Book Review: Icelandic Folktales & Legends by Jacqueline Simpson

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While Iceland’s Sagas have been recognised as one of Europe’s most significant bodies of literature its folktales have received comparatively scant attention. The popular conception of European folklore has been largely defined by the Grimm brothers work in preserving Germanic traditions of fairy tales.
For too long Iceland’s rich and distinctive version of the form was largely unknown in the English-speaking world. First published in 1972, Jacqueline Simpson’s study was an attempt to redress the balance. The text presents a selection of narratives which demonstrate that Icelandic folklore and fairytales were localised and aetiological. The author argues that the tales were originally told by a desperately poor hard-working community as a way of understanding their environment and also to reaffirm beliefs. Infused with humour and pathos, the collection provides an invaluable insight into early settlers beliefs and wishes.
Icelandic Folktales & Legends is not a definitive account of the nation’s mythology. Choosing to present thematic consistency rather than a loosely focussed cross section, Jacqueline Simpson has sourced tales from the first three chapters of Jón Árnason’s The Folktales and Fairy Tales of Iceland. The author’s decision to emphasise narratives featuring ghosts, magic, and supernatural beings has resulted in the exclusion of topics and themes which are arguably of equal historical and cultural significance.
Viewed as an introduction, not a definitive overview, the collection is an intriguing voyage into a world filled with trolls, elves, and hidden people.

Icelandic Folktales & Legends is published by The History Press

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Is “Out of Thin Air” the next “Making a Murderer”?

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Did six innocent people confess to a murder they didn’t commit? Why has the case remained unsolved? A new documentary sheds light on the investigation.

On the night of January 26th, 1974 Gudmundur Einarsson, an 18-year-old labourer, went to a dance hall in Hafnarfjordur, a port town 10km south of Reykjavik. When the venue closed at two in the morning he attempted to trek home despite the harsh winds and heavy snow. Two girls driving through the town claimed to have seen Gudmundur and an aggressive drunk attempting to hitchhike.

Later that morning Gudmundur was spotted trying to make his way home alone through the thick snow. According to a witness report, he was heavily intoxicated and fell in front of an oncoming car. This would be the last known sighting of Gudmundur.

When Gudmundur failed to turn up for work he was reported missing. Not suspecting foul play, the police conducted a thorough search. Unable to find any trace of Gudmundur’s whereabouts the file was closed after two weeks pending further evidence.

Ten months later Geirfinnur Einarsson (no relation), a 32 year old digger-driver, returned home from work. A colleague had invited him to go and see a film at the local cinema. Geirfinnur declined the offer, claiming he had to be meet someone later that night. The colleague drove Geirfinnur to a nearby cafe where he bought a packet of cigarettes. Returning home he answered the phone and was heard by his wife saying “I’ve been there already. I’ll be there”. He went out again, drove his car and parked near to the cafe. Geirfinnur was last seen in a phone booth. The keys were left in his car’s ignition waiting for a driver who would never return.

Six petty criminals known to the police for alcohol and drug smuggling became prime suspects in the investigation. Initially denying any involvement all six would confess to their involvement in a double murder after being broken by lengthy interrogations, repeated bouts of torture and extended periods of solitary confinement.

Attempts to withdraw the statements were dismissed by the Supreme Court.

To date the police have found no physical evidence of murder.

Halfway through the investigation an embattled government facing a toxic cocktail of the Cod War and a general strike enlisted the services of German “super cop” Karl Schutz to oversee the investigation. Employing a more forceful style of interrogation Schutz extracted fresh confessions that enabled all six to be found guilty for their part in a double murder.

New documentary Out of Thin Air picks up the case and shines a light on this enthralling, enraging, and perplexing tragedy. A real-life Nordic Noir for crime fans yearning to watch something new after Making a Murderer, The Keepers, and The Jinx.

Quentin Bates’ chapter in Truly Criminal: A Crime Writers’ Association Anthology of True Crime provides an exhaustive overview of this case and its continued relevance.

A 2014 BBC World Service documentary interviewed the surviving suspects.

DVD Review: The Octopus – Series One

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Forerunner to Gomorrah demonstrates that Italian Noir is harder edged and more pessimistic than its Scandinavian counterpart.

Italian TV’s first home-grown blockbuster, The Octopus premièred in 1984 and ran for ten seasons produced over seventeen years. Seen in over 100 countries, including the UK where Channel Four screened the first three series. Phenomenally successful in Soviet-era Russia where lead actor Michele Placido became a sex symbol.

Michele Placido is today best known to English-speaking audiences for directing the feature film Romanzo Criminale. As a young man he moved to Rome to study acting and enrol in a police academy. Making his performance début in a stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he trod the boards for two years before embarking on a successful screen career. By the time he signed on to play Commissario Corrado Cattani he was a well-regarded actor in his home country. Playing the lead in The Octopus raised his profile on the international arena. After a particularly tense episode, concerned viewers wrote to Pravda suggesting his character should be offered asylum.

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A watershed moment in Italian TV history. Breaking down barriers between cinema and television industries, The Octopus was the start of a movement which saw key figures from the film industry actively seeking out opportunities to work in television.

Acknowledged for making the public more conscious of the extent organised crime had infiltrated and tainted every aspect of society. Its title refers to the Mafia’s tentacles stretching out and holding public bodies, private sector industries, and media in a tight grip.

When a senior police officer is murdered in an apparent drive-by shooting Commissario Corrado Cattani is reassigned to a small Sicilian town. Tasked with bringing the local mafia boss to justice he soon learns that the entire community is tainted by corruption.

