Showing posts with label Wallander. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wallander. Show all posts

Friday, April 2, 2010

Johanna Sällström (1975-2007)

Johanna Sällström As Linda Wallander And Krister Henriksson
As Kurt Wallander On The Set Of Before the Frost (2004)

Three new episodes of the BBC-1 Wallander mystery series were released on British television this past January, starring Kenneth Branagh as Swedish police Inspector Kurt Wallander. I'm not certain when they'll be released in the U.S.; however, I've seen them already (courtesy of the redoubtable Donka Ufman), and they're excellent.

I've been rereading Henning Mankell's The Fifth Woman over the past week, and wondered this morning whether the latest (and probably the last) Wallander novel had been released in English.

During a search to answer that question, I was stopped in my tracks by a reference about Johanna Sällström, the actress who played Wallander's daughter, Linda, in the Yellow Bird Productions version of the mysteries for Swedish television; she had died in 2007.

Before The Frost; Sällström's Linda Wallander

I didn't know about Henning Mankell's work, the Wallander character or the Swedish version of the televised novels and stories until Branagh's BBC production came to PBS last year. The Yellow Bird Wallander episodes were great; Sällström's portrayal of Wallander's daughter was excellent but dark, complex -- much different than the take on the character portrayed by British actress Jeany Spark.

Spark's Linda Wallander: Not Yet A Cop; British, And So Different

In Mankell's novels, Wallander himself is painfully divorced and awkwardly alone, his relationship with his father adversarial, difficult. He's only focused and certain when working as a police detective -- and he's a good one. Linda Wallander is a counterpoint to her father; trying to keep connections to divorced parents (her mother, remarried, means there's also a stepfather) and grandparents (Wallander's angry, willful artist father), and find her own way in life. Yet, they're both drifting a bit.

Linda darts from small job to University and back, never quite finding something that will anchor her in the world -- until one day, using her father's ability to look for patterns and make decisions, she enters Sweden's national police academy. Eventually, Linda ends up serving as a beat cop in her old home town; now, her relationship with her father is professional as well as familial. She wants to become a Detective -- and Wallander stands aloof, letting other officers in his detective squad make sure she earns it.

Krister Henriksson As Kurt Wallander

As a father, he's seen Linda zip from job to job; he worries -- was she trying to find herself? Is this job just one more sidetrack? As a career investigator he can't carry someone who doesn't have the gift for the work, and it's deadly serious ("You carry a gun. This is life and death"). But, Linda has it, painfully making her debut in a case involving multiple homicides and a childhood friend -- the basic plot of Mankell's novel-turned-Wallander episode, Before The Frost.

Sällström had the opportunity to bring that character to life on Swedish television, and in subsequent episodes of that series. Half of them were original television screenplays authored by other writers; Mankell had given the production company the rights to do so. In fact, he was so impressed with Sällström's acting (as a playwright, and director of one of Sweden's oldest theater companies) that he had projected three more mysteries, featuring Linda Wallander as the investigating detective.

Sällström In 1995: The Up-And-Coming Swedish Teen Star
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Sällström, in many ways, seemed lucky. She was the daughter of a 70's-80's Swedish pop musician, a teenage star of soap operas on Swedish television, and had broken into film acting, even winning an award. Sällström found the attention, her sudden celebrity status, was too much. In 1997, she abruptly put her acting career on hold and moved to Denmark where she worked anonymously in a cafe.

Awards, But Not Happiness: About To Be A Recluse, 1997

She eventually married, returned to Sweden in 2000, and tried to resume her career -- except, instead of the previous bright opportunities from three years before, Sällström found work only in occasional bit parts. Her marriage deteriorated into separation; money was an issue. Relative to her prior fame, a struggle just to have enough to eat and pay rent must have been a real challenge.

Sällström divorced her husband in 2003, shortly after her daughter, Talulah (named after the flamboyant American actress, Talulah Bankhead) was born. Depressed, running out of money, she faced eviction -- and said in a later interview that she felt so isolated and lonely that she even invited the court official, assessing her for eviction, to sit down and have coffee simply for the human contact it offered. It was at that low an ebb that she managed to audition for and won the role of Linda Wallander in Yellow Bird's Production of Mankell's Before The Frost.

This should have been her turning point. She was employed on a hit television series in Sweden as a dramatic actress, her career seemed back on track... then, on December 26, 2004, Sällström was vacationing on the western coast of Thailand -- a popular destination for Swedes -- with her one-year-old daughter when the Sumatran earthquake and Tsunamis struck.

