Kim Wall, a 30-year-old Swedish journalist, was planning on hosting a going away party for her and her boyfriend on the evening of August 10, 2017 when she got a text from Danish inventor Peter Madsen inviting her to come interview him. His text was unexpected, but she had been chasing the interview for a story she was pitching to Wired for some months, so she agreed. She met him, and he invited her onto his self-made submarine ‘Nautilus’. Wall forwent her own going away party to complete the interview.
Later that night, when her boyfriend stopped receiving text messages from her and the submarine failed to return, she was reported missing. The following morning, the inventor Peter Madsen was rescued from the sinking submarine, but Kim Wall was nowhere to be found. He told police that he had dropped her off on the shore. On August 21, eleven days later, a torso washed up on a Denmark shore, and Madsen’s story changed.
The investigation that followed is chronicled in thorough detail by Tobias Lindholm’s Danish television series The Investigation, which makes its American premiere on HBO February 1. The six-part series, a dramatized version of events, very intentionally breaks from the conventions of the true crime genre, in which violence against women is often treated as entertainment. Instead of detailing the crime itself or the trial, the series focuses on the investigation that took place between the two newsworthy events. Without so much as naming the killer, the show slowly and painstakingly follows lead investigator Jens Møller and his dedicated team of officers, divers, and dogs as they search for answers in the troubling case. Creator Tobias Lindholm discussed with Esquire his goals for the series in breaking true crime conventions.
Esquire: You’ve said that you initially believed that Kim Wall’s murder was a terrible story that you had nothing to add to and nothing to learn from. How did meeting detective Jens Møller change your mind about the story being worth telling?
Tobias Lindholm: So before I met Jens Møller, the story I knew, that the media covered, was this obsession of the dark tale of a perpetrator who had done something terrible. And everything was about that, not much was about anything else. And I do remember thinking, well, we’ve heard this story so many times before. Of a male killing a female, and then a male detective tries to go after him and they get fascinated. And I just didn’t see that story as meaningful at all or responsible to tell. There was nothing new to add to the genre or any reasons really to reproduce that story.
But then I met Jens Møller and the story he would tell me about his work was very different. It was not a story that was fascinated with the darkness and with the horror, it was a story that was honestly about a lot of people doing their job. These unsung heroes and his friendship with the victim’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall. And those stories affected me because they were a proof of life, and a proof of human generosity, and a proof of friendship, and a proof of hard work, and a proof of a society that worked, and a system that actually solved this case with a lot of hard work. And in that way, it changed my perspective totally and became a story about human strength more than human darkness.
What role did Jens as well as Kim’s parents play in your writing, filming and editing processes? The show is so detailed in the timeline and procession of the investigation.
It was extremely important for me to get all the details right. When I met Jens and Ingrid and Joachim for the first time, I hadn’t written a word. So you could say they’ve been part of this from the beginning, and they’ve followed me all the way through. They have read every word that I’ve written. They’ve read every draft, they’ve seen every cut in the edit, and they’ve spent days with me on set. So they’ve been a huge part of this. And I would say that without them, it would have been impossible to make this. Ingrid and Joachim, because of this case, knew the Swedish police dogs and cadaver dogs and they called them and asked if they wanted to partake, so that I could film the real dogs. And Jens called all the people that he’d worked with. So they’ve been a major factor in all the details and the honesty of the show.
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Did they have an opinion on the project being a dramatization as opposed to a documentary since they were so involved?
Well, I would say that since I approached them as a fiction writer, a fiction director and I had the idea of making some sort of dramatization, it was never really on the table to do a documentary. They might be part of a documentary in the future, but for me, the strength of fiction is that it offers something very unique. It offers the possibility to be somebody else for a while. And with their help, I was able to make a story where we offered the opportunity to be Jens Møller, and to be Ingrid and Joachim for a while. And by being them, we can change our perspective on our own lives and on this case. We knew that we would use the strength of fiction to change perspective on this story.
This case was a Scandinavian media circus, and the trial was one of the most watched in Scandinavian history. Did the Scandinavian reception to this series surprise you in any way?
I think that I wasn’t surprised about the Scandinavian reception. I think that the Scandinavians were surprised about the show, because it told a totally different story. When we presented the idea that we would do the story, a lot of people thought that it was too soon, since this only happened in 2017. But that would have been the case had we done a traditional story about the murder, where we tried to recreate stuff and go in there and make a story about the perpetrator. But I guess that people here were surprised about what story we actually told, but that was in a good way.
My next question was actually about how this story is such recent history. And a lot of dramatizations often happen years after real events. How did that impact your work, do you think?
I knew from the beginning that the story that I wanted to tell was a proof of our system here working. For me, these years we spend a lot of time on telling each other how systems have failed and how things are going wrong. And I felt after meeting Jens Møller that this story could be a proof of a system that worked and people that actually did their job. And in that way, I felt that if I did this story 10 years from now, it would be too late, because it is right now that we need to understand that if we stick together, and that if we have trust in the system, and have trust in society, and play our part in society, we can accomplish the impossible things. And I think that that is something that’s worth telling now. And so I felt the opposite, that it would be too late to tell this story about the investigation 10 years from now and not too soon to do it today.
I was also wondering about if Jens’ daughter’s pregnancy was something that was really concurrent with the case, or there was some dramatization there?
