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The Female Power of Danish Noir

CounterPunchers, particularly those who watched those Marxist Swedish television detective series I recommended last year, will likely appreciate “Dicte” and “Borgen”, two shows that appeared originally on Danish television. Both feature superb writing and performances even if the artistic teams behind them are not exactly Marxist. As Joe E. Brown said in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect.

Whatever they lack politically, they more than make for in storytelling, character development, dialog, and plot—the ABC’s of writing going back to Aristotle. And most of all, they are distinguished by powerful female characters that put American television with its “Astronaut Wives Club” et al to shame.

“Dicte”, which can be seen on Netflix streaming, is the eponymous character–a female crime reporter in her late 30s who has taken a job with a newspaper in Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city and where she grew up. In broad outlines, it has the same sort of plot found in the Swedish series “Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter” that was included in the survey referred to above. “Dicte” ends up as an amateur detective in almost every episode, one step ahead of the cops. In researching her articles, she inevitably finds herself being targeted by some bad guy who has decided that she knows too much and must be terminated.

Every time the town’s homicide detective runs into her at a crime scene, he warns her about interfering with an on-going investigation but in the end Dicte proves to be a better sleuth than the cops and finally vindicated.

If this was a show exclusively about whodunit, you might lump it with CSI or any number of American television shows that are as ritualized as a Kabuki play. But in many ways, the crimes serve more as a McGuffin to help throw the major characters into sharp relief.

Chief among them is Dicte Svendsen, who is haunted by the memory of the newborn son she abandoned when she was sixteen years old. Just minutes after his birth, he was turned over for adoption—a decision made for her by her Jehovah’s Witness parents who have renounced her, even as she tries to make contact with them upon returning home. Mother and child separation is a leitmotiv that appears throughout nearly every show, including an episode when the newly born infant of Ida Marie, one of her two best friends, is abducted from the local hospital.

Ida Marie, Dicte and Anne, the third member of their posse who works as a midwife in the hospital from which Ida Marie’s baby was abducted, are the main characters in the series, each with strongly defined and powerful personalities. When they sit around drinking wine and shooting the breeze about what jerks men can be, it is often the high point of an episode.

dicte

Still from “Dicte.”

The male characters are fairly secondary but work well within the ensemble cast. John Wagner, the homicide detective, is a prissy and slightly depressed middle-aged man just getting over a painful divorce, as has Dicte herself. Her ex-husband, a handsome psychologist who was having affairs behind her back, has moved to Aarhus as well. He has a tendency to psychoanalyze everybody he runs into without any understanding that it his own womanizing compulsion that destroyed his marriage and made it impossible for him to find long-lasting happiness. Finally, there is Bo who works alongside Dicte as the newspaper’s photographer. Like Torsten, he is a serial womanizer but much more self-aware. In every episode, all of these characters are players in some intricate crime plot but the real pleasure is watching them work out the problems of marriage, raising children and supporting each other emotionally even as they find new ways to disappoint each other. In other words, they are just like us.

In one of the more powerful episodes of season one, Dicte is reunited with her son who is serving time in prison for killing a man who he caught burglarizing his home (Denmark obviously has no “stand your ground” laws). He is key to her researching an article about a gang that recruits surrogate mothers from Eastern Europe, something that is banned in Denmark. Since he knows one of the men in the gang, the information he provides can both crack the case and make for a front-page story. Against the backdrop of this crime story, the real interest is their troubled efforts at reunion. At one point, he tells her that he needs her to help him get out of prison but the mother and son thing doesn’t interest him.

“Dicte” is based on the novels of Elsebeth Egholm who was born in 1960 and worked as a reporter before taking up fiction. Her stories are more about the psychology of her characters than Danish society but there is always an engagement with social issues that allow each episode reflect on some of the country’s problems. In the course of following up on the leads her son gives her, Dicte becomes convinced that an unmarried Muslim mother is responsible for the abandonment of a child who died at birth. Assuming that it was religious backwardness that explained a loss somewhat like her own, she eventually learns that her judgment was clouded by Denmark’s nativism and that the woman was innocent. That being said, it was secondary to the main purpose of the series: to create compelling drama based on the conflicts between fully developed and interesting characters. You cannot ask for much more than that.

“Borgen” (the castle) is the nickname for Christiansborg Palace, the home of all three branches of the Danish government. When the first episode begins, Birgitte Nyborg has just been elected Prime Minister. She is a leader of the Moderates, a fictional party based on the Social Liberal Party in Denmark that was founded in 1905 on the ideas of Henry George and John Stuart Mill.

Both the fictional and the real party appear to be center-left (pro-immigrant rights, etc.) but the real interest is less about politics than it is about the human drama of people in politics, particularly the main character who is trying to balance family and professional obligations usually without much success.

If your initial reaction to a show about a prime minister from a center-left party is “who cares”, you can be reassured that “Borgen” has nothing in common with the much-hyped “House of Cards” or the bevy of network shows going back to “The West Wing” or more recent incarnations like “Madam Secretary”. Despite its reputation, I found “House of Cards” (both the British and American versions) overdrawn and sensationalistic. Why would any politician go to such great lengths to kill his rivals when there never was any office worth fighting over? If a politician gets turned down for a top post, as was Kevin Spacey’s character in “House of Cards”, there is no reason to carry on like Macbeth. There are always top jobs in the corporate world that would mollify anybody willing to sell out to the highest bidder.

Birgitte Nyborg started out as a student activist (it is questionable whether she was any sort of radical) but like so many succumbed to the temptations of parliamentary horse-trading. Moving up through the ranks of her party, she has mastered the art of the deal by the time she becomes Prime Minister.

Most episodes depict her in backroom bargaining with the opposition Labor Party that is as venal as her own. Prime Minister wrestles with her conscience about whether she has crossed ethical lines to maintain her control of the government. Like no other show I have seen about mainstream politicians, this one leaves you with the feeling that you are eavesdropping on the high and mighty. It is not a pretty picture.

Borgen_still_-_spe_2742993c

Still from “Borgen.”

Nyborg’s chief aide is Kaper Juul, who is universally referred to as her “spin doctor”, including him. He is a handsome but sleazy womanizer who is always on the cell phone with his boss trying to figure out a strategy that will make them look good to the voting public. In most instances they are willing to cut corners.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Nyborg’s government is in danger of being ousted because her Minister of Defense got caught accepting expensive gifts from a military contractor selling jet fighters to Denmark. In the ensuing brouhaha, she has a blow-up with her husband who has been caught in the web even if peripherally. He has accepted a coveted CEO position with an electronic corporation that is providing subcomponents to the jets. When she writes a letter of resignation in his name that he must sign, his feelings of emasculation are so great that he demands a divorce. This incident is simply the latest is a string of disagreements that stem from his being relegated to the role of househusband.

Like “Dicte”, the appeal of this show is human drama rather than policy or politics. Adam Price, whose ancestors came to Denmark from England centuries ago, is the show’s creator and one of the three co-writers. Of particular interest is the involvement of Søren Kragh-Jacobsen as co-director. He was one of the founders of Dogme95, the avant-garde filmmaking movement that has had mixed results in my view. Of all the Dogme95 films I have seen, I regard Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s “Mifune” as the best by far. That he has evolved from the jagged aesthetic of Dogme95 to fairly conventional but dramatically superior fare like “Borgen” demonstrates that talent and integrity will prevail in the end.

Finally on the provenance of “Borgen”. Unfortunately, it is only available from Amazon.com as DVD’s, either $34.95 per season or $75 for the complete series. If you have found my reviews useful in the past, you have my promise that this will be money well spent.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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