Forbrydelsen: Rie-imagining the femme fatale in Nordic noir

Episode 4








*WARNING* Season 1 spoilers!

The role of the femme fatale is most famously associated with the American film movement, film noir. Film noir ran from the period 1940-1955 and combined a crime plot with an extremely expressive visual style created predominantly through lighting techniques. E. A. Kaplan notes that, “The film noir world is one in which women are central to the intrigue of the films, and are furthermore usually not placed safely in…familiar roles” (The Cinema Book, 1999, p.186). The ‘familiar’ role that Kaplan talks about is the domesticated woman. During World War II, women were given more independence and were able to work more freely. The anxiety and suspiciousness that infused film noir was born out of post-war male fears about the ‘new’ place women had found outside of the family. Therefore, film noir challenged sceptical conceptions towards family and oppressive social relationships. In Scandinavian crime dramas Forbrydelsen, Borgen, and the Danish-Swedish co-production Broen/Bron, we are presented with career driven women who neglect, or fail to adopt, traditional family roles. I am not suggesting that these recent Scandinavian dramas parallel male fears of post-war America, but in a country that has one of the highest percentages of women in the labour market in Europe, there is context to suggest that male anxiety will play a role. For example, in Broen/Bron Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) has recently had a vasectomy because he and his wife cannot afford to have any more children. His symbolic castration presents him as the weaker of the two detectives, but he is also shot down many times by the peculiar and blunt, Saga Norén (Sofia Helin). For the purposes of this article, I wish to focus on the role of Rie Skovgaard from Forbrydelsen. I will argue that she is constructed as a femme fatale, and suggest that this is accomplished and aided through the show’s expressive visual style attributed to the film noir movement. However, like the convoluted murder case of Nanna Birk Larssen, the show complicates both narrative events and characterisation to make the audience question their suppositions.

Episode 1

One of the defining characteristics of the femme fatale is her sexuality. She is desirable yet dangerous and her disruption to the patriarchal order warrants her destruction (Kuhn, 1990). When we are first introduced to Rie Skovgaard, political adviser to Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann, she is briefing party members who are waiting for Troels to arrive. She is presented as an attractive and confident woman who is not afraid to question her candidates’ tardiness. His excuse: ‘I’ve lost my watch’. A few seconds later, Rie crosses the room impressed by Troels’ ambition to form an alliance with the Centre Party. She mocks his excuse for being late and then produces the watch and tells him (with an alluring smile), ‘It was under my bed.’ The camera then watches her, fixated, as she turns around and walks back to the other side of the room. Rie’s alluring presence is implied by the camera’s actions. The initial mood within the meeting is quite hectic and energetic due to Troels’ late arrival. However, when Troels is discussing an alliance, Rie moves across the room towards Troels and the camera follows her, cutting in as she rests on the desk in front of him. As the camera cuts in and Rie appears from behind Morten, her movements are almost in slow motion. Then as the camera observes her walking back to the other side of the room, she has attracted the attention of not only Troels, but us as well. Later in the episode, Troels has a debate with Bremer (the current Mayor of Copenhagen) at Frederiksberg School. Rie is briefing Troels on his speech but they end up kissing. Troels wants Rie to move in with him but she refuses until after the election. From the moment the conversation turns personal, Troels is framed within the doorway and Rie is framed behind the blinds of the room’s window. In true film noir fashion, the blinds connote a metaphorical prison or trap. They dominate the frame and as Rie places out her hand for Troels, the camera cuts away and watches him move into her space behind the blinds. The trap is set. From this scene, and later in the series, Rie is predominantly in control of the conversation and the terms of their relationship.

Elisabeth Bronfen states that the femme fatale is “unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious” (2003). As Troels Hartmann’s adviser, Rie is highly ambitious. If Troels becomes Mayor of Copenhagen, Rie will hold a lot more power as his adviser and girlfriend. One of the people standing in her way of control is Morten. Early in the series, Rie finds evidence that implicates Morten as a mole. He apparently sent an email to a journalist stating that Hartmann’s campaign is involved in the Nanna case. Rie accesses this information illegally despite being asked not to. She states that it is for the sake of the campaign and to save Troels, but it’s hard not to believe that she had an ulterior motive for her career. Her illegal sourcing of the information causes a fight with Troels and to regain her power she must charm her way back in – which she does by admitting her actions were deceitful. Despite Troels having known Morten for twenty years, and that he meditates during the hours the email was sent, he still chooses to dismiss Morten. However, during Morten’s absence, Troels begins to see through Rie’s routine and questions her loyalty. Firstly, Rie approaches her father to discuss Troels’ choices during the campaign. When Troels confronts Rie he believes that she is conspiring with her father and the rest of the party, ‘It’s as if you, your father and the party thought I was a little puppet.’ Secondly, Rahman Al Kemal, a man in Troels’ role model program, becomes a main suspect in the Nanna case. Rie is adamant that Troels should suspend Rahman and issue a statement but he refuses and stands up for the program he has worked so hard to create. This has dangerous ramifications for his political career and Rie accuses him of messing things up for himself and ruining his chances – another indication that she knows best. Troels reacts by asking Rie whose chances he has ruined, ‘mine or yours?’ Once Morten is reinstated, Rie asserts her authority on a number of occasions to prove that she is in charge when it comes to Troels and the campaign.

