It’s Criminal

Sofie Gråbøl, Star of ‘Forbrydelsen,’ on Sarah Lund, ‘The Killing,’ and Season 3

Sofie Gråbøl may not be a household name in the U.S., but around the globe she’s now legendary for her performance as Sarah Lund in the Danish television drama Forbrydelsen. Jace Lacob on Lund’s appeal and the sensational third season of the original The Killing, which premieres in the U.K. on Saturday.

11.16.12 9:45 AM ET

It is tragic that American viewers have been denied the chance to become obsessed with Forbrydelsen and with the show’s magnetic star, Sofie Gråbøl. The Danish detective drama exemplifies the power of the provocative and globally significant Nordic noir genre, and the show's lead delivers one of television's most haunting performances of the past decade. Gråbøl, 44, has achieved cult status in Britain and abroad for her embodiment of Detective Inspector Sarah Lund, the grim-faced, Faroese sweater-clad cop with a penchant for solving impossible crimes while sacrificing everything else in the process.

Forbrydelsen (literally “The Crime,” but generally translated as The Killing) was the basis for AMC’s short-lived murder-mystery series, which may or may not be resurrected thanks to an assist from Netflix. Outside the United States, however, the original is still going strong, as the enthralling third and likely final season of Forbrydelsen premieres in the United Kingdom this Saturday on BBC Four.

Previous seasons have followed Lund through a devastating sequence of hardships, both personal and professional, the result of outside forces and her own intractable nature. Season 3, which takes place several years since we last saw her, finds the detective’s career on a more solid footing. She has put her past disgrace behind her, and she radiates an unsettling sense of complacency as she prepares to leave the Copenhagen police force for a cushy desk job. “If you lose everything you invest, can you just put everything on the table again the next time?” Gråbøl recently asked in a newspaper interview. “Like most of us when we get older, we tend to think, ‘Let somebody else save the world.’”

But then a young girl is kidnapped—an act of as yet unexplained vengeance—and corpses begin piling up in a grisly (and connected) murder spree. The kidnapping harkens back to the first season, recalling the murder of teenager Nanna Birk Larsen. This time, however, the victim is still alive, and Lund is forced to confront her past mistakes. If she can find the girl and stop the gruesome killings, there’s hope of redemption—or at least amends. An investigation of byzantine complexity leads Lund through the murky waters of the Danish financial sector to the corridors of power, entangling a billionaire financier and his family, an assortment of venal civil servants, and even the Danish prime minister in a web of murder and deceit.

Gråbøl’s Lund isn’t your typical female police detective. In fact, she isn’t a typical female TV character of any kind. She wastes little effort on irrelevancies like her appearance, usually pulling on a Faroe Islands jumper—now iconic thanks to the series—day after day, rather than worrying about her outfit. “It tells of a woman who has so much confidence in herself that she doesn’t have to use her sex to get what she wants,” Gabrol said in an interview last year. “She’s herself.” The knitted sweater is Lund’s uniform, her armor against the world.

That hardness infuses Lund’s personal life as well, as she immolates her relationships with her boyfriend, her teenage son, and her mother in pursuit of her quarry. Series creator Søren Sveistrup has likened Lund to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the trigger-happy cop with the decidedly malleable moral compass. “I’ve always been fond of Clint Eastwood,” Sveistrup recently said in an interview in The Independent on Sunday. “The parts he plays are so silent, sometimes a bit biblical. If you watch Dirty Harry, he’s not especially likable, and I like that paradox … [Before Forbrydelsen] the whole picture of female detectives was so disappointing—high-heeled, with a lot of mascara, looking good, dating the guy from forensics—you just couldn’t believe in it.”

In contrast, Gråbøl makes Lund achingly believable, with all the complexities and frailties of real life. She’s prickly and not always likable; she fails, and people around her die, yet it’s impossible to turn away from her. After playing Lund since the series began in 2007, retiring the character wasn’t as easy as Gråbøl expected. “I was very emotional when it happened—more than I thought I would be—but I’m a bit like Sarah Lund in that I don’t carry my emotions on the outside,” Gråbøl told The Independent, describing her final day on the set. “I just went into wardrobe, took off my jumper and my gun, and drove home … and I cried all the way home.”

Lund would look askance at such a sentimental outburst. Isolated and alone, the detective pursues criminals and the goal of reaching 25 years of police service with a passion more usually associated with a great love or the creation of a masterpiece.

“There is something about her completely uncompromising connection with her inner self that is so inspiring,” Gråbøl told The Wall Street Journal. “I think that’s why people tend to like this character and forgive her everything. Because she has so many unsympathetic sides: she is nonsocial, she isn’t very empathic, she lets everyone down, and she is only loyal to the deep core in herself. I feel that way, too. And that trait in her to be so true to herself is inspiring.”

Gråbøl has been working steadily ever since her teen years. A lead in the 1986 film adaptation of Tove Ditlevsen’s novel Barndommens gade (a.k.a. Childhood Street) quickly led to roles opposite Donald Sutherland in the 1986 Paul Gauguin biopic Oviri (The Wolf at the Door) and opposite Max von Sydow in 1987’s Pelle the Conqueror. Over the years, Gråbøl has done not only dark psychological drama, but also lighthearted comedy and even a Shakespearean adaptation: 1988’s Rami og Julie, where she played a Danish service-station attendant involved in a star-crossed romance, with a Palestinian émigré as her modern-day Romeo.

Earlier this year, Gråbøl had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it encounter cameo in AMC’s The Killing. As Seattle Deputy District Attorney Christina Niilsen, she exchanged a few words with the American version of Sarah Lund: Sarah Linden, played by Mireille Enos. “I played a character that I meet hundreds of times on [Forbrydelsen]—someone I have to get a piece of information from for the story to continue—and suddenly I was one of those characters,” Gråbøl told The Independent. “This Sarah Linden came up to me in a parking lot in a jumper and started asking me questions and there was a small 4-year-old girl deep inside of me shouting: ‘Give me my jumper—what the fuck are you doing? It’s my jumper!’”

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The appearance was a bit of an inside joke, but also a reminder that the U.S. version was its own entity. “I’d been asked a lot, ‘How do you feel about the American remake?'” Gråbøl said. “I wish they’d try to read subtitles, but if they won’t, then it’s fine to do their own thing. But I really didn’t relate to it.”

The prospect of Gråbøl’s final foray as Lund is heartbreaking. Television desperately needs female characters who defy expectations and are allowed to be realistically flawed, rather than false paragons. But Gråbøl seems certain that this will be Lund’s last case. “It is finished now,” she told The Guardian. “I didn’t have that feeling at the end of Season 2. This time, I feel there’s definitely not going to be a fourth [season].”

Gråbøl will next be seen in Søren Kragh-Jacobsen’s psychological thriller The Hour of the Lynx. Once again, she’ll share the screen with her former Forbrydelsen costar Søren Malling, who played Lund’s partner, Jan Meyer, in Season 1, but the character Gråbøl plays this time will wear a priest’s collar. And yet even if Gråbøl really has left Lund’s iconic sweater behind forever, the detective continues to exert a powerful gravitational pull, not only on viewers but also on the actress herself.

“What amazes me is I’ve not lost interest after seven years, which is more than you can say about most marriages,” Gråbøl told The Guardian. “There’s so much we don’t know about her. In that sense, she isn’t really mine—I don’t know more about her than you do.”