasts. If Nordic Noir works as an export through playing up to national stereotypes, it gains traction precisely by playing against them. It's set in Paris, yet in an entirely different city to the scenic tourist magnet, with its smart-waitered cafes serving lattes to the chic beneath the Eiffel Tower. Instead there's anonymous estates and il-equipped cop shops. While 'The Bridge' is sleek and stylish, 'Spiral' is gritty and fast-moving, often shot hand-held. Nobody, I am guessing, has bought a domestic furnishing after watching 'Spiral'.

Series four of 'Spiral',subtitled 'State of Terror', (2012) introduced new adversaries – an anarchist gang who had taken up terrorist tactics. And its these big differences between the two shows make the immense similarities between the terrorist gangs all the more striking.

Let's start by acknowledging the different shows do generate genuine differences. In 'The Bridge', the gang are so media-savvy you wonder if they have their own design consultant. They release choreographed and stylish videos, like a cross between the Residents and Bob Dylan's classic 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' video. Its terrorism as performance (below). While in 'Spiral' they're a gang of scruffy punks, led by someone looking remarkably like Dennis the Menace's Gallic cousin (below). As much as they communicate anything, they do it by spray-painting a wall.

Yet note that virtually Saga's first comment on the show was that cuts to library funding are “foolish”. Unblinded by sentiment, we're being tipped off, she sees through all that bogus economics. As with much Nordic Noir, the assumption is that she is reflecting the audience's liberal opinions. And her response to the eco-terrorist cell proceeds along similar lines. Partly her detective instincts are keen to assemble the puzzle. Partly her autism is relieved to be dealing with something explicable. But she also gloms on so quickly to their methods that she must be in some way sympathetic to them.

And in many ways the programme goes with her, simply taking for granted that not enough is being done about climate change and all the rest. Their slogan, “the world is bigger than us”, isn't really so far from my own Council's professed aim to be a “one planet city”. This isn't any-cause fervent fanaticism. Any frustration felt is quite genuine.

None of the cops in 'Spiral', characterised quite differently as day-jobbers, show any of the same implicit sympathies. And indeed, 'Spiral' is in general inferior to something like 'The Wire' in it's easy, one-dimensional portrayals of 'criminals'. But there's the same careful need to separate the 'good' protestors from the 'bad'. Here the gang uneasily share a squat with non-violent protestors, mostly concerned with providing the “sans papiers” with shelter. They are consequently torn between opposition to the gang, whose adventurism directly endangers them, and a reluctance to assist the police. And they distrust the cops not because they are the bad set against the good, or even because they are misguided, but because they know events have placed them on opposite sides. Their distrust is seen as understandable, even when the cops function as our main characters.

Yet, and this is perhaps the crucial thing, while they receive an implicit pat on the back for doing the right thing, it's taken for granted that their 'good' actions will accomplish nothing. Their reward for all this virtue is that its its own reward. In 'Spiral' they ceaselessly picket detention centres, but it's predetermined that after bashing their pots and pans they will go home and the centre will still be there. Similarly, 'The Bridge' ends up at a Climate Change conference, with an army of chanting protestors outside. But the story doesn't focus on them. They're just a crowd scene, a backdrop to set the real action against.

And yet there is little if any connection made between the ineffectualism of the 'good' protestors and the militancy of the 'bad'. And without this, what is left? What is it that makes the 'bad' bad? In both cases, the driving force is the guru-like leader, insisting this is the way it must be. (Needless to say, these anarchists have a leader and accept him as such.) The rest of the group then orient around this, as a bunch of henchmen and a waverer.

Now, this model may well match some political terrorist groups. In fact, I could name some right now with no effort. Yet what it really matches, note for note, is cults. Ultimately, they have more in common with Charlie Manson's Family than they do with, for example, the Weathermen. The leader's teachings must not be questioned. The actions he commands will do away with this sick old world, and take us somewhere better. Yet it is implicit that what his commands are really aimed at is the group themselves. The succession of ever-more-militant tasks serve to bond the group together. The members are on permanent trial, constantly asked to prove themselves again and then again.

