Inside the Head of a Killer
by John Kerkhoven

©Photo by Maryse Latulippe

John Kerkhoven

Writer, editor, and document designer living in Montreal
Working on a book of stories
Plays blues harmonica

Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg
Scriptwriters: Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg
1997, 97 minutes, Norway

"I once had a brother, but he died when I was eleven. … I thought it was embarrassing. When I came to school, the others didn’t know anything. … I invented stories about where he was and what had happened to him. As time went by the stories got more and more unlikely…."

"Insomnia" revolves around Chief Inspector Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarskgård) who is summoned to help solve the murder of a 17-year-old girl, Tanja Lorentzen (Maria Mathiessen). He is a relentless sleuth, intense, intelligent, and intuitive. He is also an outsider: a Swede who transferred to Norway, and a man alone in the world. He has no mate that we’re aware of and no family, though he once had a brother, but he died when Engström was eleven.

Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) and Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarskgård) on stakeout

In the opening scene of "Insomnia," Engström flies to the north of Norway, above the arctic circle, with his colleague Erik Vik (Sverre Anker Ousdal) who sleeps with his head on Engström's shoulder. The pilot announces that they are entering the land of the midnight sun. There is turbulence, Vik wakes up, jokingly pats Engström’s arm and asks him to sit still. Engström then casually reaches into Vik’s inside jacket pocket for a pen as though he were reaching into his own jacket pocket. Later, underlining this comfort between them, he reaches into Vik’s coat for a pair of binoculars. At that point, they are in the rocky Norwegian barrens on a stakeout, trying to trap the killer of the girl. A green officer, Arne Zakariassen (Kristian Figenschow), makes a noise, and the killer flees. In the ensuing chase, Zakariassen is shot in the leg. Engström goes after the killer, but it is foggy. A shot nearly hits him; he sees a figure and mistakenly fires on Vik, killing him. None of his colleagues witness this accident. Engström immediately proceeds to cover up the killing of his partner.

Tom Engen (coroner): The police in Stockholm raided an apartment building. They stormed in fully armed. He sat up in bed and shouted.… That’s when they recognized him. … In a very intimate conversation with the main witness.

At the initial medical investigation of the body, Tom Engen (Thor Michael Aamodt), tells the others that Engström was caught in bed with the main witness of a case. Engström, in the next room, overhears this and seems to contemplate and then to dismiss the gossip. We have more than scandal here. It is in Engström’s character to sit up in bed and shout when he is caught, as it is in his character (or, at least, not beyond him) to be in bed with the witness of a case. We see, as well, that, with the exception of Vik, Engström remains outside the society of his colleagues. Also, we get a glimpse into Engström’s relationship with Tom, which is only slightly warmer than cold at the best of times.

Shortly after Vik’s death, Tom is curt towards Engström when he tells him that the body of the 17-year-old girl turned up no clues about the murderer: no sign of sexual violation, no semen; in a word, nothing. Engström remarks to the local investigator, Hagen (Gisken Armand), that Tom and Vik worked together a long time, as if to say that Tom has been shaken by Vik’s death and that is why his behaviour is odd. But Engström is concealing his antagonistic relationship with Tom, at the same time giving us a clue to that antagonism: they both worked closely with Vik.

Vik: What is it between you and Hagen?
Engström: Nothing. The body of a 17-year-old.

Hagen (Gisken Armand) and Engström at the murdered girl’s apartment

Engström is studiously cautious with Hagen, who takes on the investigation of Vik’s murder, and who flirts with Engström from the moment he arrives, impressed by his reputation. She allows herself to be an alluring mature woman but keeps their work first and foremost between them. In any case, Engström resists her – perhaps in an effort to avoid any scandal, perhaps to safeguard the integrity of his investigation.  His motives, as usual, are ambiguous.

While Hagen maintains professional respectability, doing her work by the book, Engström conducts his investigation on his own terms, at the same time covering his tracks, and doing what he can to maintain the illusion that he is collaborating with her. When she asks him about Froya Selmer (Marianne O. Ulrichsen), a classmate of the murdered girl, he plays dumb. Hagen reminds him that he had spoken with her the day before and scolds him for not cooperating with her. Not only had he spoken with Froya, he also had his hand up the girl’s skirt. “I’m sorry,” he says.

Engström: What’s his name? The man she was with.
Froya: I never spoke to him. She was really weird about it. Like it was something special… having an affair with him.
Engström: Who?
Froya: An old pig!

