They were looking for a night watchman. Martin isn't afraid of the dark, but he has one problem…he got the job!
I don't know a lot about Danish cinema, but it is not the first place I would think to look for an edge-of-your seat thriller. I tend to think of Denmark as full of quiet, reserved people who ride a lot of bicycles and contentedly munch on æbleskivers and coffee.
However, in 1994 director Ole Bornedal released a film entitled Nattevagten, a dark thriller set in a morgue. The film became one of the biggest hits in Danish box office history. It now makes its appearance before this court on DVD, with the English title Nightwatch.
Facts of the Case
As the film opens, we meet a group of young adults, two couples having a dinner party. Martin (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Kalinka (Sofie Gråbøl) are hosting Jens (Kim Bodnia) and Lotte (Lotte Andersen). They are a carefree bunch; Martin and Jens are law students, Kalinka is an aspiring actress, and Lotte is studying to be a minister. As dinner winds down, the friends are enjoying a bottle of wine together, having fun, and sharing random toasts. Martin speaks up, and raises a glass to his new job. Lotte looks at him in disdain, asking why he bothers; his new job sounds disgusting to her. Martin counters that it is easy money; he will be paid to sit around all night long. As the party winds down, someone turns on the television, where the friends learn that a serial killer of prostitutes has claimed another victim.
It seems that Martin has taken a job as the new night watchman at the local morgue. His first night on the job the old night watchman gives him a tour, showing Martin the rounds he must make. There are a series of checkpoints throughout the facility where Martin must retrieve a key and reset the watch clock he carries with him. One of these locations is the actual cold storage room where newly arrived bodies are kept. The old watchman doesn't fully trust Martin, but lets him in on a closely guarded secret; years ago, before he took the job, a watchman was dismissed for indulging in necrophilia during his rounds. The incident was hushed up to save the families of the deceased from any undue distress. Martin is not sure what to make of this information, since the old watchman seems to be just slightly paranoid and perhaps not totally reliable. His first night on the job Martin also meets Detective Wörmer (Ulf Pilgård), the homicide detective assigned to the prostitute serial killer case. He lets Martin in on a secret; the killer has a signature, so they know it is a single person committing these murders. The killer has been scalping the prostitutes he kills. Wörmer even shows Martin the body of the most recent victim.
By day, Martin continues to attend law school classes with Jens, and the two friends decide to play a little game to liven up their humdrum lives. They agree to essentially a high-stakes version of a schoolyard "dare" game, where each one will take turns thinking up challenges for the other. The game will continue until someone refuses a dare, at which point the loser will agree to get married to hie respective girlfriend. One of Jens's first challenges for Martin involves Joyce (Rikke Louise Andersson), an underage prostitute. As the two friends talk with Joyce, Jens presses her for more and more personal information, including her strangest client. Joyce reveals that her strangest client is a man who pays her large sums of money to play dead, under a sheet and with a toe tag, while he avails himself of her services.
Soon Martin is faced with increasing pressures, both from his job and his dare game with Jens. Strange things begin happening at the morgue, which may be real or may be figments of Martin's ever more twisted imagination. A strange chain of circumstances leads Martin to become the lead suspect in the prostitute murders, which in turn leads to a shocking conclusion that will have audiences on the edge of their seats.
With Nightwatch writer/director Ole Bornedal creates a fascinating thriller. He knows, better than most directors, that the unseen is always scarier than the seen, and the unknown always scarier than the known. As he mentions in his commentary track, he uses the invisible monster that we are all afraid of as children to create a chilling atmosphere of suspense and dread around Martin. He makes great use of silence and subtle sounds to remind us that the only thing scarier to a child than hearing the things that go bump in the night is not hearing them.
Of course, Martin and his friends are not children, but Bornedal positions them on the knife-edge between carefree youth and responsible adulthood. Martin is torn between the tow existences. He wants the job so that he can get the money he needs; his friends say he is crazy, that he should just call his mother and ask for it rather than working. The dare game that he plays with Jens is an incredibly silly, schoolyard thing to do but the dares and the stakes are chillingly real and adult.
It is not just in the manipulation of the characters that Bornedal excels. Nightwatch is beautifully shot, with every camera angle helping to convey a sense of atmosphere and foreboding. From the opening tracking shot that surveys the aftermath of dinner in Martin and Kalinka's apartment we get a sense that something is amiss, that something bad is about to happen to these characters. Bornedal also plays a lot of POV tricks, for example using a stalking camera that we think represents Martin's POV, and suddenly turning a corner and coming face-to-face with him. There are a number of shots like this, and they work very well, never sinking to the level of camera gimmickry. Overall, Bornedal's compositions and use of light and shadow will impress all but the most jaded viewer.
