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Icelandic Noir

Still from The Valhalla Murders (Netflix).

Over the past couple of months, I have been bingeing on Netflix like most house-bound CounterPunchers. In case you haven’t seen them yet, I highly recommend two series that originated on Iceland television: The Valhalla Murders and Trapped. Both are close relatives to the Swedish Marxist detective stories that I reviewed on CounterPunch in 2014. They succeed both as social commentary and art.

What’s surprising is that a tiny nation (364,134, a population smaller than Wichita, Kansas) can produce the type of television drama that not only competes with Sweden’s but leaves HBO and Showtime in the dust. After reviewing the two TV series and a couple of Icelandic films that also merit watching during these pandemic social isolation days, I’ll conclude with some thoughts about Iceland that CounterPunch author and Iceland citizen José Tirado helped stimulate.

The Valhalla Murders stars Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as Inspector Kata, who leads an investigation of a serial murders case. People with no connection to each other end up stabbed to death with their eyes gouged out. Eventually, she discovers that they all are the result of a crimes that took place at a boys home called Valhalla.

Further investigations reveal that the murders were likely carried out by a former resident of the home in revenge for the serial rapes the staff carried out. As is the case in the Dragon Tattoo novels and other Swedish detective stories, sexual predation is a recurring theme.

Like Lisbeth Salander, Kata is a stubborn and single-minded detective determined to uncover the truth, no matter where it leads, including the secret lives of police and governmental elites. As Kata, Filippusdóttir is a compelling figure whose conflicts with a male-dominated police force command attention, even if they suggest that sexual equality can redeem this or any other such repressive agency. At least you can believe that Iceland’s cops were likely not susceptible to shooting fleeing suspects in the back, especially since they don’t carry pistols. Given the relative per capita prosperity of Iceland’s population, there is much less crime. More about that later.

Þórður Pálsson, one of the show’s co-writers, told an interviewer that “The inspiration for the show came from the real story in the late 40s, of a state-run institution for troubled boys, in a remote place in Iceland, where kids between 7-14 were horrifically beaten and abused by staff members.”

The Valhalla Murders takes this history and adds noirish elements. Despite this, the pleasure is not so much seeing blood splattered but in following Kata as she conducts her investigation with the same kind of deductive logic as Wallander or any other detective drawn from Scandinavian Marxist pulp fiction.

There are two seasons of Trapped on Amazon Prime, with a third in the works., with a third in the works. It is the brainchild of Baltasar Kormákur, who has directed films both in Iceland and Hollywood. It stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as Andri, a detective who has left Reykjavik for Siglufjörður, a small fishing town in the far north of Iceland. He moved in part to get away from a costly error he committed in Reykjavik as a cop, as well as to be with his two daughters who were being raised by his in-laws. Early on in the season, his ex-wife shows up with her new fiancée to introduce him to her parents, much to Andri’s dismay. Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir plays the ex with her customary skill.

In a brilliant casting decision, Ólafsson defies conventional expectations of how a detective should appear. He is no Humphrey Bogart or Harrison Ford. To put it bluntly, he is obese, looking for all the world like a middle-aged Orson Welles or the typical Wagnerian opera basso of a bygone era.

In season one, Andri begins investigating a crime that appears unlikely at first to have occurred in a sleepy fishing village. In the adjoining bay, fishermen have snagged a torso with decapitated arms and legs. The assumption is that the murder took place on a ferry that had just arrived from Denmark. The killing must have taken place in a cabin, and then the killer carved up the body and tossed the torso out a porthole.

The village might appear sleepy at the outset, but soon you discover that it has big-city woes. One of the passengers on the ferry is a member of the Lithuanian mafia who delivers two teenaged African girls to a sex slavery ring. Speeding away from the ferry to avoid detection, he crashes into a snowbank, loses consciousness, and dies from exposure to the frigid air. The girls make it to safety and are offered shelter in the home of Hinrika, a female cop in Andri’s tiny headquarters. Rounding out the team is Ásgeir, a gentle, middle-aged cop who whiles away his days playing chess on his computer just as I used to at Columbia University.

Eventually, we learn that there is not only a connection between the sex traffickers and the torso but one as well to the town’s elite. Out of desperation after the financial crisis in 2008, they become de facto gangsters to stay afloat. Not only do they buy and sell women, they set fire to an abandoned factory to collect the insurance. The fire has collateral damage, however. A young woman dies on the upper floors, and her falsely charged boyfriend goes to prison for arson and manslaughter.

As was the case in The Valhalla Murders, the teleplay describes a reality much more like Sicily than Iceland. Taking artistic liberties might make this Iceland unrecognizable to its genteel citizens, but it makes for gripping drama. Like a gentle giant, Andri never throws his weight around. His style is mostly to play the soft cop, even allowing Hinrika to play the hard one. During the entire first season, Siglufjörður is hobbled by an immense blizzard that makes getting around difficult for cops and criminals alike. One has to marvel at the film crew’s ability set up their equipment in four feet of snow unless CGI has advanced much further than even a propeller-head like me could have imagined.

