The smart phone in Nordic noir TV series

The mobile phone, and more specifically the ‘smart’ phone, has emerged as a key visual, dramaturgical and narrative element of Nordic noir television over the past decade. The smart phone represents an integral part of the crime-solving toolkit, whether its user is an obsessive police officer, a nosy reporter, a witness or a (potential) victim.

2019.02.28 | Robert A. Saunders

The smart phone’s relative newness makes it a novel element of post-millennial television series (and films). It is unlike other elements of the Nordic noir genre such as bleak landscapes, gloomy cityscapes and morose detectives which have roots in the literary tradition popularised by the likes of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Mankell and Turèll. Always at hand (except when their absence can allow for plot-advancing miscommunication or misunderstanding), the mobile phone is as integral to Nordic noir as the automobile, the sidearm or the badge. 

Narrative functions of the smart phone

Characters use their mobiles to communicate across long distances, as well as stay in contact with their partners or superiors. The device can serve a range of narrative functions, including working as a medium for manipulation by a perpetrator (even serving as a weapon as was the case in Bron|Broen (The Bridge)).  It can mark a failure on the part of a character to answer the calls or messages of their partner, relative, etc. (thus signifying a form of ‘betrayal’ as occurred in several instances in Deadwind). And of course the plot is often successfully advanced by confusion caused by the absence of a smart phone.

The smart phone as an integral part of investigation

The smart phone provides access to a vast digital reservoir of information for any investigation when it is removed from the familiar confines of the police station, allowing sleuths to map a space, follow up on a clue, or track down a lead. Geolocating a cellular signal, or the failure to do so, also figures prominently in many pivotal scenes, as does the lost, discarded or destroyed smart phone conveniently located in the course of an investigation. 

The smart phone is also regularly used by friends, family, colleagues and antagonists alike to ferret out information that cannot be otherwise obtained (often by sifting through text messages via surreptitious means). As such, technology collapses and closes off many avenues of performed investigation that were once sacrosanct in the genre, thus eliminating the need for the phone booth, answering machine and a variety of other ‘outdated’ technologies. This is something that is not confined to Nordic noir, but impacts all crime-based genres, which have similarly evolved alongside other innovations such as DNA profiling, psychological profiling and new forms of forensic science.

The phone as a signifier

Given the high level of data coverage across Norden, there are few instances where service fails; however, when it does, this marks out the geographic remoteness of the setting as we see in series such Midnight Sun, which is set above the Arctic Circle.

Such devices also add to the development of specific characters, subtly suggesting tendencies towards a desire for privacy (a ‘hooded’ phone that cannot be seen without opening the flap), ‘Scandinavian’ openness (lack of a passcode or biometrics) or a Luddite proclivity (via the use of older tech like the Nokia ‘brick’ or a flip-phone). The female detective with an earbud answering by name and department affiliation (especially with the now infamous ‘Saga Norén, Länskrim, Malmö’) is now so entrenched in the stylistics of the genre that it served as comedic fodder for the Sveriges Television (SVT1) Nordic noir-spoof Fallet (The Case).

Apps on the trail of Nordic noir

The smart phone even possesses an extra-textual dimension when it comes to Nordic noir, specifically via apps that allow ‘screen tourists’ to literally walk in the footsteps of Wallander, Saga and other famous detectives when visiting sites like Malmö and Ystad.

Further reading:

  • Anne Marit Waade, 'Nordic Noir Tourism and Television Landscapes: In the Footsteps of Kurt Wallander and Saga Norén." Scandinavica, 55,1 (2016), pp. 41-65.  
  • H. O'Donoghue, 'Old Wine in New Bottles: Tradition and Innovation in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.' in Steven Peacock, ed, Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Nordic Noir on Page and Screen (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).