How the writer of Borgen took on the murder of Kim Wall in The Investigation

The death of the young Swedish journalist in Copenhagen shocked the world in 2017. A new drama focuses squarely on how police solved the crime. ‘This was a story about people who worked brutally hard to solve this case,’ Tobias Lindholm tells James Rampton

Wednesday 20 January 2021 12:43 GMT
Searching the sea: A still from Danish series The Investigation
Searching the sea: A still from Danish series The Investigation (BBC / misofilm & outline film / Henrik Ohsten)

At 7pm on Thursday 10 August 2017, on the island of Refshaleøen in Copenhagen harbour, Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall boarded the home-made midget submarine UC3 Nautilus. It was just six days before she was due to start a new life in Beijing with her boyfriend, and the 30-year-old was intending to spend two hours on the vessel interviewing its Danish inventor Peter Madsen. She was never seen alive again.

The details of this deeply disturbing case bear repetition. The submarine sank at 11am on 11 August, and Madsen was rescued at sea. Eleven days after Wall had boarded the Nautilus, parts of her mutilated body began to surface in Køge Bay, south of Copenhagen. Police divers discovered more over the coming months. Madsen was charged with murder, indecent handling of a corpse, and sexual assault.

He said at first that he had dropped Wall off on land. He then claimed that she had died on board in a mishap when he accidentally dropped the submarine hatch on her head and that he had buried her at sea because that was the maritime tradition.

Unable to get his story straight, Madsen then confessed to dismembering Wall’s body. However, he claimed that it was not his intention to kill her, suggesting that she died after inhaling poisonous exhaust in the submarine while he was up top. The post-mortem found no sign of exhaust gases in her lungs.

At his subsequent trial in April 2018, which grabbed headlines all over the world, Madsen was found guilty on all three charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.

His conviction was the result of an admirably painstaking investigation led by Jens Møller, the head of homicide for the Copenhagen Police, and the prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen.

That astonishingly meticulous process is now the subject of The Investigation, a compelling six-part Swedish-Danish drama, which starts on BBC Two on Friday.

Made with the full cooperation of Wall’s parents, Ingrid and Joachim Wall, as well as Møller and Buch-Jepsen, The Investigation is created by Tobias Lindholm, the writer-director behind the acclaimed Danish political drama, Borgen, and the Oscar-nominated picture, A War.

Pilou Asbæk, who played Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, portrays Buch-Jepsen. He points out that The Investigation is “about people doing their job really well – which is amazing for us to see in this year. It’s about the unsung heroes of our system. This is a series that celebrates collaboration, determination, honesty, and then gratitude.”

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Søren Malling plays Jens Møller (BBC / misofilm & outline film)

At a time when so many governments all over the world are beset by chaos and drowning in lies, The Investigation is a story about a system that actually functions well and where the truth matters.

Lindholm recollects that when he first heard the details of the case at a meeting with Møller, he saw that, “It was a story about people who worked brutally hard to solve this case. It was a story about a relationship with grieving parents. It was a story about young divers who spent months in colder and colder and darker and darker water. It was story about Swedish dogs that could sniff dead people underwater.

“It was all these things that reminded me of a system that works if people stick together. It showed that when first responders do their job, it brings order out of the chaos in the world where you and I live. That really inspired me.”

Lindholm, who also wrote and directed several episodes of David Fincher’s acclaimed Netflix crime series Mindhunter, adds that, “What I hope the audience can take away from this is a reminder of the responsibility we have to be part of society. We are citizens. We need to play our part. We need to do what we can to help each other and stand together.

Rolf Lassgård and Pernilla August play Kim Wall’s parents (BBC / misofilm & outline film / Per Arnesen)

“Unfortunately, I don’t think most people follow that at the moment. But this for me was an example of a system that worked, and I found that inspiring because we seem not to tell each other those stories. We are constantly reminding ourselves of chaos instead of telling ourselves fascinating stories about the opposite.”  

The Investigation is deliberately un-glamorised. It is the sheer, often boring grind of the police work that the filmmakers find so impressive. As Søren Malling, who plays Møller, puts it, “It’s not about, ‘Wow, look at me, I have a uniform, I have a gun.’ No, it’s just about normal people wearing shirts in a very boring office.

“But they’re so determined. They’re so committed. These people do a very decent job. And sometimes you need to tell these kinds of stories to open people’s mind to the fact that this is actually taking place in our society.”

The resolutely downbeat drama underscores the relentless graft involved in the inquiry. It tracks the dedicated team investigating the crime in grey police offices under grey skies and in grey seas.

“Jens is looking for justice in any way he can,” Møller continues. “And it could be for you, it could be for me, it could be for anybody. So he should be our hero. I hope that people will see that and realise that we have heroes around us. We should honour them in a way that we are not used to. Honour is actually a key word for this series. We honour these people who solve the case.”

The makers wanted to highlight what Kim Wall achieved (AP)

Intriguingly, Lindholm took the decision never to depict or name Madsen in the drama. He did not wish to dignify him with the attention. The writer-director explains that “Jens had never interrogated the perpetrator himself. He had people to do that, and then he analysed the answers and figured out what to do from there. So that offered me the chance to do the story in a different way, without showing the murderer or even talking about him.

