The fourth series of The Bridge, one of Nordic Noir’s biggest exports, begins on BBC2 this Friday at 9pm. SALLY WILLIAMS went on set during its filming in Malmö to meet its stars and creators…
To trace The Bridge, the Nordic TV crime thriller, from its beginning is to chart a trajectory of dizzying success. First broadcast in the UK in 2012, it features Sofia Helin as Saga Norén, a Swedish police detective with a forensic mind whose off-centre behaviour suggests she has Asperger’s syndrome, and her Danish sidekick Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia).
The pair are forced to work together after a body is discovered on the Øresund Bridge the five-mile road that connects Sweden and Denmark. By the end of the first season The Bridge had more than one million viewers on BBC 4 – twice as many as The Killing – and had passed into Scandi-noir immortality. There is Saga in her leather trousers at the wheel of a vintage 1970s Porsche. There is the dark and poetically bleak landscape. Then there is the bridge itself, frequently shot from above to showcase its long, photogenic span. But it isn’t just good looks and good lighting that has given the series its durability.
The characters are complex. Martin Rohde has five children by three different women and comes across as both warm and chaotic. More than anything, though, it’s Saga with her troubled past (her mother had Munchausen by proxy and tried to kill her sister), her physical mannerisms (her frowns and glares), her social ineptitude (“I got my period this morning,” is an example of her small talk), and her struggle to fit in and find love, who is compelling to watch. But in 2015 it seemed as if it all might collapse when it was announced that Martin had been written out of the third series. “Bodnia was not happy with how the character evolved. It is a shame but we must accept it,” Anders Landström, the co-producer, said at the time.
He was replaced by Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt), who, as a womanising detective with a drug habit, seemed an odd choice. But then we learnt that his wife and twin daughters had been abducted six years earlier and realised that writer and co-creator of The Bridge Hans Rosenfeldt couldn’t have come up with a more fitting partner for Saga. He pulls her back from the brink as her troubles become increasingly operatic: her mentor and former boss, Hans Petterson (Dag Malmberg), is dead; she is suffering hideously under her new boss. Even worse, she is being investigated for the murder of her mother and everything points to her being guilty. But something scarcely credible has happened: we feel the power of a growing love between Saga and Henrik.
While the original has been broadcast in 188 countries, The Bridge has also been copied around the world in the form of The Bridge USA (between Mexico and the USA) and The Tunnel (between Britain and France). The most recent remake, Russia’s The Bridge (мост), broadcast last year, transplants the action to the border between Russia and Estonia. Now with the fourth and last-ever series, it’s coming to an agonisingly tense end.
The scene outside a former police station, a handsome building near Davidshallstorg, a square in Malmö, Sweden, is most un-Bridgean. It is late spring 2017, the sky is bright and there’s an explosion of sunshine, colour and green leaves. What we are witnessing is one of the hazards of The Bridge’s shooting schedule. The routine has always been to start in November and film all the one-hour episodes in one chunk – each series can take up to eight months. “A lot of shows shoot a couple of episodes and then have a break.We do it differently,” says co-producer Bo Ehrhardt. “This series is shot in seventy five locations, he adds, implying more is asked of The Bridge.”
“We rehearse a lot. We go through the text over and over again,” says Helin, who has described the process as immersive but tough. During filming she bases herself in a flat in Malmö and only goes home at weekends, because Stockholm, where she lives with her husband Daniel Götschenhjelm, a former actor and now a priest in the Church of Sweden, and their two children, aged fourteen and eight, is 300 miles away.
There is only one week left of the shoot, but it is now May. “There is too much nature,” says Ehrhardt, “too much green.” Much effort is being put into covering up a tree that has blossomed leaves overnight outside the police station. Once inside, however, the atmosphere glooms and darkens nicely. There is dull paintwork. A man with a smoke machine is creating a shadowy fug.
