Cold case

As the film adap­ta­tion of Jo Nesbø’s crime thriller The Snow­man, star­ring Michael Fass­ben­der, opens, Alex Pre­ston dis­cusses mur­der and misog­yny with the cast and au­thor

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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, the Ham­mers­borg Barne­hage, 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 pri­ma­ry­coloured 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 on ex­pan­sive, gar­ru­lous form. He’s in Nor­way to film an adap­ta­tion of Jo Nesbø’s grue­some thriller The Sno wman, di­rected by one of the high priests of Scandi noir, To­mas Alfredson.

It’s past 10 in the evening, March, snow fall­ing ter 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 that 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 both 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 clos­ing in on 100 mil­lion copies some 13 years af­ter his death), the fam­ily 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, 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 in damp flur­ries over the graves out­side. I’ve spent the last 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 com­plex­i­tie s, 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 charac- been op­er­at­ing over a pe r i o d o f many ye a r s i n No r way, 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 col­leag ue, Ka­trine Bratt (playe d 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 (whose sales are Scan­di­navia is all hygge, 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 un­set­tlingly re­veal­ing in­sights into life amid the glaciers and moun­tains, fjords and lakes.

So ob­sessed have read­ers been by 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

‘I don’t think Harry is a misog­y­nist,’ Fass­ben­der tells me. ‘I don’t get that from the books at all’

at a ho­tel on the wide and airy Karl Jo­hans gate. 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 up to the St Han­shau­gen area of the city, which is more res­i­den­tial and re­laxed, 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 then 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 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, 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 more 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 change the way he and other Nor­we­gian crime nov­el­ists wrote for­ever.

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 ex­cus e. I wish I hadn’t gone so far, it wasn’t needed f or the st or y.’ The scene he’s re­fer­ring to, pub­lished in the UK 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.’ If the film of

The Snow­man is half as macabre as the book, au­di­ences have a har­row­ing few hours ahead. The Snow­man is re­leased on 13 Oc­to­ber

I ask Nesbø whether he wor­ried about the amount of vi­o­lence in his nov­els. ‘Yes, I wish I hadn’t gone so far’

Michael Fass­ben­der as Nesbø’s de­tec­tive Harry Hole Film­ing in the icy wilds of Nor way

Jo Nesbø at a book sign­ing ear­lier this year Re­becca Fer­gu­son with Fass­ben­der in The Snow­man

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