Kim Wall – a freelance journalist known for her work for VICE, the Guardian and the New York Times among others – was 30 when she was murdered after boarding a submarine in Denmark in August 2017.
After an eight-month investigation, engineer Peter Madsen, the inventor of the submarine who Wall had agreed to interview, was found guilty of her murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Before his conviction, the details of the police investigation were seized upon by media in Denmark and internationally, who at times appeared to paint the case as a Nordic crime story, rather than a horrific murder of a young woman doing her job.
Now, an HBO TV series, also broadcast in the UK on the BBC, from Borgen’s Tobias Lindholm wants to reframe the story, looking not at the murderer or the murder itself, but the investigation behind solving this crime.
The Investigation follows, in careful, slow detail, the process of trying to prove the actions of Madsen – who is never named or seen in the show. Instead of becoming preoccupied with the murderer, it focuses on the detectives and Wall’s parents Ingrid and Jochim, who were instrumental in the case. It also brings to light Wall’s journalism, including mentions of her award winning writing on nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands, and the Kim Wall Memorial Fund that her family and friends set up after her death.
We spoke to the director Lindholm about why he took on the project, and why he wanted to detract from the conventions of the true crime genre.
VICE World News: Hi Tobias. Why adapt this story?
Tobias Lindholm: Back in August 2017, the Danish press, and the international press went berserk over the story. It became, in my mind, tasteless and inhumane in the way the case was described.
I turned my back to it, until I met Jens Moeller, the chief investigator of the Danish Police. In that conversation, he told me about his work on – what in the press was known as the Submarine Case. But the story he told me was so different from the story that I had been told in the press. His story was about friendship and loyalty and hard work and a society that worked and all these qualities that I definitely didn't see in the press. It was all about human beings, human efforts, a friendship with the parents that I had never heard of – all these heroes that were unsung, but who helped Ingrid and Jochim through this and got their daughter home so that they could bury her. All these qualities that were forgotten in the fascination with the perpetrator and the crime.
You’ve spoken about having the family’s blessing on this project. How did you approach the family and what was your philosophy in adapting a story like this?
They knew that Jens Moeller was talking to me in the first place – they're very close, the three of them, so there was no surprise for them in that.
I asked [Moeller] to introduce me to Ingrid and Joachim before we talked more, because I needed them to be part of this. So, we drove to their home in Trelleborg, Sweden, and I thought it would be a very hard meeting, but they made it very easy for me, because they are strong and generous and honest, and very realistic about their own situation.
Jens had, in the meeting, told me that he never interrogated the perpetrator himself, he would have people to do that and he would just analyse the answers. That gave me a key that I was looking for because I could cut out the perpetrator. We didn't need to be fascinated with him.
I told them about that idea, and of course, they could identify with that, and liked the idea. That was, that was my angle, and they liked that. They were in from the beginning. After that, they have read every word that I ever wrote. They read every draft, they've watched every cut of it, they've been on set – they insisted that their own dog Iso should play itself.
The genre of true crime has become quite saturated. How did you want to stand out with The Investigation and were there particular things you didn’t want to do?
The genre almost dictates that in the opening, we will find a dead body – 80 percent of its time it's a dead female. And then we don't really pay attention to that anymore, it just becomes a dead piece of meat that we throw around in our story to drive the plot. I didn't want that, I didn't want to reproduce that. I thought that it would be a boring, just overly done trick. We wanted to leave that behind and do something different.
I think that this is a “true investigation”. True crime is in its core, fascinated with the crime. I'm not fascinated with the crime in the show, I'm fascinated with the investigation. In this case, it's a true investigation, or at least let’s say a true crime, but we did ourselves the favour of not allowing ourselves to be fascinated with the crime or with the perpetrator. Instead, let's find the human qualities, instead of the human darkness. We wanted to humanise the genre of true crime, we want to humanise the genre of Nordic noir.
Did you work closely with the police and how accurate is the story?
There is not a detail in The Investigation that I’ve changed. It’s all true. The days, the dates, everything that happens. I’ve left stuff out. And then I’ve changed things that could force me to be fascinated, for example, we built a submarine. I asked [a team] to build one that didn’t look like the real one, because I didn’t want to risk being fascinated with the real submarine.
I changed the route of the submarine slightly, so that we don’t help amateur divers out there to try to figure stuff out. It’s responsible stuff like that. But everything, all details about the case, other than that is real.
In the show, cadaver dogs are used to detect where dead bodies are under water – a technique not used in Denmark at the time. Was that real?
That’s real. It was a weird thing. We didn’t have them in Denmark back then. And nobody believed in it, so it wasn’t even a possibility. But Joachim [Wall] knew about them. He’s a diver. He’s stubborn, he’ll get stuff done. So he helped [Moeller] get the dogs. And finally, we got them, and they solved [the case]. Now we are training our own cadaver dogs in Denmark, and the scientist is working with police all over the world now solving cases with dead bodies hidden underwater. It’s really changed criminal technology and history.
Why was it important to put Kim Wall’s journalism at the centre of the story?
Had I just told this story with an anonymous young Swedish woman, as the victim, she would have stayed as a victim. That is the problem with the genre. You know, Kim was there because she was a journalist. She was a journalist doing a job interviewing the perpetrator. So she wasn’t an anonymous, pretty Swedish girl that got kidnapped by a fascinating guy. She was a journalist doing a job, and we sort of forgot that in our fascination with the whole case back then.
The thing is, the least interesting part of Kim’s life is probably the ending. Had this been a story about Kim’s life, I don’t think this case should be any part of it. It should have been [about] all the journalism she’s done. It’s not about her, but when we mentioned her, we better mention her with respect and with the dignity of portraying her as the full person she was: a journalist who had by a young age accomplished quite a bit.