By Emma Vestrheim
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With five different countries, and very different cultures it can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to watching Scandinavian cinema. Here’s a guide that covers all genres, from the famous to the less-known gems.


The Keeper of Lost Causes

One of the biggest exports in the last decade has been Scandinavian crime, and the television dramas have become famous for their storytelling, settings, and moody detectives. However, crime films haven’t been as widely recognised. That’s surprising, considering the Danish crime films based on the ‘Department Q’ novels have been breaking cinema admission records in Denmark every time they are released. The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first film in the trilogy (soon to become a tetralogy) that follows detectives Cal Mørk and Assad as they solve cold cases around Denmark. The novel series has been successful around the world, so there is a strong chance you’ve heard of author Jussi Alder-Olsen. The films are just as good, combining all the techniques we know and love from Nordic Noir television dramas and placing them into a movie. The whole series is a treat, and lucky for Australians it’s available on SBS on Demand.

A Royal Affair

A Royal Affair is arguably one of the most internationally successful Danish films of the last decade. It follows many traditions of what is considered to be Danish heritage cinema, that is, Danish cinema that portrays a historical era of Denmark while following very traditional film conventions. If you are a film buff, you’ll know that Danish films won two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film in the 1980s, first Babette’s Feast in 1986 and then Pelle the Conqueror in 1987. These films are considered the greatest Danish heritage films of all time, and you’ll see many similarities in A Royal Affair.

Based on a novel of the same name and involving a stellar cast made up of Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, soon-to-be Tomb Raider), Mads Mikkelsen (Star Wars, Hannibal, The Hunt) and Mikkel Boe Følsgaard (The Legacy), A Royal Affair follows the British princess Caroline Mathilde (Vikander) as she is sent to Denmark and forced to marry the mentally unstable King Christian VII (Følsgaard). She begins to hate her new husband, but also falls in love with his physician, Johan Struensee (Mikkelsen). When she first meets Struensee she is not impressed and dislikes him, but she discovers that he is a man of the Enlightenment and he has managed to smuggle books by Rousseau and Diderot part the Danish court censors. Later she falls in love with Struensee and they become lovers. However, as the higher-ups begin to learn about their affair, everything is put in jeopardy.

In a Better World

Speaking of Oscar winners, In a Better World is the last Scandinavian film to have won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Susanne Bier, who has since had international success with her British series The Night Manager, In a Better World is what we consider to be a high-end contemporary drama. These dramas (Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is a more recent example) are famous for questioning morals in difficult situations. Featuring an all-star Danish cast including Mikael Persbrandt (Beck) and Trine Dyrholm (The Legacy), In a Better World traces elements from a refugee camp in Sudan to the grey humdrum of everyday life in a Danish provincial town. The lives of two Danish families cross each other, and an extraordinary but risky friendship comes to a bud. But loneliness, frailty and sorrow lie in wait. Soon, friendship transforms into a dangerous alliance and a breathtaking pursuit in which life is at stake.

You can watch In a Better World on SBS on Demand.


The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki

Scandinavian films are often considered to be all doom and gloom with heavy morals at stake, but there are some feel-good movies out there. If you are looking to sit back and just feel good about yourself and life in general, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is the film for you. Loosely based on the true story of Olli Maki, the famous Finnish boxer who had a shot at the 1962 World Featherweight title, the film follows Olli as the prepares for the big match. A small-town man, his simple life is suddenly transformed, and he is regarded as a symbol of his country. However, there’s a problem. Olli has just fallen in love. Inside of the ring, it’s Finland vs. the USA, but outside, boxing and romance become unlikely adversaries vying for Olli’s attention. This charming feature debut from Juho Kuosmanen was awarded the Un Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and is now available on DVD.

Le Havre

It’s hard to make a list about contemporary greats and not include Aki Kaurismaki. The Finnish auteur has made a name for himself with a series of impressive social dramas that blend comedy and realism into a European setting. Having announced his retirement following the release of 2017’s The Other Side of Hope, now’s the time to look back at his body of work. Le Havre is a good place to start; It tells the story of a shoe shiner who tries to save an immigrant child in the French port city of Le Havre. It is the first in a series of films about port cities, with The Other Side of Hope being the second.

Tom of Finland

With marriage equality now legal in every English-speaking country around the world, it’s time to learn about the struggles the LGBT community has faced in history. In Finland it was particularly severe, with individuals unable to show their true selves in public, an issue some Finns still face today (a film called A Moment in the Reeds, which was released last year, states that young Finns still find it hard to be publicly ‘out’). Tom of Finland is a biographical film by Dome Karukoski (who is just about to become a huge international director, currently directing a biography on J.R.R Tolkien) that depicts the life of Touko Vallio Laaksonen, a Finnish artist who was forced to conceal his sexuality in Finland while at the same time finding huge success in the USA for his artworks, which depict homoerotic fetish art. He has since been described as ‘the most influential creator of gay pornographic images’ by cultural historian Joseph W. Salde. Tom of Finland goes back to the beginning, showing Touko as a soldier in the Winter War and his following years working in advertising. It’s a brilliantly made biography, and one of the most exciting Finnish films of the last 12 months.

Tom of Finland is available on DVD.



