Popularity of Nordic noir TV series in Germany

Nordic TV drama series remain an audience success in Germany and are highly regarded by critics. The reasons for this ongoing popularity can be found in the general accessibility of Nordic television in Germany, the existing success of the Nordic noir genre in crime literature, and in the specific form of narration and aesthetics of the series. In a 2016 audience study on Danish TV series, viewers from Germany highlight the importance of authenticity, female lead characters and a narration that gives characters time and space to develop against the backdrop of the depiction of real topics and concerns.

2019.02.15 | Susanne Eichner and Lothar Mikos

Foto: Tine Harden © DR.DK Pressefotos

Digitalisation and fragmentation of the international television market have increased the demand for quality television content. During the last decade Nordic noir television drama series have become increasingly popular in Germany and have gained international recognition in terms of audience ratings, critical acclaim and awards. Even before the notable success of Forbrydelsen (The Killing/Kommissarin Lund, ZDF since 2008), Nordic noir series had managed to attract a considerable audience in Germany with successful Swedish crime novel adaptations such as Beck (ARD since 1997), Wallander (ZDF, 2001-2006) and Mankell’s Wallander (ARD, 2006-), as well as popular Danish television series such as Rejseholdet (Unit One – Die Spezialisten, ZDF, 2004-2006) or Ørnen (The Eagle/Der Adler – Spur des Verbrechens, ZDF, 2005-2007). Nordic noir continues to remain popular on German screens as high audience ratings of shows such as the Swedish-Danish Bron/Broen III (The Bridge/Die Brücke – Transit in den Tod, ZDF), the Islandic Trapped (Trapped/Gefangen in Island, ZDF), or the Swedish series Beck (Kommissar Beck, ZDF) demonstrates.

While Nordic series sell well worldwide to niche cosmopolitan and elite market segments, they usually don’t reach a bigger audience outside the region. In Germany, however, they have achieved considerable audience ratings across the board. In 2013, the final episode of Forbrydelsen drew an average of 3.44 million viewers (16% market share) and the series is now considered a door-opener for subtitled European drama across the globe. The lasting success of Nordic TV drama series in Germany can be explained by viewing habits and strategies, the specific conditions of production and distribution, as well as their specific way of storytelling and aesthetics.

Nordic noir books and films as precursors

Nordic noir television is based on a creative tradition not only found on TV, but also in novels and film. Nordic crime novels have been popular since the 1970s. Indeed, most of the Swedish TV series are based on well-known crime novels. Books popularised representations of cold, dark and desolated winter landscapes, explicit scenes of violence and the tristesse of the crime genre. Kerstin Bergmann pointed out five main characteristics of this trend in 2014:

·         the ’Stieg Larsson Effect’;

·         criticism of the welfare state;

·         gender equality and strong women characters;

·         the exotic landscapes and settings; and,

·         a strong bond to the Anglo-American crime fiction tradition.

The worldwide success of the Stieg Larsson novels and the subsequent TV miniseries, that became extremely popular in Germany, paved the way for other crime authors from the region.

Film also influenced the success of Nordic crime fiction. Ingmar Bergman, Aki Kaurismäki, Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier have all contributed to the reputation of Nordic cinema (and television) as critical, radical and authentic, while also being popular among movie-goers in Germany. It also had an effect on the production culture in the Nordic region, specifically in Denmark: Lars von Trier’s miniseries Riget (The Kingdom 1994-1997) can be considered pioneering for the fruitful mélange and crossover between the creative personnel and production culture of TV and cinema.

Accessibility

Placing Nordic noir series in popular time-slots on free channels opened up a large market in Germany. Since the 1980s, the national television landscape in Germany has been characterised by its dual system. On the one hard, there is the public broadcasting channels ARD and ZDF and the regional “third” channels, which in 2019 make up 47% of the audience share. On the other, there are the two free-to-air commercial channel groups from Media Group RTL (23%) and ProSiebenSat1 (18%), which combined currently make up 41% audience share (see www.kek-online.de (in German)). One of the most successful programmes is the weekly long-running crime series Tatort. This has been running since 1970, frequently hits the 10 million viewer mark and reaches up to 40% of the audience share, competing in ratings with big entertainment shows and sport events. It airs on the public broadcasting channel ARD nearly every Sunday night. ZDF runs a romance as its counter programming strategy, but has placed its more sophisticated slot for foreign crime drama – mostly British and Nordic crime drama – programmed to come on directly after the ARD Tatort slot so as to take over its audience. Since foreign television is dubbed in Germany as standard practice, watching foreign language programmes requires no additional effort on the part of the viewer, unlike other countries where unfamiliarity with subtitles can be off-putting. Additionally, the Nordic series are available via the online archives of the public broadcasters where they are streamed in both versions; the original with German subtitles, as well as the German dubbed version, thereby providing the content for different audience segments and their preferences.

Collaboration between German and Nordic TV companies

It is not a mere coincidence that Nordic TV series appeared on German screens. In 2002, the Danish public broadcaster DR (Danmark’s Radio) won its first International Emmy for Best Drama Series with Rejseholdet (Unit One 2000-2004). When this success was repeated in 2003 by Nikolaj og Julie (2002), Peter Nadermann, head of co-production and fiction at the distribution company ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) at the time, contacted the head of drama at DR, Ingold Gabold, and suggested a collaboration between ZDFE and DR. They agreed to broadcast Rejseholdet on ZDF and, when it performed well, ZDF not only started to co-produce crime series from DR, but also from other Nordic countries, which in exchange secured ZDFE the the international distribution rights. Subsequently, shows such as Livvagterne (The Protectors, DR, 2009-2010), Ørnen (The Eagle, DR, 2004-2006) or Den som dræber (Those Who Kill, TV2, 2011) were successfully shown to German audiences on ZDF’s Sunday late-night slot, reserved for foreign crime shows. Forbrydelsen (The Killing 2007-2012) achieved market shares of between 13% and 16% and Bron/Broen (The Bridge, 2011-2018) achieved similarly good ratings. In an interview in 2016, ZDF’s head of fiction, Susanne Müller, indicated that this success fulfils and even excels the expectations of the channel. The relationship between DR and ZDF/ZDFE lasted for over a decade until Nordic drama series gained international reputation and DR was able to collaborate with new partners.

