Five hours, baby. Of course, by Netflix standards, it’s the flicker of an eyelid, the flap of a hummingbird’s wing, the life expectancy of a sandwich in the vicinity of Jerry Nadler. But given that the five hours in question, about the aftermath of a still unsolved Norwegian disappearance, happen to include innumerable detours into irrelevant detail, much of it concocted by the screenwriters, about the unexciting personal lives of the police investigators (one of whom has a senile father), the journalists who report on the story (one of whom has a newborn baby), and the lawyers for the victim’s husband (one of whom experiences a gay-bashing), is The Lørenskog Disappearance must-see TV?
Created by Nikolaj Frobenius and Stephan Uhlander, directed by Gjyljeta Berisha and Erik Skjoldbjærg, written by Frobenius and Uhlander with Thea Camilla Eriksen, Per Asle Rustad, and Torjus Hembre Singstad, and consisting of five one-hour episodes, The Lørenskog Disappearance is about the missing-persons case — first handled as a kidnapping and later transferred to the murder file — of a middle-aged housewife named Anne-Elisabeth (Lisbeth) Hagen. She was last seen on Oct. 31, 2018, when her husband, businessman Tom Hagen, supposedly returned to their home in the Oslo suburb of Lørenskog to find an empty house and a ransom note. The police made the disappearance public in January 2019; it’s been a headline story ever since. The main reason why it’s been a headline story is that Tom Hagen (not to be confused with the consigliere played by Robert Duvall in The Godfather) is very, very rich. Although I live in Norway and have noticed the headlines, I’ve always ignored them, for the same reason that I usually ignore sensational news coverage of private tragedies: it saves a lot of time.
Given the tendency of Norwegian cultural elites to walk in ideological lockstep and have one another’s backs, it’s to their credit that the series’ creators raise serious questions about the conduct of the Norwegian police and media. After the Breivik massacre in 2011, in which a lone lunatic managed to kill eight people in Oslo with a bomb — placed in a parked car in a location to which he should never have had access — and then mowed down 69 young people at a nearby summer camp where not a single adult was armed and which the cops took an inexcusably long time to reach — the Norwegian police were widely savaged as incompetents. In the ensuing weeks and months, moreover, the Norwegian media likewise behaved in an outrageously unprofessional fashion, using the atrocity as an excuse to smear prominent critics of Islam as collaborators in Breivik’s crimes. (Only in the last few days has Fritt Ord, a private foundation that supports freedom of expression, released a report criticizing the media for this.)
At least as depicted in this series, the police and media made plenty of missteps in the Lørenskog case, too. First, the police investigative team, led by Jorunn (Yngvild Støen Grotmol), assumes early on that Tom Hagen (Terje Strømdahl) is innocent and, attentive to the demand set forth in the ransom note that he not involve the police, keeps its investigation secret until January, which ultimately comes to look like a massive blunder. Nor do they seem particularly driven by a sense of urgency. (Norwegians don’t do urgency.) Weeks go by, for example, before Jorunn and her colleagues stumble across a key document on Ann-Elizabeth’s PC. And not until a cop leaks the ransom note to a reporter — also weeks into the case — does it get examined by a language expert, who determines that although it’s full of errors, it was obviously written by a native Norwegian speaker who was born before 1960 and who introduced the errors to throw investigators off track. (As a language nut, I got a kick out of this sequence.)
As for the journalists, their coverage of the case is from the start heavily slanted against Hagen, who as a result is soon convicted in the minds of the public. At the fictitious newspaper Nyhetsavisen, the lead guy on the case is Erlend (Christian Rubeck), whose late father, a distinguished newspaperman, was also an abusive husband, on account of which Erlend has made it his personal cause to bring attention to the plight of abused wives. Accordingly, he’s passionate about the Hagen case and is absolutely sure that Tom Hagen is guilty. But is he being excessively swayed by his own personal history?