The question of where we are is a complex one. “This time a lot of the investigation is Denmark-based,” says Ehrhardt. “It has always been Sweden-based in the past.” Although Copenhagen’s Police Headquarters has featured throughout The Bridge, playing itself, the crew was never allowed to film inside. Thankfully, the production team has found the perfect interior – here in Malmö. So in the course of one fictional day the action might start outside the Danish police HQ in Copenhagen and then move inside, which is in a different country thirty miles away.
“In the course of one fictional day the action might start outside the Danish police HQ in Copenhagen and then move inside, which is in a different country thirty miles away.”
I arrive in time to see several takes of a dramatic sequence where Danish police commissioner Lillian Larsen (Sarah Boberg) is reprimanding Saga and Henrik in her office. As she raises her voice, her earrings shaped like a musical note swing from side to side. Helin is still wearing the same pair of leather trousers she started with eight years ago (she has three pairs). The knees have worn thin and are patched.
“The Bridge started as an experiment,” says Ehrhardt. “The ambition was to make a TV show that was prime-time in Denmark and Sweden at the same time.” Ehrhardt, who is Danish, had worked with Anders Landström, who is Swedish, on feature films but not television. “We had co-produced but we’d never had a show where half the actors spoke Danish and the other half spoke Swedish,” he says. This was altogether a different order. The next step was to find two stars. “We actually decided very quickly that we wanted Kim [Bodnia],” says Ehrhardt. He was known for playing the lead role in the film Pusher (1996), about a heroin dealer in Copenhagen.
As ridiculous as it might seem now, Helin had to win the producers over.
Her breakthrough role was in High Seas (Rederiet), a soap opera set on a ferry, also in 1996, though she was famous in Sweden for roles such an 11th-century princess in Arn – The Knight Templar (Arn – Tempelriddaren), an adaptation of Jan Guillou’s novel. “But she was not a household name in Denmark,” says Ehrhardt.
They auditioned around ten other actors. Helin was finally offered the role of Saga in 2010, when she was thirty eight. We can now see the brilliance with which Helin portrays Saga, but it started with the simplest of briefs. “Everything she can read, she’ll learn, but when it comes to interaction with another person, she’s totally lost.” That was pretty much all we said about Saga Norén,” Rosenfeldt explains.
It was Charlotte Sieling, who directed the first four episodes of The Bridge, who said, “Maybe she’s got Asperger’s.” Helin decided to investigate further. She read books, spoke to Asperger’s organisations and experimented with poor non-verbal communication. Sieling also mostly conceived Saga’s iconic style: leather trousers, boots, and a military coat (from H&M); an outfit that Saga wears throughout. “Saga is not interested in her looks at all,” says Helin.
First broadcast in Sweden and Denmark a week apart in September 2011, The Bridge is jointly created and financed by Sweden and Denmark’s public broadcasters, SVT and DR. Success was slow at first. “Locally the figures were not mind-blowing,” says Landström. The steep take-off happened when the programme was sold abroad in 2012.
It also quickly became apparent that Saga was making a big impact. “We did some evaluation after the second season and the audience told us they wanted three things from season three,” says Ehrhardt, “They wanted Saga, Saga and more Saga. They wanted to get to know her better, wanted to see her being more emotional and less robotic. They wanted it to end really well for Saga. Those were their three wishes and we gave them two out of three.”
“We did some evaluation after the second season and the audience told us they wanted three things from season three,” says Ehrhardt, “They wanted Saga, Saga and more Saga.”
At the end of series three, Saga was facing a murder charge and the loss of her police career; Henrik had just discovered that a badly decomposed body was that of his wife. His daughters were still missing. The fourth series picks them up after a gap of two years. Saga is in prison and is not coping with the other prisoners, or with systems and rules that are not her own. Henrik continues to be plagued by visions of his girls. But he visits her often and wants her help on a new case.