In season two, Andri returns to Siglufjörður from Reykjavik, where he has assumed a new position commensurate with his expertise. His superiors decide that he would be the best person to look into what caused a ruined farmer named Gisli to accost his sister Halla in front of the Ministry of Industry building where she was the chief. On the sidewalk, Gisli wraps his sister in a bear hug after pouring kerosene over each other. He then sets them ablaze. He dies and she survives with third-degree burns across her entire body.

Gisli had reason enough to attack his sister. She was pushing for the expansion of a Qatar-owned factory into farmland in the outskirts of Siglufjörður. The farmers became so enraged at the threat to their livelihoods, they joined up with a neo-Nazi group called the Hammer of Thor. When the dead body of a factory foreman ends up hanging upside down in his shed, the assumption is that the farmers were behind the assassination.

While there certainly are bitter social and political disputes in the village, we eventually learn that sexual abuse from years ago triggered the murders, just as was the case in The Valhalla Murders. The toxic mixture of corporate greed, racism toward the low-paid African workers in the plant, homophobia, and environmental ruin are woven together in a series that is better than season one but just about anything I’ve seen on Netflix in years.

Even if it might make sense to describe the Hammer of Thor as ecofascist, opposition to corporate threats to Iceland’s ecology has a leftwing counterpart as depicted in A Woman at War, a film I reviewed last year. In the brilliant opening scene, we see the 49-year old protagonist, a chorale director named Halla, short-circuiting a powerline a bow and arrow connected to a steel cable. The pylon feeds an aluminum factory that is a joint venture of Iceland’s government, the Chinese, and Rio Tinto. Director Benedikt Erlingsson has the guts to call out Rio Tinto, even though it is not a player in Iceland. In the press notes, Erlingsson stated:

To me it seems evident that Nature’s rights should be strongly protected in all constitutions and defended by local and international laws. We need to collectively realize that untouched nature has an intrinsic right and necessity to exist, regardless of our human needs or our economic system.

I can for example imagine a more rational system in which ‘we humans’, if we wanted to spoil or use unblemished Nature for our own needs, we would need to go through a process, maybe something like a trial, in order to be allowed to do that.

A Woman at War is on Amazon Prime for only $2.99, another product of Iceland’s thriving film and television industry.

Made in 2008, Reykjavík-Rotterdam has no political messages. But it is a thrilling movie about gangsters and smugglers that demonstrates Iceland’s superiority over American filmmaking. Specifically, the 2012 Hollywood remake titled Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg can’t hold a candle to it. It is available on YouTube, Google and Amazon for the same cheapo price as A Woman at War. If you are looking for an old-fashioned action film while your local Cineplex remains shut down, check out Reykjavík-Rotterdam. It is what I’d call mindful entertainment.

While José Tirado’s Iceland is a lot tamer than the one depicted in these TV shows and movies, it is nonetheless as interesting to consider in geopolitical terms. A well-traveled poet, Buddhist priest, and political analyst who came to Iceland with his Icelandic wife decades ago, he has the background to put this unique nation-state into perspective.

In a FB messenger phone call the other day, he described it as a “boring” place. Considering its deft handling of COVID-19 and how its citizens—according to José—enjoy either a middle-class or upper-middle-class existence, there something to this boredom business that most New Yorkers, including me, might consider attractive.

As for attractiveness, if you look at season two of Trapped or A Woman at War, you’ll see a country untainted by strip malls, billboards, and all the other trappings of American capitalist success. The snow-covered mountains have an austere beauty that José can see walking just a mile from his home in a Reykjavik suburb. The scenery was awe-inspiring enough to have persuaded HBO to use it as a backdrop for much of Game of Thrones.

It is also worth noting that Iceland does not have a standing army, nor do its cops carry pistols. Wikipedia states that “Iceland is the most peaceful country in the world, due to its lack of armed forces, low crime rate and high level of socio-political stability.”

Of keen interest to me as a degrowth advocate, the ruling class appears more committed to its citizens well-being rather than capitalist growth. A December 3, 2019 BBC article noted that the “prime minister has urged governments to adopt green and family-friendly priorities, instead of just focusing on economic growth figures.” PM Katrin Jakobsdottir teamed up with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern to promote a “well-being” agenda. Jakobsdottir called for “an alternative future based on well-being and inclusive growth.” I particularly enjoyed her analogy: “having sex with your wife doesn’t count in GDP, but with a prostitute it does.”

For those with an interest in Iceland’s particular charms and the pains reflected in season one of Trapped, I recommend José’s articles on CounterPunch. His 2014 “Icelanders in Revolt, Again” conveys the superiority of Icelandic politics just the reviews above convey its artistic superiority:

In other words, the people of Iceland are once more at the edge of forcing out yet another government because it has shown its contempt for the democratic principles Icelanders still hold dear. And with all else going on in Iceland and the world, we should pause a moment to consider what this could mean.

A sense of democratic entitlement, a sense that we ought to be making decisions about our water, our wars, our future, is the essence of the current situation in Iceland. Recovering that sense in the US is essential if any headway is going to be made on the various crises faced by USAmericans.

It appears that the protests of recent weeks might indicate that we too are developing a sense of democratic entitlements with all proportions guarded.

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

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