Engström at the dump with Froya Selmer (Marianne O. Ulrichsen)

Engström takes Froya out to the dump where Tanja’s body was found. On the way, his hand brushes her leg in the car when he shifts gears. She encourages him, and he slides his hand up her skirt. Engström’s eyes are steely. This sexual escapade is interrupted when they hit the rough ground of the dump. Engström shows Froya where Tanja’s body was found and works her over psychologically until she tells him the name of the man Tanja was seeing. When Froya nearly spits her rebuke of the man – “an old pig” – into Engström’s face, he merely steps away from her, as if to say that such a thing could not have been meant for him. It’s not an insult if it doesn’t wound. If it wounds, he doesn’t show it.

Ulrichsen, in the role of Froya, is utterly convincing as a young woman with sexual power and enough innocence to be left weeping by Engström’s interrogation, and to run away from him when he is done.  Froya is implicated in Tanja’s death. Froya stole Tanja’s boyfriend, Eilert (Bjørn Moan), away from her on the night Tanja died. Tanja and Eilert had been seeing each other since Tanja, an orphan, had come to town nine months earlier. They were all drunk at a party. Froya told Eilert that Tanja was seeing an older man. Eilert broke up with Tanja. Tanja left the party, and she was never seen again.

Why does Engström put his hand up Froya’s skirt? Pruriently, it may be as simple as that she allows it, so he does. He may, however, want Froya’s complicity, so that it is easier to get her to tell him what he wants to know. Maybe he also wants to get inside the head of the killer, an older man who preyed upon a young girl who was Froya’s classmate. Engström knows, though, what it is to be inside the head of a killer – he is one.

Tanja’s older man, Froya tells Engström, is John Holt (Bjørn Floberg), a novelist. Holt is intelligent and keeps a low profile. He is trying to dissociate himself from his crime, but he lives with it, and this unshakeable preoccupation makes him creepy. Floberg beautifully conveys Holt’s defensive, guilty, and unapologetic personality.

Holt knows that Engström is after him and keeps a step ahead … for a while. Inevitably, they confront each other, and the result is a standoff. Holt tells Engström that he saw him shoot his partner. Engström, however, found Holt’s gun the day of the stakeout when Vik died and makes it clear that he intends to frame Holt for the murder of Vik. Holt holds the trump card, however. “There’s never been any weapons registered to me,” he says. The two go for a walk, each acutely aware of the other’s secret.

John Holt (Bjørn Floberg) and Engström have a private chat

Jon Holt: Couldn’t you just have admitted it? A short suspension and back to work, everything as it used to be…. Nobody is perfect.
Engström: You did nearly everything right….  
Holt: I’ve been doing those things for 20 years. Trying to imagine what happens afterwards… when you really cross the line. (Pointing to his head with a finger:) What happens here. The fiction became too boring. When you’ve put all the pieces together, the account balances. Nothing is missing. You have complete control. Complete control. It’s all just mathematics. But it’s impossible to calculate such a thing. You realize that afterwards, when you’ve been there yourself. You know that….
Engström: I know nothing of the sort.

Engström goes to such extreme lengths to conceal his part in Vik’s death that it is difficult fully to understand his motivation. Certainly, if he is to proceed with the original case, he can’t tell anyone what happened, if only because that would undermine the trust his colleagues have in him. He is unwilling, however, to have the truth known, even if Holt is caught. Holt suspects this, and he plays it for all it’s worth. Engström was on the local news after Vik’s death. “You look good on TV,” Holt says to him.  “I’ve always had such deep respect for the police. Yet sometimes one has to alter the truth a bit. An author understands that.” They are both perfectionists. Holt moves from fiction to the reality of his crime. Engström moves from his terrible mistake (if not a crime) to fiction, trying to invent a story that will spare him any embarrassment.

Engström examines the body of Tanja (Maria Mathiessen)

(From the early scene when Tanja’s body is first examined:)

Engström: You won’t find anything, Tom. He’s even washed her hair.
Tom Engen (coroner): Her hands and nails were scrubbed too.
Engström: Perfectionist.
Tom Engen:  Even the best make mistakes.

