Berlinale 2015 showcases international crime dramas and thrillers from Germany, Israel, Denmark, Sweden and Italy

The 2015 Berlinale – one of the world’s top international film festivals – closes today in Berlin. As ever, a host of wonderful films have been shown during the packed ten-day programme, with the Iranian film Taxi, directed by dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, awarded the coveted Golden Bear.

While reading coverage of the festival, I was interested to see that some international TV dramas were premiered as part of the programme, and that a number of these had a pronounced crime/thriller/spying dimension. Alessandra Stanley’s excellent article in the New York Times provides a good overview, and also discusses how such series are beginning to be picked up in the States (and not always to be remade in English either), which is a very good sign.

Here are a few of the series in question:

Deutschland 83. There’s quite a lot of buzz about this spying drama in Germany and beyond, and it has now also been picked up by an American network (in the original German!). The central protagonist is East German border guard Martin Rauch, who is sent across the border as an undercover agent by the Stasi (the East German secret police); his task is to pose as an aid to a West German general working with NATO. Stanley describes the series as ‘an ingenious, counter-intuitive look at the Cold War’ and a recent Guardian article sees it as indicative of rising interest in the divided Germany of 1949 to 1990.

Deutschland 83

Shkufim (False Flag). According to Stanley, this Israeli political drama was inspired by the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai in 2010. That scenario has been reworked for the series, which shows five Israeli citizens waking up one day to find they are prime suspects in the kidnapping of a Iranian official in Moscow. The drama is produced by Tender Productions, which also has links with Homeland (which was itself based on the Israeli series Hatufim).

The five suspects in False Flag

Follow the Money is a Danish crime thriller series by DR Drama (the makers of The Killing and Borgen) due to air later this year. It focuses on corruption in big business, with a lovely twist: the business in question is a wind-power company called Energreen, with supposedly impeccable ecological and moral credentials. Insider dealings and dodgy deaths indicate that all is not as it should be.

Follow the Money. Photo credit Christian Geisnæs

1992 is an Italian drama that was picked up in Berlin by the UK, according to Stanley (though no specific channel is named). This time, the corruption of political life by big business is the focus: the drama explores the Italian bribery scandals of the 1990s, and the attempts of Milan magistrate Antonio Di Pietro to clean up politics through Operation Clean Hands (Mani Pulite).

Italian crime series 1992

Last but not least, Blå ögon (Blue Eyes) is a Swedish-German crime series that explores racism, discrimination and immigration issues. Stanley describes it as having an anti-racist message, but also wanting to ‘upend expectations’ by giving characters on all sides of the debate a voice. One of the murder victims is a female, right-wing politician, who is assassinated while out in public.

STV’s Blue Eyes

Stanley ends her piece by noting that none of these series feature the disappearance or death of a child, as seen in earlier crime series such as The Killing and Broadchurch. Or to put this another way: these dramas are moving from highly personal cases whose investigations focus on the family and small communities, to cases that address larger historical, political and social issues. Interesting times. As ever, I’m hoping that a good number will make it on to our UK and US screens.

BBC4 announces new international crime acquisitions

BBC Four has announced three new foreign-language drama series: Crimes Of Passion, a Swedish crime series set in the 1950s, Hostages, an Israeli thriller series, and 1864, a Danish historical drama series (the latter starring a certain Sidse Babett Knudsen – further information available here).

The BBC4 press release gives the following details about the two crime acquisitions:

>> Crimes Of Passion (6 x 90-minute episodes)

With love, sex, intrigue, betrayal, secrets, lies – and murder – Crimes Of Passion is based on the popular crime novels of author Maria Lang. Set in the 1950s in the magically beautiful region of Bergslagen, Sweden, these entertaining whodunnits follow amateur sleuth Puck Ekstedt and fiancé Einar Bure, along with police superintendent Christer Wijk, in their quest to reveal the murderous intent beneath the seemingly idyllic surroundings – where the killer is always one of the community. [You can see a clip here. Shades of Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders?]

