Detective Films as Cultural Anthropology
by Michael Brenner on 11 Jul 2022 0 Comment

Detective stories have been making a splash on European screens for the past decade. Some attract top-notch directors, actors and script writers. They are far superior to anything that appears over here – whether on TV or from Hollywood. Part of the impetus has come from the remarkable Italian series Montelbano, the name of a Sicilian commissario in Ragusa (Vigata) who was first featured in the skilfully crafted novellas of Andrea Camilleri. 


Italians remain in the forefront of the genre as Montelbano was followed by similar high-class productions set in Bologna, Ferrara, Turino, Milano, Palermo and Roma. Nebbi y Deliti (Fog & Crime) outstanding among them. A few are placed in evocative historical context. The French follow close behind with a rich variety of series ranging from a compendious Maigret cycle 1990s (Bruno Cremer) and Frank Riva (Alain Delon) to the gritty Blood On The Docks (Le Havre) and the refined dramatizations of other Simenon tales. Surpassing all is the nonpareil Spiral (Egrenages). Its intricate pattern of interwoven themes, superb acting and sophisticated script writing engages us through dozens of episodes – many of which would be worthy of an Academy Award in themselves were anybody paying attention.


Other countries have jumped in: Austria, Germany (several) and all the Scandinavians. The former, Anatomy of Evil, offers us a dark yet riveting set of mysteries featuring a taciturn jaded police psychiatrist. Shows from the last-mentioned region tend to be dreary and the characters wooden, so will receive short shrift in these comments. The great exception is the Norwegian Hunter File featuring two brilliant young actors. Things might improve now that the Scandinavians breathe the high-octane air of NATO: perhaps a riveting Svarbord Bikini Murders or The Kaliningrad Caper awaits us down the road.  


Most striking to an American viewer are the strange mores and customs of the local protagonists compared to their counterparts over here. So are the physical traits as well as the social contexts. Here are a few immediately noteworthy examples. Tattoos and facial hardware are strangely absent – even among the bad guys. Green or orange hair is equally out of sight.


The former, I guess, are disfiguring. The latter types are too crude for the sophisticated plots. European salons also seem unable to produce that commonplace style of artificial blond hair parted by a conspicuous streak of dark brown roots so favoured by news anchors, talk show howlers and other female luminaries.  Jeans, of course, are universal – and usually filled in comely fashion. It’s what people do in them (or out of them) that stands out.  


First, almost no workout routines – or animated talk about them. Nautilus? Nordic Track? Yoga pants? From roughly 50 programs, I can recall only one, in fact – a scene in an Istanbul health club that doubles as a drug depot. There is a bit of jogging, just a bit – none in Italy. The Italians do some swimming (Montalbano) and are pictured hauling cases of wine up steep cellar stairs with uncanny frequency. Kale appears nowhere on the menu; and vegan or gluten are words unspoken.


Speaking of food, almost all of these characters actually sit down to eat lunch, albeit the main protagonist tends to lose an appetite when on the heels of a particularly elusive villain. Oblique references to cholesterol levels occur on but two occasions. Those omnipresent little containers of yoghurt are considered an invasive species unworthy of camera time.  


A few other features of contemporary American life are missing from the dialogue. I cannot recall the word “consultant” being uttered once. In the face of this amazing reality, one can only wonder how whiz-kid 21-year-old graduates from elite European universities manage to get that first critical foothold on the ladder of financial excess. Something else is lacking in the organizational culture of police departments, high-powered real estate operations, environmental NGOs or law firms: formal evaluations.  


In those retro environments, it all turns on long-standing personal ties, budgetary appropriations and actual accomplishment – not graded memo writing skills. Moreover, the abrupt firing of professionals is a surprising rarity. No wonder Europe is lagging so far behind in the league table of billionaires produced annually and on-the-job suicides. 


Then, there is that staple of all American conversation – real estate prices. They crop up very rarely – and then only when retirement is the subject. Admittedly, that is a pretty boring subject for a tense crime drama – however compelling it is for academics, investors, lawyers and doctors over here. Still, it fits a pattern.  


None of the main characters devotes time to soliciting offers from other institutions – be they universities, elite police units in a different city, insurance companies, banks, or architectural firms. They are peculiarly rooted where they are. In the U.S., professionals are constantly on the look-out for some prospective employer who will make them an attractive offer. That offer is then taken to their current institution along with the demand that it be matched or they’ll be packing their bags.