Over dinner, Tord (Jonas Strand Gravli), the boyfriend of his colleague Aleks (Victoria Ose) takes an entirely different view from Erlend’s: people, he says, are suspicious of Tom Hagen because they envy men like him. Hagen, explains Tord, is old Norway, a reminder to contemporary Norwegian metrosexuals of their fathers and grandfathers — strong men of few words, Clint Eastwood types. Although rich, Tord points out, Hagen lives simply and unpretentiously: “He’s where we came from.” It’s a remarkable and powerful speech — the kind of thing you never hear in today’s Norwegian media. In a later scene, Tord expands on his remarks: “We’ve come to fear that old white men are going to drive the world into the ditch and that the people we used to trust — fathers and grandfathers — are psychopaths.” Yep. Great stuff.
Over time, the police come to agree with the public that Hagen is probably guilty. In what looks like an unnecessarily aggressive arrest, they take him into custody — only to be forced to release him after his lawyer, Svein (Henrik Rafaelsen), proves to a judge’s satisfaction that they don’t have enough on his client to hold him. Svein, a veteran attorney, is sincerely baffled, shaken even, by Tom’s imprisonment. “This has never happened here in Norway,” he tells Tom’s daughter, who, for her part, is irate about the way the police are treating her father.
I’ve mentioned the reporters’ interesting exchange with the language expert. Less impressive is their meeting with an expert in the interrogation of suspects. She tells them that some people, when subjected to grilling by police, come off as credible, while others don’t. They lap up this obvious point as if it’s never occurred to them before. She also tells them that the photos of Tom Hagen that the newspapers keep running — she shows them an example in which he looks like a haggard nutbag — make him look guilty, whereas, say, a picture of him having fun with his grandchildren would have a very different impact. This seems to be news to them, too. As if journalists, in Norway and everywhere else, don’t routinely use photos in a very deliberate way to shape the images of the people they cover.
Just as Erlend gets pushback from Tord on his assertion that Tom is obviously guilty, Aleks, who doesn’t trust the police, is challenged by her brother. They’re originally from Belarus, where their family ran afoul of the crooked cops. Her brother insists that in Norway, unlike their homeland, the police are too honest to ever make an arrest without good reason. Aleks isn’t so sure. It’s a breath of fresh air to see arguments like this aired on a Norwegian TV show. Then there’s the scene in which Aleks asks permission to write about the press’s failures in reporting the Hagen story, in response to which she’s brushed off: readers, her editor blithely asserts, don’t want to read media self-criticism. Aleks pushes back: “Maybe we’re just seeing what we want to see? What if we’re convicting an innocent man of murder?”
As the plot thickens, we’re introduced to foreign gangsters who tell stories about escort services and honey traps that may or may not have something to do with Lisbeth’s disappearance. But enough spoilers. I will mention that the case, in real life, remains unsettled, so the series ending may prove to be as disappointing for many viewers as the Sopranos wrap-up. And I’ll close with one point. Throughout the series, Erlend is ardent about men who abuse and murder their wives. Good for him. How many of those abusers, in Norway, are Muslims? How many of those murders are Islamic honor killings? Muslims make up 10 percent of Oslo’s population and are disproportionately responsible for the city’s violent felonies.
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But just as British TV producers keep churning out episodes of Midsomer Murders (now in its 22nd season) — which depicts as a hotbed of murder a region of England that in real life is very safe, and portrays as homicidal maniacs members of demographics who are, in reality, exceedingly unlikely to kill — “Nordic noir,” the genre to which The Lørenskog Disappearance belongs, tends to ignore the real Ground Zeroes for deadly mayhem in the Nordic countries, namely the Muslim milieux of Stockholm, Malmö, Göteborg, Oslo, and Copenhagen, except when casting Muslims as victims of white racism. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a multi-part Netflix series about, say, the 2007 killing by an Algerian asylum seeker of a kind and dedicated Oslo physician, Stein Sjaastad, who was an acquaintance of mine, or last June’s deadly mass shooting, also in Oslo, by an Iranian Muslim, in which two other acquaintances of mine were gunned down.
As for the question of whether The Lørenskog Disappearance is worth watching, I’d say: yes, in part. As noted, there are longueurs. But at its best, it’s a frank, nuanced look at the way in which human frailty, doubt, stubbornness, pride, and prejudice — even in “the world’s best country” (as Norway likes to call itself) — can stymie even honest efforts to uncover elusive truths.