Insomnia: Unbearable Lightness

On Film / Essays — Jul 25, 2014

The 1997 Norwegian detective thriller Insomnia is a paradoxical object—as director and cowriter Erik Skjoldbjærg has described it, “a reversed film noir with light, not darkness, as its dramatic force.” Insomnia is so drenched in light that you could call it a film blancblanc meaning “white” but also “blank,” given the film’s detached chill, as opaque as the features of its policeman antihero.

In the press notes for his debut feature, Skjoldbjærg commented, “Insomnia was inspired by a notion on secrecy: when one chooses to conceal from others, one consequently risks losing one’s own perspective. Thus, having created a secret, it may involuntarily begin to occupy an increasing amount of one’s own attention.” Hence a drama in which things—objects and personal secrets alike—tend to remain tantalizingly concealed, and yet in which there are few hiding places. For this film’s universe is constantly, intensely exposed to the glare of daylight—even when it is supposedly nighttime.

The setting is Skjoldbjærg’s hometown of Tromsø, in northern Norway, about two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, a place that from spring to late summer has no real night. This is the setting for what is ostensibly a murder mystery—but the killer’s identity emerges relatively quickly, and the focus of the story then shifts to the psyche of the detective, tormented by the constant light. In a telling line, the murderer recounts how his victim died: “She slept and slept and slept . . .” In Insomnia—to use a phrase with the ring of the pulpiest paperback title—only the dead sleep well.

In a brief prologue, shot on Super 8, we witness the violent death of seventeen-year-old Tanja Lorentzen (Maria Mathiesen), followed by the killer covering up the traces of his crime. After the film’s title appears, we see two men flying to Tromsø to investigate the case. They are Norwegian policeman Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) and senior investigator Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swede now working in Norway. Soon after their arrival, the film hints at the disgrace that caused Engström to leave Sweden: his Norwegian colleagues gossip about his being found in bed with the chief witness in a case. If Engström is in disgrace, though, he hides it well: solemn, highly organized, and neatly dressed, he walks and talks as befits his image as a top detective. The knowingly bland impassivity of much of Skarsgård’s performance presents us with a waxy, masklike exterior that can’t entirely be trusted. His Engström comes across as an ostensibly good but psychologically weak man, open to corruption—which makes the character’s moments of breakdown and his irruptions of sexual brutality all the more disturbing.

A stranger to the far north, Engström can’t get any sleep, sunlight seeping into his hotel bedroom despite his increasingly absurd attempts to shut it out with adhesive tape and blankets. But it is suggested that his insomnia, which makes Engström increasingly erratic, is also caused by a restless conscience; and he soon has more to be restless about. Hoping to flush out the killer, Engström organizes a stakeout of a hut near the sea, but his prey escapes through a tunnel (one of the film’s few moments of darkness), and the pursuit is foiled by deep fog that is as much metaphorical as climatic. As a result, Engström shoots a man he thinks is the fugitive, only to find that he has accidentally killed Vik. Thereafter, he devotes his energies equally to pursuing Tanja’s murderer and to hiding his part in Vik’s death, going to elaborate lengths to do so.

Why does he not just confess and explain that the shooting was an unavoidable accident? Though there are inklings that he may in part be trying to hide the fact that he was carrying a gun—something police are not allowed to do in Norway—the film never makes this entirely clear, which is part of its fascination. In the 2002 U.S. remake, directed by Christopher Nolan, the mixed motives of the Engström figure are clearly foregrounded: it is intimated that he may have shot his partner because he was about to testify against him in an Internal Affairs investigation.

By contrast, why Engström might have wanted, even unconsciously, to kill Vik remains nebulous. But Vik’s death is the point at which Engström’s disturbance begins to fully emerge. Torn by his contradictory activity—working to uncover one truth while hiding another—the policeman is increasingly troubled, his days and nights haunted by hallucinations, notably of the dead but still garrulous Vik.

Meanwhile, Tanja’s killer—local thriller writer Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg)—seems to know more about the detective’s psyche than he knows himself. Holt emerges on a metaphorical level as a sort of tormenting doppelgänger, a living embodiment of Engström’s bad conscience (after all, what is a crime writer’s vocation if not to keep people awake?). Following a tense pursuit, the adversaries start to collude in “rewriting” the Tanja case, planning to plant evidence to incriminate the dead girl’s boyfriend.

As it develops, Insomnia becomes a story not so much about deciphering a mystery as about “writing” a new one. The wall of Holt’s apartment is covered in sheets of paper and Post-it notes, presumably the plans for a novel, but it’s tempting to imagine that they really map out the intrigue of Insomnia itself. The whiteness that floods the film is partly the whiteness of the paper on which a crime narrative is written.

