Sarah Lund, noir ruler. A commentary of the three seasons of Danish TV series Forbrydelsen.
(May contain spoilers)
Nordic noir has reinvented the crime and police genre, creating cultural products that have proved to be massively successful in Europe through official partnerships, and not so official broadcasting channels where some series have acquired a cult following of fans from all over the world.
Such is the case of Danish TV series Forbrydelsen, already a hit home when it became famous in the United Kingdom, Germany and The Netherlands in part for its vertiginous narrative, but mostly because of its main star, Detective Chief Inspector Sarah Lund, a peculiar woman of many complexities, played by the very talented Sofie Grabol, previously known in art cinema circles for her work with the likes of Lars von Trier and the Dogma manifesto.
Grabol’s acting has given depth to a character that is at once hesitant but resolute, strong, not necessarily “feminine” or in possession of psychological attributes and behaviors associated with the female gender. For instance, she’s detached and her lack of communicative skills isolates her from personal and professional surroundings. Her motivations aren’t always easy to read and the sometimes flawed decisions in her personal relationships turn her into a three dimensional character full of dilemmas, contradictions, mistakes and difficult decisions in a field where men make the rules.
Sarah Lund became a female hero since the introductory pilot, where her professional vacillations quickly collided against her firmness to solve the murder of a teenage girl named Nanna Birk Larsen. The episode plays, almost until the end, with the notion of an insecure professional who also has personal issues with her boyfriend, son and mother, and who can’t make up her mind and decide what her priorities are. Messy with her blue jeans, a cardigan, a ponytail and no make-up, she’s not the typical female TV lead, but Lund fulfills the principle of verisimilitude by going against the representation of female detectives who chase criminals in high heels and look like tall, skinny super models, so typical in many American crime shows.
Sarah simply looked and acted familiar, and it was easy to sympathize with her. But she was also intriguing. She’d choose a dangerous path, following her intuition, as the spectator knew something bad was about to happen. The closing scene of episode 1, when she grabs her bag and gets off the plane to go back to her Danish office, quitting her transfer to the Swedish police, interrupts a series of long edits and sets a fast narrative for the upcoming episodes, where Sarah sets the rhythm. The case of Nanna Birk Larsen will develop for the whole season, and in another defiance of the genre’s clichés, the individual story will soon signify the slow disintegration of her immediate circle and all the way to the circuit of politics, where corruption and double standards will mirror the individual tragedy.
“The personal is political”, or so seems to be the show’s stand, going against a trend of storytelling that detaches the individual crime from society. Forbrydelsen shows us that a single crime hurts society as a whole, but it’s also a product of it. Sarah is assigned to the case with her partner, detective Jan Meyer. Following leads that go all the way to the Prime Minister and back, both Lund and Meyer get to unravel the identity of the killer, at the expense of risking everything. Tragedy strikes again and, despite having solved the murder, Lund, now investigated by her bosses, is punished and degraded to a traffic officer in the first episode of Season 2.
The murder of Nanna Birk Larsen seems to have been written following what statistics show all over the world: that the perpetrator is in most cases someone close to the victim. It took Sarah many false leads, a loss of her own and the political elite upside down to finally catch the killer, his own pathology rooted in a broken family and childhood.
By the second season, the production of episodes was reduced by half, and Sarah, now investigating a series of gruesome murders by an apparent serial killer, goes through her worst personal decisions, almost to the point of auto-sabotage, and getting killed by them. A weak season by comparison, Sarah’s personal struggles and blindness at love are the focus of the storyline, with a villain too wicked and too hard to believe. A point in favor is the commentary on international politics, in particular Denmark’s participation in the war against Afghanistan is portrayed as a foolish decision that resulted in the senseless murder of Afghan civilians and the fractured minds of the soldiers upon their return.
But it is the third and last season that remains the most controversial. The young daughter of a prominent industrialist is kidnapped by a man hungry for vengeance. The story focuses on the bitter battle of her parents against each other as they’re desperate to find her, and the plan of the kidnapper reveals a horrific case of pedophilia in the hands of an apparently respectable man. Such tragedy is framed by a wider political context, just like the previous seasons, as the 3rd ends with Sarah facing the limits of justice and reason. What to do when you’re facing a monster, knowing he will get away with a crime?
Intertwined with her own personal demons, her fractured relationship with her son and a second opportunity at love, Forbrydelsen’s finale poses many moral dilemmas in an open ending that manages to portray Sarah with all her contradictions. She’s a hero and an antihero at the same time. The last five minutes of the episode have no dialogue, but the resolution comes from the story that Grabol’s face is expressing as she’s staring at the killer, who stares back in those harrowing, empty eyes. Perhaps one of the best acting moments of Sophie Grabol and an unexpected but satisfying end to one of the best female characters of crime TV.