Iceland is so hot right now. It’s quickly becoming a top tourist destination, it’s at the forefront of Scandi-cool, and Icelandic cinema has been described as a new wave in Europe. The film that arguably started this Icelandic wave is Rams, a simple story about two sheep farmers whose sheep are revealed to have scrapie. (Read our review here). Brilliantly directed by Grímur Hákonarson against the harsh Icelandic climate, Rams is both darkly funny and a serious contemporary drama. They are also currently remaking it in Australia, which will be interesting. Start your love of modern Icelandic cinema with Rams, and then tune into something funnier with …

Under the Tree

Under the Tree is the perfect blend of dark Icelandic humour and social satire; the film is about a tree in the backyard of one family home that casts a shadow in the suntanning spot of the other family home. In some countries it’s common to be upfront about the situation, but in Iceland, all conflicts are solved in a passive aggressive manor. And in Under the Tree, it is the subtle acts of sabotage that take a simple conflict into something more aggressive and, eventually, deadly. This is the latest film in the new wave of Icelandic cinema, and it’s such a treat from start to finish.

The Oath

The name Baltasar Kormakur stands out in Icelandic cinema. Starting as an actor and then switching to the director’s chair, Kormakur is the pioneer of Icelandic cinema thanks to his consistently successful films and his even more successful crime series, Trapped. Since the success of Trapped, Kormakur has been working more in the USA with films like Everest, but in 2016 he returned home and released The Oath, his own take on a crime film. The story follows a concerned father whose daughter is hanging around with the wrong kind of boyfriend. Desperate to get his daughter back on the right track, he takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps the boyfriend. The Oath feels like an American film in an Icelandic sweater, but it’s interesting to see how Kormakur adapts a typical genre film for a more contemporary Icelandic feel.


Max Manus

Norwegians love occupation dramas. Norway, like Denmark, was occupied during the Second World War, and information about the Norwegian resistance was severely restricted. In the years following the war, a number of semi-documentary-style films were released, telling the stories of the resistance and the ordinary heroes that faced off against the Nazis; the most famous of these films being The Battle For Heavy Water, which was remade as a mini-series The Heavy Water War a few years ago. Between 1946 and 2009, 26 occupation dramas have been made, with a few more in recent years. The King’s Choice, which was released in 2016, is perhaps one of the most famous new occupation dramas, but just last Christmas The 12th Man was released in Norway, which so far has sold over 600,000 tickets. The film that kicked off this resurgence of occupation dramas is Max Manus: Man of War, currently the most successful Norwegian film of all time. Telling the story of the extraordinary hero Max Manus, who fought a strong campaign against the Nazis in Oslo, the film paints a realistic and tense story of what the city was like under occupation. It’s directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who recently made the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film, and Max Manus is a must-see in contemporary Scandinavian cinema.


What Norwegians love most, after occupation dramas, is an adventure. The Norwegians were involved in a fierce battle to the south pole, for example, and now Kon-Tiki depicts another grand Norwegian adventure, this time the expedition of Thor Heyerdahl to Polynesia. Featuring a ‘who’s who’ of Norwegian actors, Kon-Tiki is the most expensive film ever made in Norway, and once you’ve seen it you can head over to Oslo and visit the Kon-Tiki Museum to put some fact to the fiction.

Troll Hunter

Norway is the land of trolls; when you visit the mountainous country, you find statues and street art throughout the streets, and little statues in every souvenir shop. Trolls are characters that were told in stories to children as far back as the Viking Age to stop them going into the forests, and now they are popular element in Norwegian folktales. But maybe they are not just a character in a story?

Troll Hunter is a mockumentary-style film about a group of students who follow a troll hunter as he heads out into the fjords to check on all the electricity fences keeping the trolls safe and hidden from the public. Full of commentary on contemporary issues like immigration and the environment, Troll Hunter critiques modern Norwegian politics, even featuring the previous Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg towards the end. With gorgeous shots of the fjords and an entertaining protagonist in the troll hunter, Troll Hunter is a great film to get you acquainted with Norwegian culture.


A Man Called Ove 

A Man Called Ove is one of the biggest Swedish hits of the last few years. Based on a popular novel, the film follows Ove, an elderly man living alone, as he plans to end his life and be reunited with his late wife on the ‘other side’, so to speak. However, a new family moves in next door and the noise distracts his carefully laid out suicide plans. Forced to constantly deal with this loud, young family, Ove slowly begins to see the good things in life once again.

Considered to be a comedy, the film is not without its heavy themes so typical of Scandinavian movies, but if you like to feel things by the end, this is the movie for you. It’s a contemporary Scandinavian classic with all the right emotions thrown in.

Easy Money

When thinking of the most essential Scandinavian films, it’s hard to not include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But everyone knows about that film! Once you’ve seen the most popular Scandinavian crime film of all time, sit back and watch Easy Money, a trilogy of crime films that were released in Sweden around the same time as Dragon Tattoo. Starring Joel Kinnaman, who has since had a strong international career with House of Cards, Suicide Squad and most recently Altered Carbon, Easy Money blends gangsters, drugs, and crime into a thrilling story. Easy Money is available on SBS.

Force Majeure

Director Ruben Ostlund is making waves at the moment; his current film, The Square, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 and is currently in the running for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His previous film, Force Majeure, is a similar social drama, following a family as they head to the French Alps for a ski trip. However, an almost-avalanche causes a sharp divide between the husband and wife, who spend the rest of the week escalating the severity of the event, causing their children and their marriage to be heavily affected.

Force Majeure is funny, awkward, tense, and a sharply realistic depiction of a husband and wife forced to confront an unthinkable situation: What would you do in case of an emergency? Would you grab the kids and run or save yourself? The answer may seem obvious, but when instincts kick in it can tear apart a marriage. Watch it with your partner, but perhaps don’t take ask yourselves the same question the film asks.

About the Author

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia, a Nordic film and television magazine, as well as a lecturer in Scandinavian film and television trends at the University of Oslo. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, she now resides in Bergen, Norway.

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