Nordic Noir is now a global phenomenon, but Nordic comedies often fail to translate. Emma Jones finds out why
Two brothers haven’t spoken in forty years, and a plague threatens to destroy what’s dearest to them – their prize-winning herd of sheep. There’s blood, there are tears, and it’s all set against a brooding grey landscape.
But Hrutar, or Rams, isn’t the latest success story of Nordic Noir – although it’s from Iceland. It’s a tragi-comedy, which its director, Grímur Hákonarson, calls “sad and funny at the same time. We call it ‘gálgahúmor’ in Iceland, or ‘gallows humour’. It’s very typical of Scandinavia.”
Rams is on course to become one of the most critically successful Nordic films ever – after winning the ‘Un Certain Regard’ prize at Cannes in 2015, it was released in more than forty countries, including the US, the UK, France and Italy. It’s was also Iceland’s 2015 Oscar entry.
But Rams stands alone in its field – bleating. While Swedish producer Gudrun Giddings, who lives in Los Angeles, says her phone has been “ringing off the hook” since 2010 with requests for Nordic talent, the woman known as ‘Scandinavian Whisperer’ for her ability to promote these countries in Hollywood, says when it comes to comedy, her sweet nothings fall on deaf ears.
“We’re known for being dark and depressing,” she says. “I suppose our comedy can be seen like that too.”
The television rise of Nordic Noir started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in 2009, which sold six million cinema tickets. It was followed by an adaptation of Wallander, The Killing, The Bridge and political thriller Borgen.
Hollywood capitalised on Swedish vampire horror Let the Right One In by remaking it as Let Me In, while even the family film Frozen is based on an old Scandinavian myth. Next tip for the top is Occupied, which debuted on Norway’s TV2 and is currently available on Netflix, about a fictional Russian occupation of the country.
Stockholm-based Yellowbird Productions is behind it, as it was with Wallander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but even its Chief Creative Officer, Berna Levin, describes the comedic genre as “one tough nut to crack.”
“It’s the one area we just can’t develop,” she says. “We’re constantly in demand for drama because we’re seen as edgy, twisted and a little rebellious, but we’re finding it so difficult to sell comedy that I can’t see us doing anything for an international market for the foreseeable future.”
Sweden’s The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared
“It’s a shame. The Swedes and the Danes in particular love the dry Anglo-Saxon sense of humour, but it seems to be a one-way love affair.”
There has been one notable international comic success recently – Sweden’s The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared for example, but this was based on Jonas Jonasson’s well-loved and best-selling book. Finland’s crowd-funded Iron Sky also marketed itself a global release in 2012, because director Timo Vuorensola already had a fan-base from a Star Trek parody he’d made. But Iron Sky, a B-movie romp about Nazis living on the moon, failed in its mission to make critics laugh – “it’s marginally more inspired than Snakes on a Plane or The Human Centipede” was the comment of one. Although success was made recently with A Man Called Ove, a black comedy set in Sweden, that met rave reviews on its UK release this year.
Television producer Johanna Karppinen is a supporting partner of ‘A Finnish Film Affair’, an event designed to expand the local industry globally. She thinks sub-titles are comedy’s biggest barrier to an international audience, “because so much of comedy is in the timing and delivery.”
“However, I’d say our national characteristics as nations also play a part in holding us back – we tend to be extremely humble, and very reticent. We don’t play for laughs.”
“We are really very morbid,” is the confession of Peter Franzén, a Finnish actor and director who plays King Harald in History’s television series The Vikings. “We spend a lot of time in the far North, in the dark, surrounded by trees, alone. This can end up expressing itself in craziness – such as Iron Sky – or in something grimmer.”
The dark may or may not have something to do with the high suicide rate amongst the Nordic countries (Finland also has the highest murder rate in Western Europe) but it’s certainly contributed to their black humour. This tradition, according to Rams‘ Grímur Hákonarson, stretches all the way back to the old Icelandic sagas and the descriptions of Viking killing – “the heads fly off and the bodies split apart,” he says. “That’s very funny, sometimes.”
The situation is not much better for modern-day corpses; according to Danish director Anders Thomas Jensen, “if there’s a dead body in Denmark, someone is going to make a joke about it.”
“If there’s a dead body in Denmark, someone is going to make a joke about it”
Jensen, who directed 2008’s The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley, also wrote Love Is All You Need, an Anglo-Danish rom-com starring Piers Brosnan – but wasn’t afraid to make his heroine a cancer sufferer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Men and Chicken, starring Mads Mikkelsen and Søren Malling. A flat-out comedy, it’s about five grotesquely disfigured brothers and their estranged father running amok in a derelict sanatorium.
“It wasn’t to everyone’s taste,” he admits. “But sometimes I love it when people in the audience aren’t laughing.”
Men and Chicken premiered at the Toronto Film Festival – as did Return of the Atom, a bleakly humorous Finnish documentary about life in a town that has received the first European nuclear reactor since Chernobyl. The problem, according to its directors, Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola, was that they weren’t sure if the public outside the Nordic countries would realise it was supposed to be funny.
Should Scandinavians, and their Nordic cousins, be applauded for laughing at the darker side of life, while Hollywood makes The Hangover and Grown Ups? Iceland’s 2011 Oscar submission, Mama Gogo, by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, managed to make a comedy about the onset of Alzheimers in an elderly woman. Norwegian series Dag is about a marriage counsellor who thinks everyone should live alone; Rare Exports from Finland in 2010 made a comedy horror out of a Christmas movie about Santa Claus.
This, according to Maria Pykko, a Finnish director, is where Nordic humour is most successful – mixed with other genres. Her own show, The Black Widows, a Desperate Housewives style comedy-drama that starts with three women murdering their husbands, is being re-made across Scandinavia and the English-language rights have been bought by CBS in North America.
“If you just make pure comedy the laughs don’t always last that long,” she says. “If you have a bottom line of a strong plot and drama then I think our humour has a place. If you think of really successful thrillers like Norway’s Headhunters or the action thriller In Order of Disappearance, the strong drama allows for those comic moments.
“The harder the drama, the funnier it can be.”
This could be the secret to Rams’ appeal, amidst its death and destructive relationships. Grímur Hákonarson says that he “couldn’t help but make it a little bit funny; the situation itself is humourous: two neighbouring sheep farmers who are brothers and who haven’t spoken in forty years.
“It’s very simple and humanistic but at the same time most people will recognise the themes. We have to make fun out of our own misery or we wouldn’t survive.”
Emma Jones writes for the BBC Culture online pages