There are some great acting performances in this film as well. Rikke Louise Andersson won the Danish equivalent of an Oscar for her portrayal of Joyce, the anguished, under-aged hooker who becomes a pawn in the events surrounding Martin and Jens. Kim Bodina brings a slightly crazy edge to Jens; we are never sure what he is up to, or if he is in his right mind. Of all the characters he is the most reluctant to grow up and become a boring, respectable person and the thought of it is driving him mad. Jens's girlfriend Lotte is probably the most mature of the group, and Lotte Andersen brings the character's frustrations with Jens through loud and clear. Sofie Gråbøl has a simple, luminous beauty that she brings to the screen. In her hands Kalinka is a marvelous character, soft and understanding, supportive of Martin when he needs it, but fiery when she thinks he has wronged her. She has some of the most difficult scenes in the movie, as events build to their ultimate climax, and she carries them off very well.
The main focus of the film is of course Martin. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau bears the weight of the film well. He's got the sort of friendly good looks that make him seem familiar to the audience somehow, like someone we might have gone to school with. He is able to capture all of the conflicting characteristics within Martin, from his fun-loving adolescent side to his more adult desires for stability and marriage. As the film progresses, Coster-Waldau captures a definite change in Martin, as he becomes more and more disturbed and anguished by what is going on around him. When the climax of the film arrives, he shows us Martin as enraged, driven to the breaking point by dark events he cannot control.
Nightwatch is an Anchor Bay DVD release. But of course, you knew that already; who else takes the time to bring fascinating, little-known foreign films to DVD? The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Overall it is a nice-looking transfer, but is not without a number of flaws. For most of the film the image is reasonably sharp and clear, with warm, well-rendered colors. However, the image is quite grainy, especially in darker scenes. This may be more a fault of the source material than the transfer, but it is quite pronounced in many scenes. Along with this there are a number of scenes, again primarily darker scenes, that show a lot of image softness and some texture problems. There are also scattered instances of edge enhancement that crop up throughout the film; not enough to be really distracting, but enough to be noticeable. Shadow areas show strong detail and good black levels, at least as good as the source material would allow. On the whole this video presentation is on a par or slightly better than a lot of Anchor Bay's transfers.
The audio is available in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. There really isn't a lot of difference between the two. The audio on the Dolby 5.1 track is mostly crisp and clear, with a pleasant blend of dialogue, music, and sound effects. There is some minor hiss noted under the audio, notably in the rear channels when they are not being used very heavily. And they are not used as heavily as they might be; they are mainly used for the musical soundtrack, and are not fully utilized otherwise. This seems a pity, as the building where Martin works seems like it should be full of all sorts of incidental sounds, background mechanical noise, and so forth, but these sounds are not used as effectively as they could have been.
Extra content is limited to a theatrical trailer, and the above-mentioned commentary track by Bornedal. The trailer is quite effective and seems surprisingly American in style and tone. The commentary track with Bornedal is good, but not as informative as it might have been. He comes across as fairly reserved, and there are significant silences in the commentary. However, his comments to have a lot of insight into the making of the film and the thought that went into each character, so overall it is a pretty good track to have.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There were a few minor things about Nightwatch that I found annoying. First and foremost, there are a couple of scenes where Martin talks about his life as though it were "a bad American movie." He even goes so far as to suggest a title for this movie, Night Guard. Now, I'm not upset about the "bad American movie" line—goodness knows we churn them out by the dozen on this side of the pond. My problem is that this kind of pseudo-hip, self-referential dialogue is too clever, too contrived to be believable and helps shake us out of Bornedal's carefully constructed film. I also disliked the fact that the movie ends on an extremely happy, totally clichèd note, much like, well, a bad American film would.
Interestingly enough, Bornedal made this film twice. He also made an English-language version for American audiences, starring Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette, Nick Nolte, and Josh Brolin. This 1998 version sounds interesting enough to pick up, at least as a rental, to compare it with the Danish original.
However, if you have to pick one version to watch, I'm betting that this version is the one to see. Personally, I'm a sucker for interesting foreign flicks like this one that take an essentially American genre and give it a unique spin. I quite enjoyed Nightwatch, and I'm betting you will too.
The film and all involved are acquitted. Anchor Bay seems to be slipping a bit in the extra content department lately, but what they lack in quantity they usually make up in quality. In any case, tusen takk for bringing us this interesting Danish film.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Director's Commentary
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