“As media consumers, we are all extremely focused on psychology and backstories and why this happened. When I did Mindhunter with David Fincher, we were obsessed with these monsters and what they are made of.

“Jens wasn’t – he was obsessed with facts. So he solved this whole case without meeting or talking to the perpetrator. I knew I could definitely do a series about this really interesting investigation without needing to meet the murderer. I felt that both the crime itself and the perpetrator had been more than well covered in the media already.

“The least interesting or important person in this is the perpetrator. My obsession was all these heroes of the investigation. In a story about heroes and strength, I didn’t think there was a part for the perpetrator to play.”

It was also vital for Lindholm that he had input from Wall’s parents. (Ingrid and Joachim are played in the drama by Pernilla August from Star Wars and Rolf Lassgård from The Hunters.) “There was no story without them. They were part of the creation from the get-go.

Peter Madsen – who was not portrayed in the film – with one of his submarines (AP)

“When I spoke to them for the first time, the main reason that they wanted to share their story was that they feel grateful towards all the people on the case. They are grateful that they never gave up. The reason that Ingrid and Joachim could bury their daughter was because of the work of so many strangers they never met who paused their own lives to stay out there in the search. And that’s an extremely important story for them.”

The writer-director was also keen to celebrate a couple who were not defeated by their daughter’s murderer. “I definitely felt that the biggest cliche we could fall into was that grief equals crying all the time. I didn’t see that when I met Ingrid and Joachim. I saw a lioness’s will to live, a lioness’s power to keep her family together, and I wanted to portray that.”

The makers of The Investigation also wished to highlight what Kim Wall achieved. According to August, “Ingrid and Joachim were so eager for the story to be told in this way, because it had previously been told with so much darkness. It had been in the headlines all over.”

Kim, who is not portrayed in the drama, was a highly accomplished journalist. A graduate of both the London School of Economics and Columbia University, she was a talented reporter who contributed to a range of publications, including The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice, Slate, and Time.

In March 2016, she won the Hansel Mieth Prize for Best Digital Reportage from the German journalistic association Zeitenspiegel, for a multi-media report on climate change and nuclear weapons testing in the Marshall Islands.

Joachim and Ingrid Wall, parents of Kim (Rex)

“We have to remember that Kim was their daughter,” says Lindholm, “and it was so important for them to tell her life story and show the lightness of what she'd been doing as a journalist. There is so much power in that.”

In approaching the role of Møller, Malling took his responsibilities equally seriously. “In the script, Jens enjoys going hunting ducks with dogs. I didn’t have a hunting licence before we started.

“But I went and qualified for a hunting licence, so we could shoot the scene for real with no CGI. It was actually me shooting three ducks in a row in a forest close to Copenhagen. I could actually handle the dog as well. Jens and I became friends, and now we go hunting together.”

The Investigation looks set to become the latest in a long line of Scandi dramas that have caught the public imagination in the UK. Lindholm considers why we are so drawn to them. “You love them for the same reason that I love British football: it offers strength and honesty. There is an honesty in the British way of playing football, and I do believe there is a certain honesty in Scandi drama.

“We do not try to be something we are not. We are playing the game the way we are told to, as they did in British football before the Premier League became such a big business!”

Watching the finished series must have been extremely hard for the real-life Ingrid and Joachim. Lindholm reveals that, “It was a big challenge for everybody. But Ingrid and Joachim were extremely moved and humbled by Pernilla and Rolf’s performances. And I'm proud to say that they are very much behind us. I’ve developed a friendship with them, and I visit them with my wife and children now. And it all comes from the idea of the importance of being honest and reaching out and being able to talk to each other.

“It’s not easy to be them in this world, I can imagine. But they made it easy for us because of the way they are, in what they offer and their generosity. So luckily, luckily, we share our lives now. I look forward to the other side of this where we can actually go and have a coffee without needing to talk about this TV show. They have quite some insights to share.”

For all the difficulties and sensitivities involved, Lindholm is very pleased to have had the opportunity to tell this story. “It is a reminder of the strength that human beings contain. Ingrid is the sort of lioness that you probably will never meet again. She definitely deserves a story told about her, and the audience deserve to see it and hopefully be inspired by it.”

August also hopes that we might find inspiration in the final speech that Ingrid gives in The Investigation. “It says, ‘Go towards the light, search for the light, don’t go into the darkness.’ It’s very simple, but it’s so beautiful.”

Finally, is the idea that we are better together something that Brexiteers in the UK could learn from? “Yes,” Lindholm exclaims. “I hope that everybody who thinks they’re better on their own is reminded that they’re not. No man is an island. We are together.

“But now suddenly you’re leaving us. I feel like a left-behind child. So please come back. We miss you already in Europe!”

Should I send The Investigation to Boris Johnson, then?

“Yes. If you have his email address, I would love you to send it to him.”

The Investigation begins on BBC2 at 9pm on Friday

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