Phuket, Thailand: December 26, 2004

They survived (Sällström held on to a small tree with one hand and her daughter with the other for several hours, until the tidal surge stopped, and receded), but watched hundreds of people killed around her, including friends and dozens of fellow Swedes. After her return to Sweden, the experience never left her.

She returned to her acting career, but suffered nightmares and depression. By 2006, Sällström was briefly hospitalized in a psychiatric unit in Malmö, where she lived. In February of 2007, at age 32, she took an overdose of sleeping pills; at the time, her daughter was five.

Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell had been involved with the Yellow Bird productions of his novels, and was impressed with Sällström's ability as an actress and personal courage, enough to consider writing three more Wallander books focused on Linda Wallander as the central figure.

Mankell spends his time when not writing or directing very actively involved in raising awareness about HIV-AIDS, and to provide support (primarily in Africa) for those afflicted with it. In the past several years, he spent his own money to build three schools in Mozambique. He's helped to found the country's first national theater troupe.

It's only a guess, but it doesn't seem out of character for Mankell that he might have considered further Wallander mysteries centered on the character Sällström brought to life as a way he could help her by doing what he loves to do best -- write. The Wallander books were Mankell's way of exploring contemporary Swedish social themes, but he'd said that the character was becoming stale for him as an artist. Seeing Sällström's acting work may have given him additional inspiration to continue using the characters he'd made in a slightly different way.

Her death shocked and affected him, enough that he abandoned the plan -- his most recent Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, released in Sweden last year and to be published in English sometime in 2010, will probably be Mankell's last featuring his most internationally-famous creation.

It's an odd feeling, in retrospect, thinking about the Swedish Wallander productions with this new, additional perspective of talent, tragedy; a shortened life. Sällström initially appeared as Wallander's daughter does in Mankell's novels: An on-again, off-again supporting player; then, she became one of the two central characters. She was good, she had solid credits to build a career upon -- but her internal support was thin.

Depression is a weight of almost unimaginable proportions. Like an iceberg, most of it is hidden from the outside world; others don't see it or understand it. But, that weight inexorably pulls its sufferers down a spiral staircase within themselves, to a place progressively darker and where what little air is left seems fouled. And whether or not someone can find their way back becomes a crapshoot, like so many things in life. Not everyone who gets pulled down has the luck or strength to return into the light.

I enjoyed Sällström's work, and only wish she'd lived longer, so that we could have seen more of it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

It's A Kriminal-Kommisar Wallander Kind Of Weekend: Bra Böcker är livsmedel för själen

Krister Henriksson (Right) as Wallander; Johanna Sällström
(Left) as his daughter, Linda; Sweden as Itself (Background)
(Photo: Canal +)

Nearly finished with Henning Mankell's Before The Frost, the last of nine Kurt Wallander novels translated into English. When I picked it up, I had no idea the story line touched on the mass suicides of Jim Jones' People's Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana, in November of 1978. In another life, I was involved with that tragedy from a Department of Justice perspective; while the references are only part of the framework of Mankell's story (in this case, self-justifying religious delusion as a basis for perpetrating cruelty and violent death), it was surprising what Mankell's use of them triggered in memory. All events leave a trace.

At the same time, one of our local cable access stations has begun broadcasting the Swedish Inspektor Wallander made-for-Teevee episodes, based on Mankell's novels. Kenneth Branagh's Wallander series, dramatizing some of the same books, via the BBC are excellent. But the British production is based on novels translated into English and then dramatized and adapted for television, and I'd always wondered -- with the novels; with the BBC-1 episodes -- what might have been, uh, lost in translation.

Swedish Version: Krister Henriksson (Center), Ola Rapace
as Detective Stefan Lindman (Left), and Johanna Sällström
(Right)as Detective Linda Wallander (Photo: Canal +)

When I read a novel set in a time or place contemporary to the author -- say, New York in the Sixties (Cheever, or Updike), or Europe between the wars (Hemingway, Doeblin; Chesterton, Orwell), or England at the turn of the last century (Conan Doyle, Forsythe)-- or when a contemporary novelist can make a past they never knew come alive through an act of imagination (I recommend Alan Furst), I look for small details to resurrect the world that's vanished, or make an unfamiliar one more real.

Reading a novel translated into English, if it deals with the author's own country and culture I'm always curious how they visualized their characters, and what their world is actually like -- because (unless I hop on a plane and go to Sweden) having some sense of that makes the experience of reading, of imagination, richer. If the reader of a translated novel assumes that all the author's surface details look and feel like the reader's experience of life in Cleveland, that's just lazy.