Any expressions of doubt are not met with political arguments against reformism or references to the desperate nature of the situation, but simple accusations of disloyalty. Waverers are just being chicken. What the group is doing must be right, because that's what the group is doing. Anyway, its too late to get out now. And this model only matches actual political groups insofar as these might themselves overlap with cults. It's classic confirmation bias.

This is at its most explicit in 'The Bridge'. The group waverer is most hesitant over having a younger brother, who he is entirely responsible for. Needless to say these responsibilities mean nothing to the group, as they are something outside of it. And the younger brother is shown trying to fit in with his gang of peers, his greater efforts being met with greater derision. Of course the two plot-lines work in parallel.

The problem is not that either political gang is presented critically. I've seen enough of political groups in my time to have no rose-tinted views of them. They are often quite capable of becoming their own self-parody, of making stupid and self-marginalising decisions of their own accord. Nevertheless, there's a clear historical connection between increased repression, decreased effectiveness and increased militancy. The big era of leftist groups turning terrorist in the western world was the early Seventies – the Angry Brigade, the Red Army Faction, the Weather Underground and so on. And the people in those groups would have seen friends and comrades be beaten, imprisoned and in no small amount of cases killed. Of course, the evidence of hindsight is clear – their reaction was the wrong one, it only served to play further into the authorities' hands. But if it was a mistake, there was a context for the mistake. It wasn't a random outbreak of fanaticism.

The upshot is this - political protest is part of a flourishing democracy. It should be permitted, perhaps even to an extent encouraged. Tolerance makes us better people. Just as long as its implicitly understood by all involved that it will not and must not accomplish anything at all. To try and step outside of this is to place yourself inside an authoritarian and fanatical cult, which will never let you leave. We live in a town which has no other show.

And yet I like it. I'm glad its there. I lapped up both shows.

That may partly be down to sheer amusement value, like hearing Niall Ferguson on history or Michael Gove on anything at all. Though that alone would not deal with the way these stereotypes occur in otherwise 'quality' shows. There's something more important. I prefer it when political views with which I sympathise get portrayed, even in such an absurdly distorted way. There's a famous quote, though no-one seems to know whether it came from Gandhi or American unionist Nicholas Klein: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

Its a problematic quote, especially with that word “win”. Quite often, “win” would seem to mean “get seriously hurt”. And of course even when there have been actual victories, “win” is still a way of capping the bottle. We're often told the Civil Rights movement “won”, even when it's two chief adherents (Martin Luther King and Malcolm X) were both killed mid-campaign and racism is rampant in modern America. The more radical wings are chopped from history, their demands forgotten. And the 'good' protestors of today are told that if they are not 'winning' like their forebears it must be because they're not good enough.

But focus instead on “laugh” and “fight”. Protestors can be denounced by politicians, caricatured in dramas, or scoffed at in sitcoms. But that's still a whole lot better than “ignore”.

I'm opposed to the mechanistic notion of how culture works, which sometimes tries to pass itself off as materialist. Culture is not rubber-stamped upon our thoughts by the cunning schemes of the ruling classes, nor is it imprinted by the material conditions of our existence. If, like me, you see history as the history of class struggle, then culture is one more arena where that struggle takes place. The floor of that arena is raked against us, but that's as true of any other arena.

Of course these shows are merely thinking up something juicily contemporary and enticingly risqué to spice themselves up. (“What if the villains were terrorists, but seemed to have some sort of point?”) But at some level, the existence of pro-immigrant protests in France or counter-summit mobilisations in Denmark have managed to intrude into the regular world of cultural production. “Ignore” failed. Now we're onto the next phase...

PostScript! Though the idea came separately, I could not deny I was influenced by this exceedingly good post Shabogan Graffiti wrote for Philip Sandifer's blog. They don't quite cover the same thing. While Shabogan Jack talks of the class base of villainy, one notable feature for both 'Spiral' and 'The Bridge'is that class is almost entirely absent - political activism is assumed to be innately voluntaristic. And hence of course, either cultish, hypocritical or both...

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