Heart and minds
Writer Oskar Söderlund and actor Aliette Opheim tell DQ how Swedish series Mörkt hjäta (The Dark Heart) dramatises a true crime story by exploring the psychologies of the characters involved.
A crime drama set against a remote, rural landscape, Swedish series Mörkt hjärta (The Dark Heart) could be the latest show to come from Scandinavia that feeds the enduring international fascination with Nordic noir. Yet beneath the surface, this story is more Shakespearean saga or Greek tragedy, with writer Oskar Söderlund and director Gustav Möller serving up a heightened, character-driven story inspired by real events.
Sanna and Marcus are deeply in love, having grown up on nearby farms in Eketorp, southern Sweden. But while Sanna’s father Bengt is a wealthy and powerful landowner, Marcus’s family is penniless. Bengt then disappears without a trace in the summer of 2012 – the day after he gave his daughter an ultimatum to end her relationship with Marcus or lose her inheritance.
Two years later, police continue to be frustrated by the case and contact the charity Missing People to help publicise the investigation. Volunteer Tanja then becomes obsessed by the mystery and, in an attempt to solve it, starts a relationship with Marcus.
Centring on an old family feud and exploring how forbidden love can lead to a fatal tragedy, The Dark Heart is based on a real case that took place in Förlösa in 2012 and was the focus of a book by journalist Joakim Palmkvist.
Series producer FLX (Solsidan, Fartblinda) passed the book to Söderlund in November 2020, at a time when the writer was taking a break after season one of Netflix’s gritty crime drama Snabba Cash (S2 is currently in production) and wasn’t looking to take on a new project.
“I had heard about the case but it had been a couple of years so it was in the back of my mind somewhere,” he tells DQ. “Then I read the book and I immediately found this Shakespearean quality to it. Set in a small rural village, there’s this mighty landowner and a love story with a family feud hanging over it. Then you have this unlikely investigator. I was immediately attracted to the story and said straightaway, ‘OK, I want to do this. I’ll write all of it.’”
A month or so later, he was paired with director Möller (Den skyldige) and, from that moment, they forged a close collaboration that would see them through development and production of the five-part series, which debuts on Discovery+ today and will later roll out on Sweden’s Kanal 5.
“This is a limited series but we worked more like you do on feature films. It’s been very close,” Söderlund continues. “Gustav directed all the episodes. I actually ended up writing all the episodes. That’s the way it turned out to be, more like a feature film. This is our story. Gustav and I were given a lot of space to do whatever we wanted. That kind of freedom is a luxury. We had close contact during shooting, I watched all the dailies and we spoke all the time. He was very open in the casting process and we were close in the editing. It’s been a joy all along.”
They cracked the story in just two days, with Copenhagen-based Möller visiting Söderlund at his office in Goteborg to flesh out the writer’s initial storyline. The director contributed his thoughts about how he saw the story playing out, with a particular focus on exploring the characters’ personalities and motivations.
“We had a clear plot with clear turning points, which meant we could focus on the characters,” Söderlund says. “We spent a lot of time talking about characters and, of course, Gustav had input and the actors had some input. He was part of that process in a very good way. When you read a book, you always have to be selective. For me, reading the book, the plot was so clear so we could focus on the characters and create a character-driven drama that’s suspenseful at the same time.”
In particular, the spotlight fell on the two female characters, Sanna and Tanja, with Marcus placed between them as the story initially plays out across dual timelines.
“It’s like a deadly triangle,” Söderlund says. “We weren’t interested in speculating [about the case]. The book portrays what happened. This is an artistic take on things. We’re not trying to bring anything new to the case. We just wanted to portray the human beings behind it. Why did this happen? Who are they? What binds them together rather than separates them from each other and also us as an audience? This is a classic, universal story. That’s what attracted us to it.”
Both Sanna and Tanja are searching for a sense of self-realisation, he says, while the show is also a story about communication – or the consequences of a lack of it.
“What happened to Sanna’s father, it wouldn’t have happened if they’d just communicated,” Söderlund says. “People can be really closely related but that doesn’t mean you are really connected if you can’t communicate. For me, they’re all victims. I don’t want to take anything away from what people did and what happened but, under tragic circumstances, a lot of people are capable of terrible things.”