Sweden is a Northern European country; on the surface, it's not far removed from life in the United States. But San Francisco (where I am) is only alike to Mankell's Ystad in the sense that they're both coastal cities. Reading the Wallander novels, I kept thinking What does all this dialog sound like spoken in Swedish? What does the light look like; what do phones and ambulances and music coming out of a shop door sound like? How do the characters -- who aren't American -- stand, gesture and speak? Well, the Swedish-produced series gave me a lot of that, subtitles and all, and it gave me a different perspective on both Mankell's novels and Branagh's BBC series (The Swedish episodes also have cute women in them, but we'll just let that go for the nonce).

There are two actors in the Swedish productions portraying Kurt Wallander -- Rolf Lassgård, and Krister Henriksson. Of the two, Henriksson feels the closer to the image of Wallander I see in what Stephen King calls the 'Skull Cinema'. Not that Lassgård is bad; but Henriksson's portrayal of the detective is closer to the quirky blend of hesitation and decisiveness, reflection and quick temper that Mankell's written character possesses. And, you see and hear all manner of things Swedish which, as good as the Branagh/BBC-1 production was, weren't filtered through the perspective of British sensibilities.

Differences aside, Branagh's Wallander will be back for a second season on BBC television with new episodes, which means they'll probably come to PBS in the United States in late 2010 or 2011; that's show biz, but I suspect it'll be worth the wait.

Kenneth Branagh's Wallander (Photo: BBC)

Plus, the Swedish production includes made-for televison episodes not part of Mankell's series of novels, and several Wallander stories not yet translated into English. While I'm dubious about the legitimacy of using characters in novels as a springboard for original stories by other authors, and in a different medium (e.g., the 'authorized' post-Fleming James Bond novels, or Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes series on BBC), I got enough of a Jones for Wallander stories that I could give a hoot. Får jag se ditt körkort och bil registreringsbevis, Okay?

For a glimpse of the Swedish Wallander version, and how popular this character is in Europe take a look at this fansite. However, Passt Auf! It's in German (and, by the way, the term 'Kriminal-Kommisar' in this post's title is the German equivalent of Detective-Inspector), so Gib' Ihren Deutsch An!

Or, Steg ur bilen, tack - och hålla händerna där jag kan se dem.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Collapse Of Western Civilization (Swedish Version); Or, Life Is Food

("Clean Swedish Version" By Popular Demand)

It's a, "Hey! Other Dog!!" kind of world at the moment, particularly if you spend lots of time watching network television (or, teevee, as Famous Blogger™ and general curmudgeon Atrios refers to it).

It struck me over the weekend, when I should have been thinking about writing a taut, gritty analysis of Our Current-Day Dilemmas for this blog, that I don't watch that much teevee. My digital-converter-box, jerry-rigged teevee set is really for watching PBS, or BBC America; Deutsche Welle's news, "Journal" and cultural programs; reruns of Family Guy in syndication ... but primarily, it's for watching DVD's.

And this past weekend's Videofest featured the just-released British version of Henning Mankell's Wallander mysteries, with Kenneth Branagh playing Mankell's slightly run-down, morally reflective police detective in the town of Ystad in southern Sweden, as he copes with changes in his own life and in the society he is sworn to protect.

Kenneth Branagh, Showing His Ticket To The Sauna
(An interesting thing about Branagh's appearance as
Kurt Wallander is his resemblance to Keifer Sutherland
in the Rupert Murdoch cartoon, "24" ; Wallander is
as anti-Jack Bauer a character as you can get.)

Since Wallander debuted in Mankell's 1996 Mördare Utan Ansikte ('Faceless Killers'), the character has become amazingly popular both in Sweden and in European translations of the Wallander novels -- but particularly in German, where crime novels (Krimis) have been in high demand for decades.

Mankell spent a number of years as a theater director and playwright in Sweden before writing fiction (Interestingly, Mankell's wife is the daughter of film director Ingmar Bergman), but didn't begin by penning crime novels. In fact, Mankell's first important German literary award came before he had written any of the Wallander Krimis: He won the 1993 Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (Youth Literature Prize) for "A Bridge To The Stars", one of seven novels for children he's written since 1990. In all, Mankell has authored twenty plays, and 33 novels -- only nine of which are the Wallander series, with a tenth being published (in Swedish and English) this Fall.

One reason for the popularity of the Wallander series is Mankell's use of the character and the Krimi form to explore changes in Swedish society from the relatively crime-free, prosperous social experimentation of the 1960's, to the proliferation of organized crime (and official corruption) that's increased over the past twenty years.

