What Is Nordic Noir

What is Nordic Noir: Step into the dark world of Scandinavian crime fiction

Scandinavia reigns supreme on the happiness scale, but that doesn’t mean it’s all hygge in this Northern utopia. The chilling temperatures, the long dark winter days and the vast stretches of bleak wilderness have given birth to a grim crime fiction genre called Nordic Noir.

These grisly crime dramas have gradually made their way from the printed page to the screen — and from Scandinavia to the rest of the world. The multi-million industry now produces novels, TV shows, and movies to satiate a growing appetite for grotesque mysteries.

The dramatic plots have viewers at the edge of their seats and immerse them in the exotic landscapes of Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland.

If you’re intrigued and would like to take a deep dive into the dark world of Scandinavian Noir, we’ve rounded up some of the best Nordic Noir series and movies that you can watch while cozying up beside a warm fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate to comfort you.

What is Nordic Noir?

Nordic noir, also known as Scandinavian or Scandi Noir, is a genre of crime fiction set in a Nordic country that’s operatic and usually written from a police’s perspective. These thrillers are defined by their dark narratives, murky settings and troubled protagonists.

Nordic Noir is often associated with TV shows or movies, but it also encompasses literature, novels, video games, podcasts, design, style, and music.

Some of the key elements of a Nordic Noir plot include:

  • Bleak settings, usually in remote landscapes and bland, unassuming streets.
  • Plots that involve brutal crimes like murder, misogyny, misandry, racism and rape.
  • A troubled and tortured protagonist battling their inner demons.
  • A solid story with complex themes, fatalistic storylines and twists.
  • A social critique that sheds light on the flaws of society and the underbelly of society.
  • Tales that move at a melancholic tempo with slow, minimalistic background music.

The visual aesthetics of Nordic Noir matches the morally complex mood and themes. The scenes are in desolate, haunting, snowy vistas and seeming calm and quiet neighborhoods. These settings are almost like a metaphor for the mysteries that await the detectives every day.

How is Nordic Noir different from other crime dramas?

Nordic Noir distinguishes itself from other crime series with its realistic, simple and precise storylines and characters. There’s no fluff or unnecessary words that clutter the plot and the message.

Unlike the whodunit format typical of mainstream murder mysteries, Nordic Noir features an antihero who often uses questionable ways to solve crimes and reveal the underbelly of society.

The antihero, usually a police detective, is flawed and troubled by the state of affairs instead of a regular crime hero who is portrayed in a positive light.

Why is Nordic Noir so popular?

Nordic Noir has gained popularity worldwide because it’s refreshingly different from other crime dramas that usually involve fistfights and car chases and the stereotypical “good guys versus bad guys” storyline.

Conversely, Nordic Noir takes audiences into a world based on raw, unsentimental and realistic themes with bold characters that tackle unsavory yet important societal issues.

The scripts are embedded with twists and suspense, delivered at a slow-burning pace. Combine this with the stunning cinematography that showcases the exotic and striking Scandinavian landscapes, and you’ve got a show that audiences can’t resist binge-watching.

Are there Nordic Noir locations that I can visit?

Nordic noir has led to a tourism boom in Scandinavian countries. Fans of Scandi Noir are eager to visit the locations that provided the backdrop of their favorite TV shows, movies and books. 

After the success of the Wallander novels, the small Swedish town of Ystad saw an uptick in the number of tourists who were fans of the Swedish TV series Young Wallander. By visiting the town where it was shot, they believe they could be part of the “Wallander experience.”  

Local authorities say that the growing popularity of Nordic Noir has attracted more global attention to Ystad. The place has reinvented itself into a film hub where they now host the Skåne Film Festival and the Detective Film Festival and Pixel.

In Copenhagen, some tours focus on taking visitors to film locations for popular Nordic series like The Bridge, The Killing and Borgen. Walking tours focused on the Millennium or The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo series are popular attractions in Stockholm, Sweden.