Made by Pampas Produktion AB, Crimes Of Passion is executive produced by Johan Mardell, produced by Reneé Axö and directed by Birger Larsen, Christian Eklöw, Christopher Panov, Molly Hartleb and Peter Schildt.

Hostages (10 x 60-minute episodes)

Hostages is an intense psychological crime-thriller about a renowned surgeon who has been asked to perform a routine operation on the president of Israel. The night before the procedure, her family is taken hostage and she is ordered to sabotage the operation and kill the president – or her family will die. Her battle to save both her family and the president takes us on a journey in which everyone is fighting for survival. [Ooh, this looks good – see the trailer here. A rare and welcome chance to hear some Hebrew too. The American remake  – because of course it had to be remade in English – has just aired on CBS with Toni Collette in the leading role].


Cast of the Israeli series Bnei Aruba / Hostages

Hostages is created by Rotem Shamir and Omri Givon and produced by Haim Sharir. Avi Armoza of Armoza Formats says: “We are proud to represent the first-ever Israeli series to air on the BBC, and believe that the BBC is the perfect home for this highly acclaimed drama.”

UPDATE: The first two episodes of Hostages aired on BBC4 on Saturday 21, 2015. There was lots of positive buzz on Twitter afterwards, and having caught up with the opener myself now, I can see why. This is a high quality TV drama, which sets up its ingenious premise in a very effective way – it’s gripping from start to finish, with complex characterisation and a nice twist at the end (the first of many, I’m sure). I also love that the hot-shot surgeon at the heart of it all is a women. Altogether, the series looks very promising indeed.

It’s the first time I’ve watched any Israeli crime drama or, by extension, heard any Hebrew for a sustained length of time. It’s an interesting experience, not least because (for a little while) we see a representation of an affluent, everyday life in Israel that’s at odds with what’s normally reported in the news. In my very limited experience of reading contemporary Israeli crime, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not something that tends to be addressed directly. I discuss this a little in my review of D. A. Mishani’s The Missing File, whose focus is very much on the minutiae of a murder committed in the small Israeli city of Holon. The more overtly political framework of The Hostages provides increased scope for an engagement with larger political issues, but I wonder if it will. Palestine, at least, may be too sensitive and divisive an issue to touch. I’ll be watching with great interest to see where the plot goes… 


#39 / D.A. Mishani, The Missing File (first review of Israeli crime!)

D.A. Mishani, The Missing File, translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen (London, HarperCollins 2013 [2011])  4 stars

Opening line: Across the desk from him sat a mother.

The reviews I’ve read so far of this novel, while pleased to see a contemporary Israeli crime novel in translation, have given it rather a cool reception. Although I’d be the first to admit that The Missing File is not perfect, I wonder if it deserves some extra praise for the profound comment it makes on the processes of detection and interpretation, and the implications of those processes for securing (or not securing) proper justice.

The setting for the novel is the small city of Holon, where the author grew up, which was established in the 1930s on sand dunes a few kilometers south of Tel Aviv and has a very suburban feel. Here we’re introduced to Inspector Avraham Avraham of the Israeli police, as he listens somewhat wearily to a mother reporting the disappearance of her sixteen-year-old son at the end of a long shift. That disappearance predictably turns into a major missing persons case, with potentially serious implications for Avraham’s career.

Original cover of The Missing File

Pretty much the whole of the novel – aside from a bizarre and largely redundant interlude in Belgium – is devoted to solving the riddle of schoolboy Ofer Sharabi’s whereabouts. As a result the narrative has a slow-moving feel that takes a little getting used to in an era of fast-paced, eventful plotlines. It was actually only when I reached the end of the novel that I really began to understand what it was all about, and to appreciate its cleverness.