What audiences like about Danish series

In 2016, a study was undertaken with six focus groups consisting of viewers based in Germany of Danish TV series as part of the research project What makes Danish TV Drama Series Travel? No TV programmes were excluded, so programmes which do not explicitly fit into the Nordic noir genre, such as Borgen were also included. Danish television series were found to be popular in Germany for the following reasons:

  • Different from American TV: German audiences refer frequently to the mode of narration in Danish series as differing from the well-known American series. They characterised the narration as “unagitated”; “austere and reduced”; and, giving characters “somehow time and space to unfold and develop”. Characters are perceived as “complex”, “broken”, “ambivalent”, and even “failed”, giving them higher credibility and authenticity than the more smooth American protagonists.
  • Authenticity: Authenticity is one of the most important aspects for the German viewers. What appeals to the study participants are: the “relation to reality” created through the depiction of current topics; credible characters; and, the recurring theme of strong, yet ambivalent, female lead characters who live in complicated relationships with their partners, their children and their colleagues and struggle to find a balance between private life and career.
  • Female lead characters: By choosing female rather than male protagonists, Danish drama series took the opportunity to depict new perspectives on social and psychological problems and thereby provide a societal role model that viewers can aspire to: “Scandinavian society is simply at the vanguard,” a 49-year-old male study participant explained.

Corridors of power. DR's Borgen is about the personal and professional life of a female prime minister in Denmark. Photo: David Kahr, Folketinget.

  • Double storytelling: The double layering of crime story and social criticism, labelled ‘double storytelling’, has been one of the values promoted by DR’s leading figures, containing “larger ethical and social connotations” (as explained by Redvall in his book from 2013). Nielsen argues in an article from 2016 that when Brigitte Nielsen in Borgen suggests a “marriage agreement” to her husband Phillip, the idea of Denmark as a welfare state that has achieved gender equality is written into the scene. Similarly, Inspector Sarah Lund in Forbrydelsen and Inspector Saga Norén in Bron/Broen have to deal with the full range of societal problems connected to crime: drugs, pedophilia, environmental crime, vengeance and violence.
  • Nordic noir aesthetics: Scandinavian drama series are acknowledged by critics and scholars for their use of locations and aesthetic style, which creates the special atmosphere associated with Nordic noir. Study participants did acknowledge the style in Danish series as distinctive and ascribe a diffuse effect of the aesthetics on reception choice and experience. At the same time some criticise the shaky hand camera and the darkness as overstated: “Yes, maybe it’s thrilling, but it’s too much,” a 58-year-old female participant complains, a view that some other participants shared.
  • Place: Specific locations can create personal and geographical proximities. When viewers have friend or relatives living in the depicted areas, when they know the actual places from personal experience, or when they are geographically close to Scandinavia, the depiction of concrete, real places adds a level of enjoyment to the narration.

In summary, the success of the Nordic television crime series in Germany is based on the long-lasting popularity of Nordic crime novels which received a new boost with the Millennium-trilogy of Stieg Larsson in the first decade of the 21st century, establishing Nordic noir as a strong brand. The accolades by the International Emmy Awards led to strategic decisions on the level of programme acquisition and co-production activities that guaranteed Nordic drama a privileged place on Germany’s most frequented TV channel ZDF, making them accessible to a broad audience in Germany. The plain and “unagitated” mode of narration appeals to audiences as it leaves the ambivalent and often female lead characters time and space to develop. This, together with the depiction of actual topics and concerns, creates a sense of authenticity that distinguishes Nordic drama from other drama series.

Norden as a positively connoted brand affects the reception choice and experience of the participants positively. Locations take on a ‘brand value’ for the actual cities, countries and regions depicted. In this sense, Nordic noir becomes more than a genre, because it is connected to the idea of the Nordic welfare state, of gender equality, of strong women, cool design and a specific way of life; a brand that has proved to be highly successful over the last few decades.

Further reading:

  • Kerstin Bergmann, 'The Captivating Chill: Why Readers Desire Nordic Noir', Scandinavian-Canadian Studies, 22 (2014), pp. 80–89.
  • Susanne Eichner, 'German audiences of Danish TV drama series. Six focus groups' Unpublished study report, Aarhus University (2016)
  • Barry Forshaw, 'Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV' (Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2013)
  • Lea Gamula and Lothar Mikos, Nordic Noir Skandinavische Fernsehserien und ihr internationaler Erfolg (Konstanz & München: UVK, 2014)
  • Jakob Isak Nielsen, 'The Danish Way to do it the American Way', Kosmorama, 263 (2016), 
  • Eva Novrup Redvall, Writing and Producing Television Drama in Denmark: From The Kingdom to The Killing. (Palgrave Studies in Screenwriting, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
  • Susanne Müller (Head of Fiction, ZDF) and Volker Lehmann (Vice President Acquisitions and Co-productions, ZDFE): 'This world is so in turmoil right now that people sometimes are afraid if Scandinavian Noir is too Noir', interviewed by Susanne Eichner and Pia Majbritt Jensen, Juni 24, 2016.