Insomnia is a complex drama, yet executed with great stylistic economy and simplicity, through which Skjoldbjærg and his collaborators—including cowriter Nikolaj Frobenius—develop a profound sense of enigma. The visual style, notably the use of whiteness, constantly evokes the unreadability of Engström’s psyche, reversing the convention of identifying the unconscious with darkness. Erling Thurmann-Andersen’s cinematography emphasizes the daylit mundanity of the urban location, downplaying the natural grandeur of Tromsø and its environs. The setting becomes a blank canvas for a study in white: Engström is frequently framed against windows that blaze with cold light, or placed in antiseptically clean, geometrically neat settings, notably Holt’s stark apartment, divided up into a Mondrian-like grid.

The film repeatedly plays perceptual tricks on us. Driving Tanja’s schoolmate Frøya (Marianne O. Ulrichsen) in his car, Engström can’t resist putting his hand on her naked thigh—or can he? The close-up of his hand on her leg is shot initially from his POV, then briefly from hers—but since the gesture is never integrated into a wider shot, we can’t be sure whether this is really happening or is his sexual reverie. Similarly disorienting are a jump cut when Engström recounts the shooting of Vik, as if he is suddenly split in two by his lying; a scene that seems at first a nightmare of Engström’s, then turns out to be the police reconstruction of Vik’s death; and an interior shot toward the end, in Holt’s seaside house, that uses a 360-degree pan to disconcerting effect, warping our sense of space and time. Such economical stylization adds to Insomnia’s subtly unnerving power, and places it outside the field of generic police drama, bringing it closer to the glacial modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni (that 360-degree shot recalling the ending of The Passenger, or a scene in a decaying shack similar to the cabin in Red Desert, another fog-bound drama).

Released internationally in 1998, Insomnia attracted much attention and was considered a prime exhibit in what appeared to be a resurgence in Norway’s cinema. Other Norwegian filmmakers then emerging were Pål Sletaune, with the downbeat black comedy Junk Mail (1997); Bent Hamer, who had made his debut with the surreal miniature Eggs (1995); and Hans Petter Moland, who had cast Skarsgård in his 1995 film Zero Kelvin. This new wave never quite sustained its initial momentum, although Hamer and Moland, in particular, continue to have considerable profiles on the festival circuit. Skjoldbjærg, meanwhile, made an uneasy transatlantic move with Prozac Nation (2001), then returned to Norway, reteaming with cowriter Frobenius on a modern-day version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in 2005; his latest film, Pioneer (2013), is an energetic and fairly commercial hybrid of conspiracy drama and deep-sea adventure.

Insomnia now also looks very much like a founding text of what can be called the new wave of “Nordic noir”—a cinematic and literary phenomenon properly launched by the novels of Henning Mankell (the Wallander series) and Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and their screen adaptations. But though Nordic noir has recently become a globally recognizable brand, it is hardly a new phenomenon. Scandinavia’s best-known detective writers, the Swedish duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, began their internationally successful Martin Beck detective series in 1965; in Insomnia, the cop Zakariassen is seen reading one of their books.

Insomnia may lack the social-political aspect so prominent in much recent Scandinavian crime fiction—notably in Jo Nesbø’s novels about Norwegian cop Harry Hole. But the dysfunctional sleuths of the TV series The Killing and The Bridge, not to mention Hole and Wallander, have a close relative in Jonas Engström. Insomnia also brings into play another common theme—the ironic playing off of national identities. In The Bridge, for example, an aggressive, macho Danish cop is improbably paired with a quasi-autistic Swedish female counterpart. Insomnia’s Swedish detective is exiled and misunderstood; although it’s not usually evident from the subtitles, much of the film plays on accents and the similarities and differences between the Swedish and Norwegian languages (following his address to Tanja’s classmates, Frøya taunts Engström that no one understood a word he was saying).

Nolan’s Insomnia remake, from a script by Hillary Seitz, closely resembles the original, albeit with key differences. Notably, Nolan’s version emphasizes the psychological cat-and-mouse game between Al Pacino’s Detective Dormer and the Holt figure, played by Robin Williams. The film also provides a fuller back-story, involving a previous act of falsification by Dormer (honorably motivated, it turns out) and the impending investigation that threatens him. The experienced female cop Hilde Hagen (Gisken Armand), who sees through Engström, is replaced by a naive young officer (Hilary Swank) whose own sleuthing at last allows Dormer to reach a conventional point of (to use those dreaded words) redemption and closure—that is, he finally gets to close his eyes.

In Skjoldbjærg’s film, by contrast, the narrative background remains sketchy—a quality visually concretized by the literal absence of background in those shots that frame Engström against walls of light, making the man and the world around him equally mysterious. As for closure, Engström is not redeemed in any obvious sense: he meets an archetypal “good woman,” the angelic-featured hotel proprietor Ane (Maria Bonnevie), who looks momentarily as if she is there to save him, but things end badly and grotesquely between them. If Engström is finally saved by the completion of his investigation, it is only in the most equivocal way. Will he get to close his eyes? At the end of the film, he drives away into the dark, but as the enigmatic (if somewhat gimmicky) final shot suggests, sleep comes less easily in Scandinavian thrillers than it does in Hollywood.