Norway’s Nordic Noir spot includes the Oslo Opera House and the Bjørvika bay that was featured in the TV series Beforeigner. In Iceland, you can visit Siglufjörður, which was the setting for the first two episodes of Trapped and Dark Iceland novels.

Best Nordic Noir movies

Headhunters (2011)

This Norwegian thriller, adapted from Jo Nesbø’s 2008 novel, features the plight of head-hunter Roger Brown who moonlights as an art thief to pay for the lavish lifestyle he and his wife Diana aspires to have.

However, his quest takes a turn for the worse after he bumps into ex-Special Forces officer Clas Greve.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish psychological thriller based on the 2005 novel authored by Stieg Larsson.

Mikael Blomkvist (played by Daniel Craig) is a financial journalist who leaves his job after being convicted of libel for writing an article about billionaire financier Hans-Erik Wennerström.

Later, he is asked to find out what happened to a girl from a wealthy family who disappeared 40 years ago. With the help of a computer hacker, he sets off on his investigation and as he digs deeper, he discovers secrets that he never expected.

Where to stream: Hulu

The Hunt (2013)

This acclaimed Danish drama film centers on the plight of a school teacher accused of pedophilia in the school that he teaches. After the accusations pile up, he loses his job. The movie is shot during the beautiful Danish autumn, enhancing its mood.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

Insomnia (1997)

Swedish detective Jonas Engström (played by Stellan Skarsgård) travels to Norway’s arctic region to solve the case of the mysterious killing of a 17-year-old girl.

Things take a dramatic turn during his search for the hunter after he accidentally kills his partner and tries to cover it up.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

This Danish film, based on the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, tells the story of a troubled detective assigned to a new basement-bound job called “Department Q” where he and his assistant, Assad, review case files and determine which ones can be closed.

One case about suspected suicide captured his attention, leading to an exciting investigation.

Where to stream: Netflix

Nordic Noir series:

The Bridge (2011-2018)

This series is considered the one that started the Nordic Noir TV genre. When a woman’s body is found in the middle of Øresund Bridge, a bridge between Denmark and Sweden, Danish authorities consequently discover that there was not one murder, but two.

Danish inspector Martin Rohde and Swedish detective Saga Norén work together to solve the case.

Where to stream: Netflix

Deadwind (2018-2021)

This popular Finnish crime drama follows detective Sofia Karppi, a young female detective who recently lost her husband and is struggling to get back on track with her life while raising two children.

While investigating the murder of a social affairs consultant, she also discovers the body of a young woman at a construction site, which sets a chain of events that she didn’t anticipate.

Where to stream: Netflix

Trapped (2015- )

Trapped is about a real-life crime in a small coastal town in Iceland. Considering Iceland’s remarkably low murder rate (an average of less than two per year), the tale comes across as even more significant.

After a headless, limbless corpse is found in the harbor, a three-person police department tries to unravel the case. After a storm descends upon the town, they have no way to leave the area.

Where to stream: Amazon Prime Video

The Valhalla Murders (2019-2020)

In this crime drama, loosely based on a real-life story, Icelandic police office Arnar is sent back home from Oslo to help detective teams hunt down Reykjavik’s first serial killer.

Several victims were found brutally murdered, and after a chain of events, the team traced the murders back to a state-run boys’ home that shut down years ago.

Where to stream: Netflix

Quicksand (2019)

Based on the bestselling Swedish novel by Malin Persson Giolito, the drama is told through the eyes of the protagonist, 18-year-old Maja, who is accused of murder after a school shooting took place in a school located in a wealthy suburb in Stockholm.

The storyline moves from the present day when she finds herself on trial and the events that led to the tragic day.

Where to stream: Netflix

Nordic Noir: It’s bleak, but addictive!

For fans of crime fiction, Nordic Noir is as bleak as they can get. The brutal crimes imbued with shocking violence are not for the faint of heart. However, its likable characters and their willingness to reveal the murkiness behind the façade of society draw viewers in.

With a steady stream of Scandi Noir productions crossing the ocean, you can be sure that you’ll have plenty of Nordic Noir series and movies to watch in the foreseeable future.

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