In a sense, the case itself is marginal: what’s really being explored is what it means to be a good or bad detective – one who really listens to what he’s being told and can accurately sift the information he is given, versus one who allows his judgement to be clouded by false assumptions or to be influenced by outside pressures. Avraham has the potential to be an extremely good detective, but is shown at various points to be either under- or over-confident, leading him into investigative cul-de-sacs from which he has to be rescued (please note) by two women – his police boss Ilana, and Marianka, a young woman he meets on his trip to Belgium. He’s therefore a long way from the seasoned, engagingly brilliant detectives that we’re accustomed to in our crime narratives, and I wonder if this is another reason why the novel hasn’t won over more readers.

The novel also reminded me a little of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge, in the sense that it can be viewed as an existential detective novel – consciously reflecting on the genre and its conventions. We are told that Avraham’s hobby is reading detective novels and watching past episodes of Law and Order in order to ‘prove the detectives wrong’. ‘With every crime novel I read [he says], I conduct my own investigation and prove that the detective in the book is mistaken, or else deliberately misleads the readers, and that the true solution is not the one he presents’. And at the end of the novel, we as readers are invited to reflect deeply on that pronouncement. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a crime novel that needs to be read twice over: once to be swept along with Avraham as the case unfolds with all its minute twists and turns, and then again knowing the probable truth, in order to see the clues that were pointing us in the right direction all along (my favourite two are contained in one of Avraham’s pronouncements on detective fiction and in the title of a book). We readers, it’s implied, also need to open our eyes and ears a bit more…

Overall, this felt very much like a first novel setting things up for a series. I’m keen to meet Avraham again, hopefully in a stronger investigative position following his experiences on this case, and to hear more about life in Holon (the novel has a nice, albeit understated sense of place and Jewish-Israeli culture). I’m also intrigued by the brief mention of Uri from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), whom Avraham ‘detests’, and who leads him to reflect that ‘Israel had another police force about which he knew very little – a special police force, only for Arab-related matters, without stations, without published telephone numbers’. This reference made me wonder if a later novel in the series might dare to explore Israel’s relationship with Palestine. I imagine that this would probably be a first for Israeli crime fiction (does anyone know?) and would be very interested to see how its complexities are depicted.

The Missing File is one of six novels shortlisted for the 2013 International Dagger.

Mishani has written a series of very interesting blog posts for the Jewish Book Council on Hebrew crime fiction and how his own detective departs from the conventions of the Israeli literary hero.

Part 1: The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective

Part 2: The Mystery of the Hebrew Detective: The Investigation Begins

Part 3: Detective Fiction and the Zionist Cultural Revolution

Part 4: Can a Policeman be an Israeli Hero?

Part 5: Introducing Inspector Avraham Avraham

If you’re interested in finding out more about Israeli crime fiction, there are a couple of illuminating guest posts on the subject by Uri Kenan at Detectives Beyond Borders.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Missing File an unusual and intriguing 4 stars.

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#23 / Harri Nykänen, Nights of Awe

Harri Nykänen, Nights of Awe, translated from the Finnish by Kristian London (London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2012 [2004]). The first in a new series featuring Finnish-Jewish police inspector Ariel Kafka 4 stars

Opening line: Men are born, they live, and they die.

Ariel Kafka, a detective in Helsinki’s Violent Crime Unit and one of only two Jewish policemen in Finland, is called to investigate the deaths of two Arabs in the Linnunlaulu area of the city. As the case unfolds over the Days of Awe, the ten days of repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, Kafka is faced with the unwelcome possibility that the crimes have a Jewish dimension, in the shape of Israeli / Mossad involvement.

The main strength of this Finnish crime novel for me was the wonderfully realised and very likeable investigative figure of Ariel Kafka. Nykänan succeeds in creating a rounded first-person narrator with a distinctive Finnish-Jewish voice (surely a first), which draws entertainingly on the wise-cracking archetype of the hard-boiled detective. The following quote illustrates how nicely these elements are blended together:

‘It wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question [You’re Jewish and you’re a cop?]. People seemed to have a strong belief that Jews have some secret, Old Testament-based motive for not joining the police force. In reality there was only one reason: the lousy pay.’ 