The script is remarkably tight. The writers,  Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjaerg, deserve a wealth of credit. There are, admittedly, a number of coincidences or lucky breaks that help move the story along. Engström conveniently finds Holt’s gun, for instance, and he escapes notice at least a couple of times when it would incriminate him. But the line is blurry between coincidence and human error in a story with two perfectionists trying to avoid suspicion. These elements of the story also tend to intensify the plot, rather than just advance it. When Engström finds Holt’s gun, he doesn’t turn it in as evidence, because the bullet in Vik’s body came from a different gun: his own. He slips the gun into his pocket; he then has to hide it in his room until he can make use of it or get rid of it. When the bullet that hit Zakariassen is found, Engström has to make sure that it matches the bullet found in Vik’s body. He makes use of the gun all right, but not as incriminating evidence.

Then there is the midnight sun. The light, occasionally glaring and only occasionally alleviated by rain or a closed room.  It sets a tone of trial and endurance in the film. According to Erik Skjoldbjaerg, the director, Insomnia was conceived as “a reversed film noir with light, not darkness, as the dramatic force.”

Engström’s difficulties are only compounded by the sun. Not only does he keep up appearances with his colleagues while trying both to close the original murder case on his own terms and to avoid being identified as the one who shot Vik, but he is battling the arctic sun.  It shines mercilessly into his bedroom at night and further wears him down. The combination of his strategical thinking, his duplicities, and his insomnia progressively take their toll on him: he hallucinates, he is exhausted, and he is slowly losing his grip. Skarskgård brilliantly portrays this decline and the effort of concentration that on the one hand accelerates it, and on the other is required to fight it.

Ane (the hotel clerk): Do you like whiskey?
Engström: Yes, sure. … Cheers.
Ane: I’m not allowed to do this.
Engström: Talk to strange men in the middle of the night?
Ane: No. We have to drink in silence. … How about you? Don’t you ever ask anybody for permission?

One night when Engström can’t sleep, he goes downstairs for a drink. Ane (Maria Bonnevie), the hotel clerk, brings him some whiskey and they drink together at the reception desk. It is to her that he tells his story about his brother who died and the increasingly implausible tales he told to cover it up. When their encounter threatens to become more intimate, Engström leaves.

Engström and Ane (Maria Bonnevie), the hotel clerk

Ane is somewhat innocent, though sufficiently self-possessed to tell Vik not to flirt with her when Vik and Engström arrive. She goes sweet on Engström, however. Two days after their midnight drink, when Engström is deep in deceptions and badly worn out, they are together in the back room of the hotel where she is tending to motherless kittens. She hands one to Engström who, after a moment, hands it back explaining that he finds them disgusting. She is not put off by this, and a moment later they are kissing. For her it is certainly intimate, but gentle. Engström, however, becomes very physical and tries to have sex with her up against the hotel’s supply of toilet paper. She escapes his embrace, upset, even somewhat horrified. He apologizes and is left standing, his face covered by his hands.

Engström and Ane

He is not exactly a brute - a man driven by compulsion and recklessness. Why did he put his hand up Froya’s skirt? How is it he was caught in bed with the witness of a case? At the airport, when he and Vik arrive, he is impatient to wait for his luggage. When they drive from the airport to the hotel, he drives through a red light.

Engström and Froya

Not incidentally, when Engström runs the red light, Vik says it was red; Engström disagrees, says it was green. “Yes, of course it was green,” says Vik. “My memory fails me.” We realize Vik is in the early stages of dementia. His last words to Engström right before he dies are, “You said to the right…. You said, to the right.” But Engström had said to go to the left. After Vik’s death, the same day, Engström is driving in the rain, stops at a red light. He gets out of the car and throws up in an alley.

In connection with her own investigation, Hagen asks Engström about Vik’s memory problems. Engström denies any such thing. It appears that he could be protecting Vik’s reputation as well as his own, but we do not know for sure. That’s not all Hagen asks him about. The investigation of Vik’s death makes Engström’s testimony questionable. Over the course of the film, Hagen gradually arrives at her own conclusion about the events and about Engström. She also proves to be better than “by the book” as an investigator.

With no evidence against Holt, Engström decides instead to frame Eilert, the boyfriend of the victim who is now attached to Froya. Eilert was interrogated once already and was so hostile and defensive that it is apparent he could have been motivated by jealousy to kill Tanja. Engström makes Holt vaguely aware of his plan. The investigations proceed swiftly, and Holt is called in for questioning. Engström plays along, but only so far. Holt says he was a kind of father figure to Tanja, and he won't admit to having had sex with Tanja. This doesn’t help matters. In front of Hagen, Engström blasts Holt for not going to the police when a girl he had supposedly taken under his wing turned up dead.