Brutally violent The Octopus is groundbreaking television. Stretching the boundaries of what could be shown on Italian TV, it’s left a lasting legacy. Without this series, Gomorrah and Romanzo Criminale would never have been produced.

The Octopus – Series One is available to order from Amazon.

For more information about Italian Noir check out Barry Forshaw’s Euro Noir

DVD Review: Seaside Hotel – Season One (Badehotellet)

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A period drama starring The Killing‘s Bjarne Henriksen has become an unexpected hit, proving that Danish TV has more to offer than a continuous stream of crime shows.

Series creators Hanna Lundblad and Stig Thorsboe worked on Krøniken (Better Times), a mid-noughties programme that focused on two families alongside the development of Danish broadcasting up until the 1970s. Keen to work on another historical based show they drew inspiration from the UK drama Upstairs Downstairs. The pair decided to use the setting of a beach hotel after reading a newspaper article about coastal resorts during the interwar period.

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Planned to run for five seasons, Seaside Hotel is a Downtown Abbey style show that mixes romance, tragedy and comedy as it follows the lives of the affluent and serving classes from 1928 through to 1932. From the giddy heights of the Jazz Age to the depths of the Great Depression, the personal lives of staff and tourists are transformed by events far beyond Denmark’s borders.

During the Summer of 1928, Europe was still healing after the trauma of World War 1. Within a year the world would face a financial crisis that paved the way for a second global conflict. In the first season, a group of holidaymakers descend on a northern coastal resort seemingly intoxicated by misguided beliefs in a future free of conflict. Oblivious to the forces that would soon change their lives the wealthy patrons of this resort celebrate their holidays with reckless abandon.

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Deliberately paralleling the current economic crisis with events from eighty-nine years ago the screenwriters are discretely commentating on the profligacy and inequalities that brought misery to millions and allowed extremist beliefs to flourish.

Meticulous in attention to detail, costume and set designers have taken great care in recreating the golden age of seaside hotels. Unable to find an existing hotel which would be available for many months of filming the producers constructed a detailed exterior set in a field. With the addition of some sand dunes and computer generated imagery, a highly effective illusion was created convincing viewers that they had been transported to a real seaside hotel.

A significant gamble by its broadcast network, DR. Seaside Hotel represents an attempt to broaden the range of home grown series and demonstrate that Denmark has more to offer than Nordic Noir.

Seen by 57 percent of the Danish TV audience, at the time of writing work has begun on the fifth and final series. Subtitled versions of the first two seasons are available on DVD.

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Each series focuses on the characters’ lives in a specific year. Tonally very different from Matador, this version of Danish history mixes broad comedy with moments of intimate tragedy. Through the prism of the past, the writers provide a subtle commentary which suggests we have not learnt from the past mistakes of history.

Scrupulously researched, Seaside Hotel is a brilliantly sketched account of false optimism. This warm, witty, and moving series is worth tracking down.

Seaside Hotel – Season One is available to order from Amazon


DVD Review – Matador Kollektionen 1929-1947

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For a generation, Matador is the most fondly remembered series on Danish television. A generously budgeted period drama that followed the lives of people in the fictional town of Korsbæk between 1929 and 1947. Against a backdrop of rivalries and class conflict , the series dramatized key moments of national history that were still within living history.

Taking its name from the Danish version of the board game Monopoly, Matador was created by Lise Nørgaard. A journalist and novelist in addition to a screenwriter, she drew from her own experiences of living through The Great Depression wartime occupation to create a show loosely inspired by the British series Upstairs Downstairs. The template of a relatively self contained community adjusting to changes in society against the backdrop of turbulent historical episodes has recently been dusted down and used in Badehotellet (Seaside Hotel) with press and the public commenting on the parallels between the two series.

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Travelling salesman Mads Andersen-Skjern (Jørgen Buckhøj) arrives in Korsbæk with his son and soon sees scope to expand his business interests. A rigid social order and refusal to embrace social and economic opportunities has left the town looking like a relic from the nineteenth century. Andersen-Skjern’s plans for a new clothes shop stocking the latest lines is seen as a threat to the town’s traditions. Local banker, Hans Christian Varnæs (Holger Juul Hansen) refusal to finance the venture ignites a fued which will span decades and force friends and family members to choose sides.

Denied funds to establish a new emporium the merchant refuses to be beaten by this rejection and strengthens his resolve to secure financing for this venture.

Tradition and family loyalty are challenged by modernity alongside the threats of wider social and political changes in the wake of the Wall Street Crash and war in Europe.

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Despite only running for twenty four episodes, the series continues to resonate in contemporary Danish society. An estimated one in four Danish viewers is reported to have watched at least two repeat screenings. In 2011 the thirtieth anniversary of the series’ launch was marked by the publication of a book covering every every conceivable detail of the production history and packed with reminiscences from cast members. This was followed by an exhibition of surviving props and costumes by Film Nordisk.

Prior to the launch of a repeat in the spring of 2012 it was revealed that DVD sales were in the region of 3.6 million. Despite the success of VHS and DVD releases, forty per cent of the nation were willing to tune in and catch the seventh airing for this chronicle of key moments in recent Danish history. This rerun proved so popular the main rival station hastily rescheduled its flagship programming to avoid being annihilated in the ratings.

With each repeat Matador gains a new generation of fans who are possibly able to connect stories told by their grandparents with plot-lines or set-pieces. This tale of class conflict and modern Denmark’s birth pangs continues to provide comfort for fans of nostalgia and unites the nation with each transmission.

A subtitled DVD is available to order via Platekompaniet