Most of the time, it makes little difference whether that “offer” is from College Station, Texas or La Jolla, California. That doesn’t occur in the programs that I’ve viewed. No one is driven to abandon colleagues, friends, a comfortable home and favourite restaurants for the once in a lifetime position in Chisinau at Goldman Sach’s Moldova branch. What a touching, if archaic way of viewing life.  


The pedigree of actors help make all this credible. For example, the classiest female leads are a “Turk” (Idil Uner) who in real life studied voice in Berlin for 17 years and a transplanted Russo-Italian (Natasha Stephanenko), daughter of a nuclear physicist at a secret facility in the Urals, earned a degree in metallurgical engineering in Moscow, and hosts a public affairs program on Italian television in real life.


(As far as I know, she has yet to be coerced into denouncing Putin from the entrance to her ‘mother’s’ fictive apartment in Kiev – perhaps because Stephanenko – is a fairly common Ukrainian as well as Russian surname). Each also has a parallel non-acting career in the arts. A couple of the French actresses hold advanced degrees from the prestigious Institut d'études politiques in Paris. It shows. 


After viewing the first dozen or so mysteries of diverse nationality, an American viewer begins to feel an unease creeping up on him. Something is amiss; something awry; something missing. Where are those little bottles of natural water that are ubiquitous in the U.S? The ones with the nipple tip. Meetings of all sorts are held without their comforting presence. Receptionists – glamorous or unglamorous alike – make do without them. Heat tormented Sicilians seem immune to the temptation. Cyclists don’t stick them in handlebar holders.  Even stray teenagers and university students are lacking their company.


Uneasiness gives way to a sensation of dread. For European civilization looks to be on the brink of extinction due to mass dehydration. That’s a pity. Any society where cityscapes are not cluttered with SUVs deserves to survive as a reserve of sanity on that score at least. It also allows for car chases through the crooked, cobbled streets of old towns unobstructed by herds of Yukons and Outbacks on the prowl for a double-parking space. Bonus: Montelbano’s unwashed Fiat has been missing a right front hubcap for 4 years (just like my car). To meet Hollywood standards for car chases he’d have to borrow Ingrid’s red Maserati. 


Social intercourse reveals a number of even more bizarre phenomena. In conversation, above all. Volume is several decibels below what it is on American TV shows and in our society. It is not necessary to grab the remote to drop sound levels down into the 20s in order to avoid irreparable hearing damage. Nor is one afflicted by those piercing, high-pitched voices that can cut through 3 inches of solid steel.


All manner of intelligible conversations are held in restaurants, cafes and other public places. Most incomprehensible are the moments of silence. Some last for up to a minute while the mind contemplates an intellectual puzzle or complex emotions. Such extreme behaviour does crop up occasionally in shows or films over here – but invariably followed by a diagnosis of concealed autism which provides the dramatic theme for the rest of the episode. 


Tragedy is more common, and takes more subtle forms in these European dramatizations. Certainly, America has long since departed from the standard formula of happy endings. Over there, tragic endings are not only varied – they include forms of tragedy that do not end in death or violence. The Sicilian series stands out in this respect.  


As to violence, there is a fair amount as only could be expected in detective series. Not everyone can be killed decorously by slow arsenic poisoning. So there is some blood and gore. But there is relatively little visual lingering on either the acts themselves or their grisly aftermaths. People bleed – but without geysers of blood or minutes fixed on its portentous dripping. Violence is part of life – not to be denied, not to be magnified as an object of occult fascination.  


Finally, it surprises an American to see how little the Europeans portrayed in these stories care about us. We tend to assume that the entire world is obsessed by the United States. True, our pop culture is everywhere – as in the modern jazz that accompanies the credits. Relatives from ‘over there’ do make an occasional appearance – especially in Italian shows. However, unlike their leaders who give the impression that they can’t take an unscheduled leak without first checking with the White House or National Security Council in Washington, these characters manage quite nicely to handle their lives in their own way on their own terms. 


Anyone who lives on the Continent or spends a lot of time there off the tourist circuit knows all this. The image presented by TV dramas may have the effect of exaggerating the differences with the U.S. That is not their intention, though. Moreover, isn’t the purpose of art to force us to see things that otherwise may not be obvious? 


P.S.  All of these programs are available from an outfit called MHZ: or NETFLIX

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