Engström is doing the best he can to conceal his exhaustion. His nights are sleepless; if he’s not out rigging evidence in his favour, he’s lying in bed like a man with a fever. The sunlight seeps through the bed cover he has stapled over the window. When he’s out, day or night, everything is equally exposed in the bleaching light so that in the general landscape there is no clear focus for his attention. The effect on him is draining.

Jon Holt: That friend of yours.… Did he get too close to you?

Holt is nervous and calls Engström for a clandestine meeting in an empty boathouse. Engström is impatient and irritable.  Holt tries to explain himself - that Tanja's murder was an accident - that Tanja got too close to him. He plays on Engström’s weaknesses to ensure Engström’s complicity in keeping things secret. Describing Tanja in a state of desperate tiredness, he nearly leans on Engström’s shoulder, a gesture that strangely reminds us of Vik leaning on Engström on the plane in the opening scene.  Engström slaps him.  When Holt suggests that maybe Vik got too close to Engström, it is only a ship’s foghorn that saves him from a violent push into the drink.

No matter what Holt says to Engström about fiction having become too boring, his story is more of a mixture of fascination (with Tanja), desire, frustration, and blunder. In their last exchange, Engström asks Holt, "Didn't you manage?" Hold answers, "I tried."  Engström: "I don't want to listen to that crap."  This is from the man who frightened Ane in the back room of the hotel.  Engström's risky and sometimes frustrated relationships with women perhaps mirror  Holt's own apparent problems with self-control.  Again, the parallels between the perfectionists run deep, and Engström despises Holt, the way we tend to despise those who betray our own faults and weaknesses.

Engström in Holt's apartment

Zakariassen: How can you take it?
Engström: Take what?
Zakariassen: Two bodies in one week. I’ve had it up to here. It made me think of you seeing this year- after-year.
Engström: You get used to it. You just have to avoid mixing your job and your personal life.

"Insomnia" needs to be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. This is a drawback as well as a virtue. Some things might have been made more clear, for example, that Engström transferred to Norway and is based in Oslo. This information is easy to miss, but it is important. When he tells Zakariassen that this is to be his last job in Norway, we understand that something has shifted for him, and it is time for him to return to Sweden. He confronts himself in several ways in the course of this investigation. He also says in a bit of casual conversation with Vik that he is tired of reviving dead people; and with Vik dead, he has lost the only person he was at ease working with. An additional conversation with Hagen somewhere along the line would easily provide, without much embellishment, a clearer picture of Engström’s situation, at the same time developing Hagen’s character and their relationship. Other plot elements could be clarified along the way. For instance, since Engström wants to frame Eilert, it is not enough that Eilert be plausibly guilty of killing Tanja, he must also be plausibly guilty of killing Vik, but the question of an alibi for that is never raised.

A worn and weary Engström

Nevertheless, the film holds together astonishingly well. Although the question of an alibi for Eilert in connection with Vik’s murder is not raised, the question of Eilert’s fate is. He is interrogated a second time and threatened with incrimination; he breaks down. Engström’s reaction to an innocent being sent to slaughter is visceral. Even the chief of police (Frode Rasmussen), a minor character, is important. He is portrayed as an efficient but uninspiring administrator, yet is actually pretty sharp. Ironically, his final discussion with Engström mirrors their first, reflecting the astuteness of the chief’s initial speculations, and by contrast, Engström’s initial arrogance.  When they first talk, the chief suggests that Tanja's death was an accident, that the killer panicked.  Engström confidently responds that her death was no accident because the killer had removed all the clues.  In his final interview with the chief, Engström says with more sobriety than confidence, "He's not the killing type."  The chief replies, "But he killed Vik."  Engström responds, " "Panic."  It's as close as Engström comes to an admission of what actually happened.

"Insomnia" is an exceptionally intelligent psychological thriller. It is well-shot, and well-edited; the acting and the script are strong; the use of the midnight sun is ingenious, and Skarskgård single-minded, extreme character is fascinating.

Contact: John Kerkhoven

Note: For many years, Lois Siegel taught at John Abbott College (Montreal).
Once upon a time, John Kerkhoven was one of her English Literature students.

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