Nykänen, a former crime journalist, uses the narrative to explore Kafka’s triple identity as Finn/Jew/cop, and the tensions generated when these different elements come into conflict with one another. We’re also given a strong sense of the Jewish community in Helsinki (there are around 1500 Jews currently living in Finland), and its efforts to uphold Jewish traditions. The novel reminded me a little of the Rabbi Small series in its descriptions of Jewish life and religious debates (such as the question of  whether women should be accepted as part of the minyan – the quorum necessary to allow public worship). There are also interesting reflections on the way that the legacy of the Holocaust has shaped individuals and families, and the difficulties that ‘diasporic’ Jews have taking a position in relation to the politics and actions of the Israeli state.

Intriguingly, as a Jewish Chronicle article by Jenni Frazer reveals, Nykänen is not himself Jewish, but carried out extensive research for the novel, including discussions with Dennis Paderstein, a Finnish-Jewish chief inspector in Helsinki. The author views the Finnish-Jewish community as being ‘very small, but important’, and in many ways the novel is a celebration of its continued existence.

Less successful, perhaps, is the novel’s rather convoluted plot, which lost me in a number of places as the body count rose, although it did make a kind of sense in the end. In spite of this weakness, I would gladly read others in the series. There are apparently three more (Ariel and the Spiderwoman, Behind God’s Back and Holy Ceremony), which have already been translated into German. Hopefully, more English translations will follow soon.

Mrs. Peabody awards Nights of Awe a slightly flawed but highly entertaining 4 stars.

See also my earlier post on an intriguing trio of Jewish detectives.

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Saturday treats: Sebastian Bergman / CWA International Dagger / Israeli crime fiction

Three little treats on this lovely sunny day in the UK.

1. For fans of Swedish crime and of Wallander actor Rolf Lassgård: the ‘police thriller’ Sebastian Bergman begins tonight on BBC4 at 9pm. See the second half of this earlier post for an overview and trailer.

Photo from BBC/ZDF

2. CRIMEFEST 2012 – the annual International Crime Fiction Convention – is in full swing in Bristol this weekend. While extremely sad to be missing the party, I’m enjoying tweets on the various panels from @Eurocrime and @NicciPrasa amongst others. The hashtag for the event is #crimefest12.

Thrillingly, the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) shortlists for the following ‘Daggers’ were announced there last night: International, Historical, Non-Fiction, Library, Short Story and Debut. Thanks to Rhian over at ‘It’s a Crime! (Or a Mystery…)’ for a comprehensive listing of all the works shortlisted.  

There are 6 works listed for the International Dagger (‘crime, thriller, suspense or spy fiction novels which have been translated into English from their original language, for UK publication’):

The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri, trans. by Stephen Sartarelli (Mantle)
I will have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni, trans. by Anne Milano Appel (Hersilia Press)
Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Åsa Larsson, trans. by Laurie Thompson (Quercus/Maclehose)
Trackers by Deon Meyer, trans. by T K L Seegers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Phantom by Jo Nesbø, trans. by Don Bartlett (Harvill Secker)
The Dark Valley by Valerio Varesi, trans. by Joseph Farrell (Quercus/Maclehose)

Further details about the novels are available via the CWA website here.

And over at Petrona, you’ll find a list of all International Dagger winners since 2006, along with a wealth of links to reviews and CWA webpages (thanks, Maxine, for this excellent resource).

3. A guest post on Israeli crime fiction by Uri Kenan at the ‘Detectives Beyond Borders’ blog caught my eye this week. For someone like me, who knew nothing about the history of crime fiction in Israel, it was a very illuminating read. I’m already looking forward to part 2, which I imagine will look at more contemporary offerings.

Peter Rozovsky, who runs the blog, is also at CrimeFest at the moment, and has already posted three reports, which are well worth a read

I hope the sun is shining for all of you wherever you are: have a lovely weekend.