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Nordic invasion: Movies, books, music and more

| Thursday, April 15, 2010


To the delight of his book fans, the Swedish-language version of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" opens in Pittsburgh today.

The film was a huge hit in Europe, following its February 2009 opening in Sweden. It brought in $100 million in European box offices before opening in the United Kingdom or Ireland

Music Box, the distributor, plans to release the other films in the United States later this year, tentatively scheduling "The Girl Who Played With Fire" for July, with "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" due around Labor Day weekend.

Sony Corp.'s subsidiary Columbia Pictures has bought the English-language movie rights to the Millennium trilogy. Yellow Bird AB, which made Swedish-language movies based on the books, will work with Columbia Pictures on the Hollywood versions, for which filming is expected to start next year.

The movies will be produced by Scott Rudin ("No Country for Old Men") while "Schindler's List" scriptwriter Steve Zaillian will adapt the books for the big screen.

Don't be deceived by the Nordic countries' low crime rates, affluence and generous social safety net. When it comes to movies, they do dark and disturbing better than just about anyone. The full range of Scandinavian cinema is as vast and deep as the snow north of Lillehammer. Here are a few good ones to get started:

"The Seventh Seal" (1957) Long considered the ultimate "gateway drug" for foreign/art film aficionados, Ingmar Bergman directed this literary-quality fable about a Swedish knight traveling across a plague-stricken landscape, before he has to face Death in a literal game of chess. Nowadays, "The Seventh Seal" gets some mockery for its heavy-handed symbolism, but doesn't get nearly enough credit for its sardonic sense of humor.

"Let the Right One In" (2004) The best vampire movie of the past decade, by far. A lonely, picked-on little boy becomes friends with a lonely little girl in a dreary Stockholm neighborhood. Gradually, he learns that she's a centuries-old vampire, and his playmate may have something to do with the recent spike in murders and missing persons.

"Dancer in the Dark" (2000) Danish director/provocateur Lars Von Trier applies his rigidly low-tech, documentary-styled approach to a musical , starring Bjork. Okay, it's a musical about murder, cruelty, exploitation, and hereditary disease causing blindness.

"Insomnia" (1997) A film noir set in the land of the midnight sun, about a guilt-ridden, insomniac cop investigating a murder in Norway above the Arctic Circle. An American remake starring Al Pacino came out in 2002.

"The Pathfinder" (1997) An adventure tale about a young hunter who saves his people from another marauding tribe is about as close to experiencing life in Scandinavia in the year 1000 as one is likely to see.

"The Man Without a Past" (2002). Low-key, darkly humorous drama from brilliant Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, about a man who gets amnesia after he is assaulted in the park one night. He struggles to build a new life amid the down-and-out, despite having no idea who he really is.

"Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1997) A weird hybrid of mystery, thriller and science fiction, about a half-Inuit woman with an extraordinary understanding of the properties of snow, who investigates a murder. Stars Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne.

— Michael Machosky


Like their peers in film and music, book publishers follow trends.

John Grisham's success with legal thrillers resulted in an avalanche of courtroom dramas. Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" spawned conspiracy-oriented books about Knight's Templar, secret societies and the Catholic Church.

But the latest trend is one very few could have predicted: Scandinavian mystery novels. The late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy -- starting with "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," published in the U.S. in 2008 -- have focused attention on writers from Denmark, Norway,and Sweden.

"Something is successful and everybody wants to replicate that success," says Richard Goldman, one of the owners of Mystery Lover's Bookshop in Oakmont, "so they dig up more of the same and promote it."

Goldman traces the popularity of Scandinavian mystery writers to rave reviews that Swedish author Henning Mankel received in the New York Times seven years ago. But the genre -- if it can be called that -- didn't explode in the U.S. until the publication of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

Writers including Karin Fossum, Hakan Nesser and Jo Nesbo have found their books more in demand because of the popularity of Larsson's books.

"That sent this (Scandinavian mysteries) to a much broader audience of readers, with sales to match," Goldman says.

The Oakmont bookstore has sold "hundreds of copies" of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," an international bestseller that has sold more than 8 million copies worldwide. It was followed by "The Girl Who Played with Fire."

Mystery Lover's sold at least 100 copies of the U.K. version of the third book of Larsson's Millennium trilogy, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," which will be published in the U.S. May 25 by Knopf. That book is now No. 6 on's Top 10 bestseller list, merely based on pre-orders. The first two books hold positions No. 3 ("Dragon Tattoo") and No. 9 ("Played with Fire").

Sarah Weinman, a book critic who runs the mystery-oriented Web-site "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind," says the key to Larsson's works is that they offer "a tremendous sense of catharsis." She thinks the heroine, the idiosyncratic Lisbeth Salander, is based on various female archetypes and tropes including Lara Croft, Modesty Blaise and Carol O'Connell's New York City detective Kathy Mallory.