Another thorn in Rie’s side is DCI Sarah Lund. She doesn’t like Lund turning up at City Hall and convincing Troels to withhold statements. Rie is also very quick to question Lund’s methods, ‘Who says Sarah Lund always knows the truth?’ because she believes she knows what’s best for Troels and the campaign. Furthermore, Rie reports Lund to the chief of police for harassment, but in a full-blown devious act she places Lund under surveillance. One of Lund’s colleagues cuts the wire outside of her apartment and is paid by Rie to send information about the investigation back to City Hall.

Episode 12

Christine Gledhill states that film noir has a contradictory visual style and the femme fatale (and hero) is often caught up in this (1999). Noir frequently relied on visual motifs to express the motives of its characters and in Forbrydelsen it is somewhat convoluted at times. Rie fluctuates between submission and dominance and the composition, camera movements and lighting regularly reflect this. For example, when Troels gains the upper hand in a conversation with Rie, he leaves City Hall to meet Lund. Rie’s reaction to Troels’ dismissal is displayed in a close up, her face turning in the frame as if contemplating a devious act (see main picture). At one point or another, many people probably entertained the idea that Troels committed the murder and Rie helped him to cover it up. They are regularly silhouetted together in the frame and the dark rooms of City Hall create plenty of opportunities for their faces to be cast in suspicious shadows. However, when Rie is questioned by Meyer regarding Troels’ whereabouts on the weekend of Nanna’s murder, her manipulative strategies and charm appear defunct. She coldly stares at Meyer doing her best to protect Troels, but in the end loses and becomes a victim of Troels’ pride.

The male protagonist in film noir was almost always attempting to elude his past, and in is decision to move on (usually at the arrival of the femme fatale) a fateful choice is often made for him. Like the male protagonist of film noir, Troels becomes disillusioned, paranoid and embroiled in corruptive actions that have fatalistic consequences on his political career. It could be said that Troels is a product of his own undoing for keeping his attempted suicide a secret from Rie (and the police). However, Rie contributes to the undoing of them both. Reporter, Erik Salin, tells Troels that Rie has spread her legs for the opposition’s media advisor, Philip Dessau. Salin adds, ‘If it’s true, good for her. She’s a looker. If she’s willing to go that far for her candidate what else is she capable of?’ Although Rie had nothing to do with the party flat, she destroys her political career and relationship with Troels by sleeping with Dessau. Furthermore, Rie is still credited as duplicitous and deceitful because or her promiscuity. In true femme fatale fashion, Rie is partly responsible for Troels’ downfall. He is consumed with her dishonesty and guilt ridden for having fallen for her charm. However, so far, the visual style of Forbrydelsen has lead viewers to believe that Rie Skovgaard is ultimately responsible for Troels Hartmann’s downfall, but narrative events suggest otherwise. In the conclusion, Morten is revealed to be the one who cleaned the stairway at the party flat. He also has photographic evidence of Troels with Nanna Birk Larssen. Without even knowing, the final episode reveals a homme fatale.

Episode 20

Rie Skovgaard adopts many of the traits associated with the femme fatale. She combines charm with passionate ambition and she will do whatever it takes to protect Troels, but more importantly herself. Her irresistible nature intrigues Troels and it robs him of his will power and rationality.  She takes advantage of Troels’ weaknesses to gain the upper hand and she refuses to be domesticated. Mary Ann Doane argues that “the femme fatale’s punishment is necessary for narrative closure” (1991). Because Rie was stylistically and narratively constructed as a femme fatale her punishment was to be expected. Moreover, her punishment suggested (generically) that Troels would regain control. However, Doane adds that the femme fatale’s “textual eraditcation involves a desperate reassertion of control on the part of the threatened male subject” (1991), but in the case of Forbrydelsen, Troels does not regain control – although we believe he will. Instead, it can be read that Morten is the threatened male subject as he was after all second in command to Rie and a victim of her ruthless ambition. Therefore, Morten’s reassertion of control comes in the form of his political position and career motivations. He blackmails Troels in order to advance his career in City Hall.


The Killing Series 1 DVD  (Arrow, 2011) 1100 mins

Cook, P., and Bernink, M. (eds.); The Cinema Book (BFI: London, 1999), pp. 184-191

Doane, M. A.; Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (Routledge: New York, 1991), pp. 1-14

Kennedy, E., The Killing Handbook (Orion: London, 2012)

Kuhn, A. (ed.); The women’s companion to International film (Virago Press: UK, 1990), p. 154


Anon; ‘Dangerous Ladies: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Femininity in Literature and Film’ found at: Accessed 03/12/2012

Blaser, J.;  ‘No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir’ (January 1996), Found at: Accessed 03/12/2012

Bronfen, E.; ‘Femme Fatale – Negotiations of Tragic Desire’ (2003) Found at: Accessed 03/12/2012

Lemhag, L.; ‘Killing it and “F**ing great’ (Sept 25th 2012) Found at: Accessed 03/12/2012

Mills, M.; ‘High Heels on Wet Pavements: Film Noir and the Femme Fatale’. Found at: Accessed 03/12/2012


4 thoughts on “Forbrydelsen: Rie-imagining the femme fatale in Nordic noir

  1. Pingback: Krimi | Annotary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s