This is the sensitive subject in Sweden. Advocates on the political Right argue for more authoritarian controls, reversing decades of a "welfare state", the permissive Sixties, and an open-door immigration policy; the Left say that restricting democratic freedoms, abandoning social progress, for safety based on fear is unthinkable. Fortunately, Mankell doesn't use his characters as mouthpieces for either view; he presents a world where there are serious problems, manifested through increased crime -- and people like Wallander are the thin, Blue-and-Yellow line between crimes and criminals, and their effects on human beings.

I'd guess that Wallander, conflicted and confused over what possible solutions there are, represents Mankell's feelings: Bad things are happening, and solutions aren't so clear. Wallander doesn't pretend to act out of a moral absolutism, except in one sense -- a mentally disturbed man, out for revenge, stands with a weapon pointed at a victim and demands, "Don't these people deserve to die for their crimes?" Without a pause, Wallander replies, "I don't believe we have the right to kill anyone."

Beyond the sociological, Mankell's character has created a Wallander tourist industry in the town of Ystad, which the author knows well. You can see the dusty-green-painted, two-story building where the detective-inspector lives; you can eat a 2,000-calorie slice of Wallander-Bakelse (a chocolate, Bundt-style cake, with blue-and-white frosting) at "his" table in a local restaurant; or enjoy a hot dog at his favorite walk-up stand. I enjoy this sort of thing, and would be happy to do the Wallander foot-tour if I found myself in Sweden.

Wallander's Flat In Ystad (Top Floor)

I'd read a Wallander novel, One Step Behind, and enjoyed it; Mankell speaks English fluently, but publishes in Swedish and uses a translator. While this makes for the occasional clipped or awkward sentence (to my taste, anyway), Mankell's writing is well-paced, spare, but evocative. He doesn't write like Alan Furst, or Iain Banks, but I wouldn't expect that. I recommend reading him.

One of the good people at a favorite independent bookseller said recently, as I was purchasing another of Mankell's novels about the Swedish detective, "Ah. Wallander -- the most depressed detective in all of literature. Not the most depressing; just depressed." If I'd never read one of the series before, I'd have bought the book on the strength of that line alone.

There have already been a spate of Wallander films for Swedish television. Branagh, who is an executive producer for the new BBC series, is the first English-speaking interpreter of Mankell's character. I've been a Branagh fan since seeing him in another BBC series over 20 years ago, Fortunes Of War (opposite his then-wife, Emma Thompson), and he doesn't disappoint in this production.

Branagh's Kurt Wallander is a conflicted, reflective man, confused at how his own world, and the world around him, has shifted. Dealing with separation and divorce, a twentysomething daughter with tattoos; his difficult relationship with an artist father (veteran British character actor David Warner) who hated his becoming a police officer, now showing the onset of Alzheimers'; and the discovery that his constant fatigue isn't just the bone-weariness of an overworked police detective-inspector, but Type II Diabetes.

At the same time, Wallander investigates brutal crimes which are primarily the result of greed and psychosis; Branagh's portrayal of Wallander's slow, methodical grasping of the outlines of a crime, leading to a rush of jumps in insight and a solution, is exactly as I've read the character Mankell created. His, and Branagh's, Wallander isn't a cynical, Noir caricature, or a Poirot, Holmes or Magriet. He's a police officer, good at his profession, but after twenty years' exposure to the worst acts and motivations humankind has to offer, and his personal losses, he's ready to break down. Unsure of things around him, he goes forward on the belief that to quit would, in a "small part", make things worse -- "You do the best you can -- I think," he says with a rueful smile.

The two-DVD set just released includes a brief look at Sweden's recent social history, interviews with the cast -- and an interview with Henning Mankell, who is relatively private. However, Mankell isn't reclusive, and (like any good artist) will promote his work. He's had some involvement in Swedish film productions of the Wallander books, and gave the BBC's English-language Wallander series his approval and advice. The BBC aren't slouches in producing good drama, so I recommend seeing this (And, I badly want to find that clunky ringtone Wallander's cellphone uses for my own Mobil, because it's the little things in life that matter).

In one scene, Wallander's father (Warner), sitting at the easel in his studio, says "Every morning, I would come in intending to paint something new... a seascape; an abstract... but I always painted a landscape. That's my painting; it's what I had to do," he says to Branagh. "You have your life; that's your painting. I may not like it. You may not like it -- but, it's yours."

True; for all of us.

Watch the Wallander series -- in fact, go further, and read Mankell's novels. If making your own painting of your own life depends on the quality of the materials you use, you'll find Branagh's acting and Mankell's writing much better for you than network television. If life is food, those things are a fair meal. Eat well.