A Disappearance in Norway, On the Screen - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Disappearance in Norway, On the Screen

This commentary (I won’t call it a review) requires this preliminary disclaimer: I have a business connection with the Norwegian miniseries, The Lørenskog Disappearance, now streaming on Netflix. I supplement my retirement by translating Norwegian movie and TV production scripts, and this is one of the projects I’ve worked on. It appears that most of the material I personally dealt with didn’t actually make it into the final production, but it’s only fair you should know that I’m biased toward this series as one in which I’ve invested time and labor.

Tom Hagen (the name is the same as Robert Duvall’s character in The Godfather, but that’s purely coincidental) was and is one of Norway’s richest men, an energy billionaire. In spite of his wealth, he and his wife Anne-Elisabeth were living, in the fall of 2018, in a modest home in Lørenskog, an Oslo suburb. Their personal security was minimal — this was Norway, after all.

On Oct. 31, 2018, finding himself unable to reach Anne-Elisabeth by phone from the office, Tom went home early. He couldn’t find her there, but he did find a ransom note on a chair, demanding payment in an obscure form of cryptocurrency. The note said not to contact the police. Tom called them anyway.

The police made mistakes in handling the case. Afraid the kidnappers were watching the house, they didn’t send in forensic technicians at first — allowing evidence to degrade (or be removed). They messed up text communications with the kidnappers.

Tom paid the ransom, in spite of receiving no proof of life from the kidnappers. Anne-Elisabeth has not been seen since.

After a time, the spotlight of suspicion began to turn on Tom himself. The marriage had not been happy, as it turned out. Anne-Elisabeth had been meeting with a divorce lawyer. The couple had a prenuptial agreement that weighed heavily in Tom’s favor, but her lawyer thought it easily breakable. A divorce could cost Tom steeply. He was arrested but quickly released again by court order. All the police really had was circumstantial evidence.

The Lørenskog Disappearance is a five-part docudrama about the case. Many of its characters are fictionalized. The producers employ the documented facts of the case as an armature on which to build a surprisingly multifaceted analysis of the ways in which fallible humans deal with questions of truth, the news media filter reality, and media reports shape public opinion.

The five episodes (subtitled in English — I didn’t work on the subtitles, by the way) each examine a part of the story, Rashomon-style, from the perspective of a different interested group: the police, the journalists (two episodes), the lawyers, and the informers. (These last are criminals who reveal — or claim to reveal — secret contacts between Hagen and Baltic gangsters.)

Although each episode treats its viewpoint characters sympathetically, the reporters from the local newspaper get twice as much time as the others, and that’s appropriate, considering the series’ themes and reality. The creators understand that news media shape our view of the world, and they are remarkably objective about the reporters’ fallibilities. Once the newspaper editors decide that their stance is going to be anti-Hagen, they nail that banner to the mast. A female reporter, however, is inclined to sympathize with Tom because of her experience as the daughter of a Belarusian political prisoner. (She films her conservative boyfriend delivering a lecture on the adolescent roots of knee-jerk anti-establishmentarianism.) Her male counterpart, on the other hand, grew up with a father who abused his mother, and is equally and oppositely inclined to condemn Hagen. He’s terrified to find himself repeating his father’s sins in his own life. These are not omniscient, impartial transcriptionists of fact; they’re fallible human beings who are wrestling with their personal prejudices. (READ MORE from Lars Walker: The Northman and the Truth)

It was this realistic treatment of the news business (so different from conventional portrayals like those of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, in All the President’s Men) that particularly struck me as I binged The Lørenskog Disappearance. The larger question the project asks is this: “How do we know what the truth is at all? How can we trust as unreliable an instrument as the human brain?” Even the police, on the scene and handling the evidence, aren’t certain of anything. Tom is, I suppose, the inscrutable God of the exercise. His works are incomprehensible; he moves in mysterious ways. The series ends with the chief police investigator’s giving up on the whole effort. Her own father is suffering from progressing dementia — the investigator has more than enough to do looking after him as he slowly loses touch with reality.

The Lørenskog Disappearance will mean many things to many people. Both the Left and the Right will find elements in it to bolster their own viewpoints. But the show’s honesty in regard to the partiality and corrupting power of the media seems to me bravely conceived and worthy of recommendation.

Even from a biased observer such as myself.

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