It was something that Jens told me. So it was a real thing, it happened in his life. It happened in his daughter’s life and it was top of their story those months. The first thing Jens told me was that after this case he had started to pick up his grandchildren from kindergarten, things that he hadn’t ever done before. Now, clearly I would take my freedoms to dramatize it, like I did with stuff, but the facts in there, the details in there are all correct. In real life, Jens has more than one daughter, but in this case I wanted to…one of the reasons that Joachim and Jens connected so well, I think, was that they’re both fathers of daughters that were grown and there was a certain identification point there. And I found that both fascinating and useful in this, but it is true.
I know that you use the actual divers and dogs that worked the case rather than actors, for some of those really challenging water scenes. Why was the accuracy of those details so important to you in particular, and what was working with that team like?
So first of all, divers dive a lot better than actors, and actors act a lot better than divers. So in this case, I was lucky enough to have actors to do the acting, and divers to do the diving, and we could be accurate. But I felt that the story had been mistranslated in media. And by journalists in the Scandinavian press, especially in the tabloids, it had been done into a Nordic noir kind of fiction in the articles in the news.
And I felt that if I wanted to make sure that I didn’t make the same mistake and just recreate that fictionalization of events, I would need to be as accurate as possible in every detail. So I made that choice to get as many elements from reality as possible in there. And I’ve done that before in the movies I’ve made and I have to say, it’s a gift every time. In this case the divers there are soldiers that work in the Danish Navy, and the big difference between soldiers and actors is that soldiers, they turn up on time and do exactly as they’re told. And in that way, they kind of inspired the whole film crew because they’re so well-disciplined, and they just work so hard, and they’re so accurate in everything they do.
So it created a great culture for us, and for them, I believe it was an honor to be part of this and actually show the public what their job is. It’s so hard for them to explain to their relatives and to people around them how it affects their lives doing these jobs. And by showing it and working with me, they had an opportunity to share it without even talking about it, just asking their relatives to sit down and watch it. So it was a great humbling experience to work with the real ship that raised the submarine from the ocean, to work with the real divers, to work with the real scientist crew that knew everything about the current, to work with the real cadaver dogs. And of course, for me, the most beautiful thing was that Ingrid and Joachim insisted that we would work with the real Iso. So their dog Iso is playing itself in the series and that was a great joy.
There’s been a huge boom of true crime here in the US and I know in the Nordic noir genre there, as well. And in The Investigation, you chose to consciously not name the killer or focus on the crime itself. But I was wondering if you think that a show that instead chooses to focus on a crime or a killer can provide value in a different way? Is there a way to do that without exploiting a victim or survivor?
I have seen a lot of crime shows and movies, also true crime. What I realized was that true crime is in its nature focused on the crime, it’s true crime. So we right away decided to try to make this little niche called true investigation and just make sure that we would focus and be as detailed and fascinated, not of the crime but of the investigation of it, so that was the whole idea. My thoughts in creating this and not mentioning the perpetrator at all and not paying him any attention was, that normally if you see Scandinavian crime novel, a cheap crime show, 80 percent of the time, the show will open with the finding of a dead body. And 80 percent of those 80 percent times would be a dead female. And then we will see a male leading investigator chasing a male perpetrator. And it will all portray a male police officer on a male perpetrator on how they’re fascinating and how they mirror each other. And the dead female is treated in that genre only as a dead body that we will throw into our material or into our story whenever we need it. And I felt that that story had already been told so many times that it didn’t need to be told again. And that’s why I started to think about how we could change that perspective.
And then in my conversations with Jens Møller, I realized that he hadn’t interrogated the killer himself. He had other investigators to do the interviews, and then he would analyze the answers and take it from there. And when he told me that, I realized that if he could solve the whole case without ever meeting or sitting down with the perpetrator, then I could definitely do a TV show about him solving the case without meeting him. And that liberated me from it, and suddenly that became an important reason to tell this story. But I will say that I hope that this story in the way we’ve told it, can at least invite a conversation about how we as media consumers are hurting [victim’s] relatives, and how we once in a while are celebrating brutal killers that don’t necessarily need that attention. When you work with true crime, there are real people’s real lives, and we do have a responsibility towards survivors and relatives and victims.
So would you say there was something feminist in this, when you were writing this script?
I would say that the wave of feminism that is happening right now, I welcome. Whether this is a feminist act, is hard for me to say, I never thought about it like that. It’s a piece of art, but I definitely see why you could say that. And I would say that there is a point to be made about that. That the genre has been caught in a male dominated concept that we hopefully can open up and nuance a bit.
So there’s a line in the final episode that translates in English to, “The more civilized we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.” Do you think that that is in part an explanation for the human fascination with true crime?
I do think so. When I met Jens the first time, he told me that in ‘77, the year I was born, there were 77 murders committed in Denmark that year. And now it is down to an average of 50 murders a year in Denmark. So it has become increasingly safer to live in Copenhagen than when I was a child. That’s not the story I see in the media. In the media I’m constantly reminded of all the danger that’s out there, because I hear about every single one of those killings. And I think that with all the safety we have, I think that could be one of the reasons. And I do believe that the security makes us hungry for something that’s dangerous and fascinating. And I guess it’s always been like that, but the amount of true crime and crime tales out there now are just overwhelming. And that could be an explanation, at least that was Jens’ explanation and I loved it, so I stole it.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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