The series opens with a particularly horrific murder. The victim is a Danish government official in charge of the country’s immigration board, and the method used – stoning – suggests the malevolent presence of an extremist group. But the mystery of Saga and Henrik’s respective private lives almost eclipses the murder investigation as the engine of the action.
At the end of the last series, Helin hinted that Saga might not be back. So how did they get her in front of the camera again? “I couldn’t imagine how to move Saga on and then I met Hans [Rosenfeldt] and we started fantasising and suddenly I saw a way and just knew I had to do it,” she says.
“It’s about identity,” she continues, “my favourite subject in the world – who am I? – so I could not resist. Saga has been driven by fear, anger, sadness and rage for such a long time. She doesn’t stop and think about why she is doing things. Being incarcerated forces her to reassess everything. She cannot be a police officer any more so who is she then? Who am I if everything is taken away from me?” In her preparation for the part she spent a day in a women’s prison. “I didn’t realise how claustrophobic it would be, to live together with other people so close. It really affected me. The feeling of being locked in was so very physical.”
It’s all there in Saga’s hunched shoulders in the opening scenes, the dead eyes. She says she also latched on to the identity theme after the Øresund Bridge became a focus of tensions following the influx of refugees into Scandinavia. In 2016 Sweden introduced identity checks on people entering the country from Denmark after more than 160,000 people sought asylum the previous year. For the first time, the bridge had a checkpoint. “It changed from being a very hopeful and open bridge to a centre of control,” Helin says.
The restrictions were lifted last May.
Danish actor Thure Lindhardt (Henrik) wasn’t even aware of The Bridge before he was drafted in to replace Kim Bodnia. “I hadn’t watched it. I don’t even have a television.” His CV includes Angels & Demons (2009), starring Tom Hanks, and The Borgias (2013) on TV.
“I was very lucky that my character was so different to Kim’s,” he says. He puts his appeal down to the drama of his backstory. “He was a very normal man and he just lost everything. He is very traumatised. And then he meets Saga and that definitely gives him hope to live and find his children. In this season he stops doing drugs and is more stripped down. He is not so charming, but I like that. He is more honest.”
The couple have an impressive rapport both on and off screen. “They’re both outsiders,” says Helin. “He stands by her side like no one has ever done before.”
“She struggles with things we all struggle with,” adds Lindhardt. “Talking to other people, conversations, who doesn’t struggle with that? Just fitting in, being normal – what is normal? – that is why we love her.”
But Helin is exhausted. ‘I feel I am at the end of a marathon.’ Playing Saga is physically draining. She has to change the way she talks, holds her head, moves; has to become straighter, tenser, more alert. She has described it as “like a vice gripping all over my body”. Today she likens it to a “cement costume”. “You have to hold everything in, be very concentrated. It’s like having a heavy weight in your body all the time,” she says.
What has she found most challenging? “I hate sex scenes,” Helin replies. Saga’s direct approach to sex – functional, hugless, often with strangers – is a key part of her character and Helin has been obliged to strip off frequently. “I think it’s a very healthy thing to hate sex scenes. It says something about me and my integrity. It is just something that I have to do because I want to tell the story.”
It is early April when I next speak to Helin, nearly a year since filming ended. The final series has already aired in Denmark and Sweden, and Helin, according to one reviewer, has “never been better”. How has Saga changed you? I ask her. “After eight years with her I can sense that her way of thinking has changed my brain, but in a good way,” she replies. Helin has always had plenty of emotion. “I am very thin-skinned,” she once said. Now she has dialled up “logic” a notch. “Of course I had that before, but it’s something I can lean on a little more than I did before.”
Saga has also opened doors. “I am interested in interesting projects. I am not necessarily interested in Hollywood because it’s not me.” Future plans include Lifeboat, a Danish film about a woman on a sailing holiday with her boyfriend in the Mediterranean who rescue a refugee woman, and a “top-secret” TV project.
And will she miss Saga? “I have her inside me so I cannot feel how I could miss her,” she says, “since she is me.”
This article has also been published in The Telegraph.