"Wallander': Swedish noir on PBS

For whom Kurt Wallander's bell tolls

Branagh as Wallander: Stuck in the welfare state.
Branagh as Wallander: Stuck in the welfare state.

The newest antihero from fiction is an angst-ridden detective who suffers from hypertension, diabetes and self-contempt. Kurt Wallander's beat, a little backwater coastal village on the Baltic, has become a major tourist attraction. The author, Henning Mankell, wrote ten police procedurals about his detective, which have sold something like 30 million copies globally, and have been published in 37 languages. And now Wallander has come to American TV.

What is it about Wallander in particular and Scandinavian police procedurals that have captivated the reading public over the past 15 years? I know why I love them— I'm Swedish, after all, and spend a fair amount of time in the country of my father's birth. But everyone else? Perhaps it's because the police procedural— unlike other mysteries— tells us much about our own world.

The most popular examples of this genre used to be set on British country estates, where the upstairs-downstairs crowd congregated and then murdered each other. The solver of these crimes was either a suave inspector or an old lady. Today our preferred setting is Scandinavia: grimy areas of Stockholm or Oslo, dingy little seaport towns, or maybe Reykjavik. The somewhat demented detective protagonists from Swedish, Icelandic and Norwegian crime novels help us cope with the great failed social experiment that is industrialized society's social democracy—exemplified by the Swedish welfare state. These novels are as much about sociology as they are about crime.

Glorious color, dismaying failure

Now "Masterpiece Mystery!" is presenting three full-length feature films (more are in the works) taken from Mankell's international best sellers, Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind. The films were shot on location in Ystad and are gloriously colored and exciting. The opening scene of the first film is staggering in its beauty: yellow blossoms of the rapeseed plant, brilliant blue sky, with the sea, like a character offstage, waiting to ravage.

Tiny Ystad, a quaint medieval market town, faces the sea. Once called Sweden's window to the world, it was an important port city in the 17th Century, but in these novels its role is reversed: It's the world's window to Sweden, with its problems as well as its failures.

In both the novels and the PBS series, Ystad is the second most interesting character after Wallander himself. Actually, scratch that: The town is Wallander— remote, dark and brooding, except on occasional sunny summer days.

Sweden's flawed experiment

Both Mankell and his alter ego question whether democracy can survive. The Wallander series is popular, he believes, because his flawed policeman is the mouthpiece for global citizens' insecurity, anger, angst and economic instability— problems at the heart of modern democracy and the welfare state.

Sweden, often viewed by the uninformed as the great social experiment, is no longer Shangri-La, if indeed it ever was. The country suffers from high rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide. It's also haunted by two high-profile assignations: the unsolved stabbing of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 and of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh in 2003.

Kenneth Branagh, stuck in misery

Kenneth Branagh as Wallender captures the very essence of the Ystad detective: dissipated, tired, angry, grumpy, morose and rumpled. He does not care if we like him, care about him, admire him. Branagh, now 48 years old, can do so much with a look, a closing of his eyes for a second, a poignant pause— and tears. His character, and thus his performance, is beyond such considerations, stuck as Wallander is in his own misery and the misery of his little town.

In the opening scene Wallander is called to a farmhouse amidst the brilliant sunlit rapeseed fields. Here a young girl has isolated herself and then, after pouring gasoline all over herself, clicks a cigarette lighter and sets herself and her surroundings on fire. Branagh hardly needs words to let us know what he is thinking.

Democracy: Love it or leave it

Perhaps Ystad and Wallander mirror much of Western society. Mankell comes naturally to his novels, so vibrant in illustrating both the beauty and the decadence of Sweden. Mankell's characters— like those of his father-in-law, the director Ingmar Bergman— are loners who don't deal with that condition well and, against their own innate desires, end up alienated from a society they hate.

Much like Sweden, America's great experiment in democracy has become tarnished lately, notwithstanding the remarkable result of our last election and the consequently overwhelming expectations placed on our current president. The burdens of the office may not transform Barack Obama into another Kurt Wallander— but then, as readers of Mankell's novels know, Wallander was once young and ambitious himself.

Ah, Wallander! Ah, humanity!â—†

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