In icy Oslo, Michael Fassbender talks about Scandi noir, film violence and portraying Norway’s favourite fictional detective
Michael Fassbender is unusually tall for an actor, a fact that becomes uncomfortably apparent when we finally find a room in which to talk. We’re in a kindergarten overlooking the gothic gloom of Oslo’s Vår Frelsers cemetery, canted gravestones jostling in the moonlight. We sit as best we can on the chairs – perky little primary-coloured numbers meant for three-year-olds. Fassbender’s knees are somewhere about his ears, while I take notes on a table that would serve better as a footstool. It’s bright and warm inside, though, and Fassbender is in expansive, garrulous form. He’s in Norway to film an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s gruesome thriller The Snowman, directed by one of the high priests of Scandi noir, Tomas Alfredson.
It’s past 10 in the evening, snow falling in damp flurries over the graves outside. I’ve spent the past two hours watching Fassbender and one of his co-stars, Charlotte Gainsbourg, walking up the narrow cobbled street that leads from the Munch Museum, past the kindergarten, to the cemetery. Machines pumped mist around them as they walked, their breath steamed, footsteps crunching on compacted snow. The houses here are pink and yellow and red, the whole thing like a Bergmantinted dream of Scandinavia. All Fassbender wants to talk about, though, is Jo Nesbø’s novels.
“I’ve loved that this part has got me into reading again,” he tells me. “I love the books – they’re easy to read but not disposable, there are lots of layers and depths and complexities, lots of research. These are books that are really intelligently woven together, and so picking these up and reading them one after another has not only been great fun but has made me really understand this character so much better.” The character in question is Harry Hole (if you want to sound smart, you pronounce the final e), Nesbø’s grizzled, hard-drinking, ultimately lovable detective.
Fassbender says he deliberately chose not to read The Snowman – “I didn’t want to get attached to things in the book that didn’t end up in the film” – but immersed himself in the prequels and sequels to this, the seventh and most successful of Nesbø’s multi-million-selling crime series. “Reading the books was really helpful,” he says. “Harry obviously gets much more refined when we get to know the character, but I wanted to understand the basic characteristic traits, the descriptions of him, the physicality. Then I started working my way through what happened directly after this novel. To see what his future held.”
The Snowman tells of a serial killer who has been operating over a period of many years in Norway, striking after the year’s first snowfall, his victims all wives and mothers, his calling card a snowman built at the scene. The book traces Hole and his new colleague, Katrine Bratt (played by Rebecca Ferguson), as they swim through a whole school of red herrings before settling upon the eventual culprit. The violence is often brutal, the landscapes icily picturesque, the thrills breathless and unrelenting.
When Nesbø first came to prominence in the English-speaking world he was described as “the new Stieg Larsson”, and although his 33 million books sold still pale next to the Swedish author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (sales of which are closing in on 100 million copies almost 13 years after his death), the resemblance is clear. Both write novels that prod the dark underbelly of Scandinavian life, both describe violence against women in language that straddles an uneasy line between condemnation and titillation, and both have damaged, decent, charismatic protagonists who aren’t afraid to meet the threat of violence with violence of their own.
The high point of Scandi noir was towards the end of the last decade, with the first season of the original Danish version of The Killing on television, Larsson’s Millennium trilogy colonising the book charts, and Alfredson’s vampiric Let the Right One In sending chills through cinema audiences. It might feel that The Snowman is turning up to the party a little late, dealing out bloodlust and revenge when the contemporary vision of Scandinavia is all hygge (cosy conviviality), pastries, tealights and cable-knit jumpers.
Yet as I stand watching Fassbender and Gainsbourg climb the misty streets, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this – the atmosphere, the location – is utterly central to the success of Nesbø’s books. Scandi noir enthralled people because it fashioned a competing narrative to our conventional view of Scandinavia. We’d learnt that these people were liberal, egalitarian, wealthy, balanced and beautiful, and yet here was a whole genre built around airing their darkest and most squalid secrets. Reading is a kind of tourism, and these novels, television series and films promised us a series of unsettling, revealing insights into life amid the glaciers and mountains, fjords and lakes.