But the novels' main appeal lies is the passion that Larsson, who died at the age of 50 in 2004 from a heart attack, invests in his work.

"The books reflect both Larsson's sense of righteous indignation about how women are treated in Swedish and overall society and his love of crime fiction," Weinman says via e-mail. "It was clear to me how much his heart and soul comes through, even filtered through heavily edited translation, and you simply cannot fake that sort of wonder-filled enthusiasm about characters and knowledge. Readers know that and sense it."

Rebecca Pollak of Point Breeze has read all three novels in the Millennium trilogy. She agrees with Weinman that Larsson's crusades against racism and injustice are enthralling, but also cites his deceptively simple writing style as compelling.

"It's hard to tell for sure because of the translations, but he's more Hemingway than he is Fitzgerald," Pollak says.

But as much as Pollak enjoys Larsson's work, she believes all Scandinavian mystery writers pale in comparison Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the Swedish husband-and-wife team whose books were popular in the 1960s.

"They're the classics, and no one can stand up compared to them," Pollak says.

— Rege Behe

Classical music

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was born and educated in Norway and has been one of classic music's brightest lights for more than a decade. He's avidly sought by top orchestras and was honored with his own "Perspectives" series at Carnegie Hall, in New York City. He performed with Mariss Jansons and the Pittsburgh Symphony in March 2001 at Heinz Hall and Carnegie Hall.

The Nordic influence isn't limited to the keyboard. Former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa Pekka Salonen, who is Finnish, is one of the world's most influential conductors.


Trumpeter Ingrid Jensen was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and educated at Boston's jazz-oriented Berklee College of Music, but she is more than a little in touch with her Danish heritage. She plays in many groups, but her Nordic Connect band focuses on that legacy and those of Swedish bassist Mattais Welin, Norwegian pianist Maggi Olin, drummer Jon Wikan, who is from Alaska but of Norwegian descent, and her sister, saxophonist Christine. The group's new album, "Spirals," is an examination both of their Nordic roots and how they can be used in jazz.


Few places have proved as perfect a breeding ground for heavy metal music as the unforgiving cold and dark of Norway, Sweden and Finland. From the '90s to the present, the underground metal scenes gave birth to several important metal mutations, each seemingly more extreme than the last.

The murky, chaotic sound of "black metal" (Darkthrone, Burzum) supposedly began as a reaction to staid, stoic, dull Norwegian life, before flaming out in a blaze of controversy and recrimination. Its adherents were/are instantly recognizable through their use of "corpsepaint" -- black and white makeup to make them look especially evil.

Swedish "melodic death metal" tends to feature grinding, detuned ultra-heavy riffs and serious technical skill, and increasingly melodic song structures. The "Gothenburg Sound" of bands like At the Gates and In Flames has proved quite resilient, and influential.

Curiously, most Scandinavian bands sing/growl in English, and a number have huge followings in the U.S., like Norway's Dimmu Borgir and Finland's Children of Bodom. Both of these bands also feature impressively technical lead guitar and prominent keyboards/synthesizers.

Sweden's Amon Amarth -- performing April at Mr. Small's in Pittsburgh -- are occasionally called "Viking metal," since they mostly sing about being Vikings (dying in battle, plundering, etc.).

Folk-metal bands like Finland's Korpiklaani and Fintroll combine traditional folk music with death metal in various combinations.

Though the environment of these countries surely played a role in creating Scandinavian metal -- they do sound fairly bleak and chilly -- it's not the only factor. The other main hotbed of death metal, after all, is Florida.

Hockey players

The Ottawa Senators, which opened a first-round playoff series against the Penguins on Wednesday, feature Swedes right wing Daniel Alfredsson, a member of the Swedish Olympic squad, and defenseman Erik Karlsson as well as former Penguin left wing Jarkko Ruutu from Finland.

The Detroit Red Wings has eight Swedish players on its roster and one from Finland. Two of the high-profile names are left wing Henrik Zetterberg and defenseman Niklas Lidstrom.

The Washington Capitals has Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom, who has scored 33 goals and has 68 assists and is the team's second-leading scorer.

Vancouver Canucks' center Henrik Sedin won the hallowed Art Ross Trophy, given to the league's scoring champion, beating out our own Sidney Crosby. Sedin has 112 points (29 goals and 83 assists).

The Swedish influence has reached off the ice, too. Olympian and New York Ranger Swedish goalie Henrik Lundquist was named the "World's Sexiest Ice Man" by the New York Post's Page Six Magazine.


Of all the Nordic icons of society, perhaps none is as recognizable as furniture giant IKEA. The retailer -- which has a store in Robinson -- got its roots from the woods of southern Sweden back in the 1920s, when founder Ingvar Kamprad started selling matches, flower seeds, and more at age 5. In the 1940s, Kamprad started developing IKEA into a furniture dealer, and sold many items via catalog. By the 1980s, IKEA had expanded to the United States and numerous other countries. Today, it numbers 301 stores worldwide.

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