With a cast including Gustav Lindh, Clara Christiansson Drake and Peter Andersson, the series is led by Aliette Opheim as Tanja, who offers to help with the search for Bengt and quickly becomes obsessed with the case. Opheim had previously worked with Söderlund on miniseries Ettor Nollor (The Fat & The Angry), and the writer reveals she was his first pick for the role.
“She’s always looming in this grey zone where right and wrong is not as it is for most people,” Söderlund says of Tanja. “She has her own motives, she has her own driving force. That also makes her really alone. It’s a very Swedish story, I guess. It’s about loneliness; she’s lonely and that makes her complex. She’s trying to solve this case but you’re not really sure of her motives. Aliette managed to balance on that edge so well.
“She also brings humour to the series. It is dark, but it was important for me, in the writing, to also capture daily life. There is this big case going on but, at the same time, these people are living out lives that are filled with obstacles and some absurd situations.”
Opheim’s previous credits include Icelandic supernatural drama Katla and Swedish shows Beartown and Caliphate – evidence of her approach to seeking out “new challenges, new universes and new worlds” in every project. The Dark Heart is the latest example of that approach.
“I knew this was going to be a rare project and that Gustav would look at it as a very long feature film instead of a series and he would have a very creative vision,” she says. “When I read the scripts, I thought it was like a Greek play in a very quiet Nordic forest.”
Tanja, she says, is a character who is missing something in her life – a quality that manifests itself in her obsession with searching for missing people. “Somehow she wants to fill that void. Maybe it’s like she thinks that if she can find whatever or whoever is missing, she can also fill the emptiness inside her,” Opheim says. “What’s right and what’s wrong is important to her. That’s what drives her.
“She gets thrills out of [being involved in the case]. I think she watches true crime a lot. It’s a longing for her to be in that exciting atmosphere. Then as she gets more and more involved in this case, she really feels there is something here, especially when she meets Marcus.”
Though Tanja is based on a real person, Opheim was instructed just to play the character as Söderlund had written her, without delving too deeply into real events. On set, her experience was no less draining, however, as the tension builds throughout the psychological drama.
“At the end, there’s this long scene with Marcus that was 30 pages in the script, which is crazy,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like that before. We had three or four days just to shoot that scene. It is one location, one scene, for the whole episode. When we were going to do it, Gustav was like, ‘This is going to be heavy.’ And because it was at the end of the shoot, we always had that haunting us, in a way, which was quite a challenge. It was exhausting because she’s afraid, but you don’t want to play scared, so I had to be so tense and then try to play it cool.”
On set working with Möller, there was room for spontaneity and improvisation, but the director always had a clear vision of the kind of shots he wanted. “There were a lot of takes. That was quite exhausting as well, but I like it because you always get something out of each take. It was very much focused on the acting, which is nice because a lot of series go at such a fast pace that you get no rehearsals, no time and then three takes and you’re done. For me, this was like shooting a movie because we had proper time.”
Filming took place in Höör, in the south of Sweden, a small community to which Söderlund could relate, having grown up in a similar town.
“That meant the dialogue and the way people spoke came quite naturally,” he says. “This theme of not being able to communicate meant I worked a lot with silence and non-dialogue. This is a series where the dialogue is sometimes just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of things lying beneath the surface, and we also work with silence a lot and just hold back the dialogue. That came very naturally to me. I know these kinds of characters quite well from when I grew up.”
Distributed by Reinvent International Sales, the series was selected to be screened in the Indie Episodic category at last month’s Sundance Film Festival ahead of its domestic debut on Discovery+. Opheim believes the appeal of the show lies in the way it goes beyond tabloid headlines to look closely at the people involved and how their choices – rather than just being ‘bad people’ – led them to their situation.
“Maybe a lot of things led up to this moment and these particular actions,” she says. “If you really open yourself up to that person’s fate or destiny, we can understand why it becomes like this and we can stop it earlier. That is a really interesting way of looking at human beings. That is what Oskar and Gustav have done with this series.”