So obsessed have readers been with Nesbø’s novels that the Oslo tourism office has set up a
Harry Hole-themed tour of the city. So, the day after my visit to the set of The Snowman, I present myself at a hotel on the wide and airy Karl Johans gate, Oslo’s main street. My guide, Anne-Marie, leads me off at a fast clip. My experience of Oslo so far has been somewhat anodyne – large empty streets, grand public buildings, a feeling of cleanliness and prosperity. I’d been reading Nesbø’s novels in the lead-up to the trip and all this wholesomeness jarred with the vision I had of the city, which in the books feels like a warren of vice and violence. Soon, though, Anne-Marie leads me into the Grønland district, which is buzzing and multicultural and has a major heroin problem. While Nesbø admits that his Oslo is a partly invented city, it’s not hard to see where he draws his inspiration once you step away from the main tourist drag.
After Grønland, we head to the St Hanshaugen area of the city, which is more residential and relaxed, with lots of small shops and cosy-looking restaurants. On the way, Anne-Marie tells me about Nesbø’s past – how his father fought alongside the Nazis and spent three years in jail following the war. How the young Nesbø, growing up in Molde on the country’s jagged west coast, had been a precocious footballer, a star of the Norwegian Tippeligaen (premier football league), who was scouted by Tottenham until a knee injury ended his career. She told me of his brief but successful stint as a stockbroker, before books and music claimed him. Nesbø is not only Norway’s bestselling writer, but he’s also lead singer and guitarist of Di Derre (These Guys), one of the country’s most successful bands.
Our tour includes the restaurant Schrøder, Harry’s favourite hang-out in the novels. It’s a warm and inviting place, with old pictures on the walls and checked tablecloths. We sit down for a drink – I have a beer, a nod to Harry. Anne-Marie tells me that she’s a retired teacher, that she wasn’t a Nesbø fan before starting as a tour guide and still skips over the more gruesome scenes in the books. Then, her tone suddenly confidential, she tells me that two of her students were killed by Anders Behring Breivik in the 2011 attacks on the island of Utøya. His massacre and bombing, in which 77 mainly young people were killed, has left deep scars in Norway. I remember seeing Nesbø speaking at Edinburgh International Book Festival soon after the killings. He was sad and eloquent and admitted that Breivik’s crimes would forever change the way he and other Norwegian crime novelists wrote.
When I got back to the UK, Nesbø and I exchanged emails. Thinking back to that speech, I ask him whether he worried about the amount of violence in his novels, if there were times when he felt he’d gone too far in some of his descriptions of violence. “Yes, I do,” he replied. “And yes, I have. In The Leopard. It was not intentional, but that’s no excuse. I wish I hadn’t gone so far, it wasn’t needed for the story.” The scene he’s referring to in the book, published not long before the Utøya massacre, describes a man being tied to a red-hot stove, objects being burnt into his back, water thrown over him every time he’s about to pass out. It’s torture porn, almost unreadably unpleasant, but it’s what people come to these books for, just as they come to the films of Eli Roth or, earlier, the novels of Thomas Harris. What Nesbø has done is very cleverly interlace the crime and horror genres, with extra exoticism provided by his wintry locations.
There are acts in The Snowman that are almost as grisly as that scene in The Leopard, and many of them are performed upon women. In Oslo, I’d asked Fassbender about the violence, about how he deals with the darker sides of Harry’s personality. “I don’t think Harry is a misogynist,” he told me. “I don’t get that from the books at all. What we’ve tried to do is have this man within a chauvinistic environment, the police force, and to make it clear that he doesn’t judge people on whether they have a dick or not. We see that very much with Rebecca [Ferguson]’s character. He’s inspired by her. He sees that she’s a passionate police officer and he recognises that there’s a lack of that in the police. Whether the books are misogynistic because of the way the women die – you could take that view. But I don’t think Harry is.”
Gainsbourg was more forthright still. “The darkness? The violence? That’s what people come to this film for,” she said as we stood, rather jarringly, in the entrance hall of the kindergarten, next to a collection of finger-paintings of rainbows. “It’s part of the genre. I don’t mind it. I enjoy it.”
I had a last moment with Fassbender before the crew turned in for the night. I asked him if he thought the film of The Snowman would match up to Nesbø’s gory, compulsive novels. He laughed. “It’s so hard to improve upon the experience of reading a book when you’re making a film,” he said. “You’re filling in so many of the blanks with your imagination as a reader. A lot of the time the descriptions of the murders are more horrific and haunting because people’s imaginations are much more vivid and scary and twisted than anything you could show on a screen.”
I don’t think Harry is a misogynist. I don’t get that from the books at all
The Snowman is in cinemas from October 19
Dark side: Fassbender on the set of The Snowman; with Charlotte Gainsbourg, below; Jo Nesbø