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It's a bitter North Sea day. Far out from land, dark waves toss and buffet a small ship. Its crew peer overboard with hard, anxious faces. They stare down to where a crane searches underwater, its chains reaching deep into the sea. Then – a shift, a strain, and the crane begins to haul something to the surface. With a rush of water, the dark hulk of a submarine is pulled into the light.
This moment – which occurs halfway through episode one – is perhaps the most revealing and the most teasing of The Investigation, the BBC’s new true crime drama. It is the most revealing because viewers, and anyone familiar with the story, know what this submarine portends. After all, The Investigation is a dramatisation of the 2017 Kim Wall murder case: a story that gripped Danish and international media with its gristly and outré details which seemed lifted wholesale from a Sunday night detective chiller.
On 10 August 2017, Wall, a young Swedish journalist on assignment with Wired magazine, arranged to interview an eccentric Danish inventor, Peter Madsen, aboard his homemade submarine. He murdered her, disposed of her body overboard, and sunk the sub. When he made it back to Copenhagen, he was arrested. Under interrogation, he repeatedly changed his story, eventually claiming she had died in an accident and he buried her at sea. But after her partial remains washed up on a Copenhagen beach 11 days later, prosecutors began the long, arduous process of establishing the truth and bringing him to justice.
Yet that is not the story The Investigation tells. In fact, the shot of the submarine dragged from the deep is the closest we get to the killer (who is never named) – or his victim.
“Like everyone, I heard about the case in summer 2017,” says Tobias Lindholm, the show’s writer and director. “It was almost impossible to avoid the story. But, after a few days, I felt I needed to look away. It was like there was a collective fascination with the killer and the crime.
“So I never looked back until I met Jens Møller, and the story he had to tell was so different from the media’s. And that story was the one I wanted this drama to explore.”
Jens Møller was the chief homicide detective in charge of the case. In The Investigation, he is played by The Killing’s Søren Malling as a quiet, effective functionary. For viewers raised on Scandi drama’s usual fare of broken detectives with flamboyant addiction problems, he is stoically, defiantly normal. Sure, he has an attractive younger girlfriend and a stormy relationship with his adult daughter, but his only real vices seem to be cups of strong black coffee and staring intently out of rainy windows.
Malling’s cool, stripped-back performance was based on the unflappable mannerisms of the man himself.
“I was humbled and a little scared when I went to meet him,” Malling tells me. “But it only took a few minutes to realise this was just a man, and all he wanted to do was help. To meet the person you’re playing in real life is a gift, a privilege. I was left with the greatest respect, not only for Jens, but for everyone involved in the case.”
And that includes Kim Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall. The Investigation tells two intertwined narratives – the incremental building of the case against Madsen, and the burgeoning friendship between Møller and the Walls. They were involved before Lindholm even knew what form the story of their daughter’s death would take.
“They have a strength I’ve never met before,” he recalls. “I expected the conversation to be very difficult, but they made it easy. They’re both journalists themselves, and for them it was important to be able to say: ‘Our daughter was a reporter and she was killed doing her job.’”
This unprecedented access gives the drama a vibrant realism. Small exchanges between Møller and the lead prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (played by a slicked and suited Pilou Asbæk, much scrubbed up from his previous role as Game of Thrones’s roistering pirate Euron Greyjoy) have a palpable heft. There are no breathless chases or bloodied reveals, just the same slow, creeping catharsis of those bound up in the case. The drama is as much about the holes punched in life through loss, as it is about bringing a nasty killer to justice.
Lindholm explains: “I wanted to take the beats from the police investigation and understand them – to provide human answers to the questions I had in my mind. The cliché of Nordic noir is we begin by discovering a body, usually a woman’s, and then she becomes a piece of meat we move around. The fascination is with the detective and the murderer.”
The cast knew this wouldn’t be The Investigation’s approach.
“‘Whenever Tobias takes on a story, he makes it his own,” says Asbæk. “That’s why you want to work with him, again and again. Because it’s going to be an honest, brutal but beautiful portrayal. When you work with him, it’s easy. All you have to do is say the lines and not walk into the furniture.”
But how honest is this attitude, I ask. Surely it’s a case of having your Drømmekage and eating it? To steep the show in the visual language of Scandi noir, but pull back and say: “Nope, we’re better than this.”
Lindholm picks over his reply. “I’m a huge fan of nuance and not all these shows do it. I felt the press were replicating the clichés of the genre, this fiction we’ve been greedily consuming for the past ten years, in their coverage of the case. Maybe it’s time for us to think of new ways of telling these narratives.”
Malling chimes in forcefully: “I think we should kill the phrase ‘Nordic noir’. It’s like saying ‘British comedy’. I don’t think anyone from Scandinavia is trying to do Scandi drama; they’re just trying to tell stories.”
The Investigation isn’t the only show to resurrect the Kim Wall case. There’s also a documentary, Into the Deep, directed by Australian filmmaker Emma Sullivan, which follows Madsen in the months before he killed Wall. Originally conceived as a portrait of kooky homecrafters, it inadvertently became a record of the final moments before Madsen committed her murder.
Wall’s parents, though, reportedly did not wish to be involved in the production – and some of its crew alleged the documentary had used footage without consent. After it premiered at Sundance 2020, Netflix shelved plans to distribute it and it was never released. When contacted, a spokesperson said they still intend to show Into the Deep “at a later date”.
For the time being then, The Investigation remains the most prominent exploration of the strange, sensational saga of Wall’s death. And its impact has been huge, especially in Lindholm’s native Denmark. It became the biggest new crime drama of 2020 on Danish TV, exceeding the average viewership on the flagship TV2 channel by 43 per cent. Does that level of exposure carry responsibility?
“A quarter of the Danish population have seen the show,” says Lindholm. “I think we’ve been able to shift people’s perception by referring to her as a journalist, not a victim. To get people to identify with a young woman who lost her life doing her job.”
Malling points out that for Møller and Kim Wall’s family the story is still ongoing.
“[Møller] quit not long after he solved the case, and of course there’s a reason he quit. He felt like it was time to say goodbye to a job he had done for the last 40 years. If you do a job like that, it goes to your bones. You see things that you and I hope never to see.”
For Lindholm, the drama was a chance to focus on people over process, decency not deviancy.
“Fiction offers a chance to be someone else for a while,” he notes. “In this genre, we’re often looking at police officers with addictions and problems – but that’s not the reality I met. By meeting these people in the show, it’s a celebration of a system that works and the people who serve in our society. And in the UK and the US, that seems to be forgotten at the moment. I hope it inspires people to be part of a society that works.”
That submarine, then, is a fitting metaphor for what The Investigation achieves. Hauling Scandi drama in a new direction: up to the fresh air at the surface, from the darkness and into the light.
The Investigation continues on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer