Barry Forshaw talks Bergman, Israel and Wallander with Henning Mankell, the man who started the Scandinavian crime craze

A few days after Kenneth Branagh’s knighthood was announced, I met Henning Mankell in an upmarket London hotel. Branagh is one of three actors to have played the role of his hero policeman Kurt Wallander following Rolf Lassgard and Krister Henriksson to varying degrees of acclaim. Mankell, when asked in interviews about which of the three actors he prefers, has always been studiously diplomatic. Can I finally draw him out?

"I don’t find it a difficult question when I’m asked who I prefer," says Mankell. "I am a theatre director. I spend a lot of time working with actors, so I see the particular virtues of each… I’m always excited by the fact that they are strikingly different from each other."

The first episode of the new Swedish Wallander series is adapted from a short story, and I was struck by its arthouse style: cool and existential, considerably distanced from the directness of British and American TV programmes. Is the influence of Mankell’s late father-in-law, legendary Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, discernible in the series?

"If Ingmar had directed an episode of Wallander" and he liked crime films as much as he liked the kind of serious drama he was noted for" this might have been the approach that he would have taken. Principally, this would have involved letting the landscape and the silence interact with the characters."

This seems the perfect time to ask about the films that Mankell watched in Bergman’s private cinema. What did the two men view together? "Well Ingmar lived on a small private island to the north of Gotland. He had a small, fully equipped cinema with 17 seats, and he could show the most ambitious films. He had his own projectionist. We watched more than 100 films together in that cinema. One day we might watch a classic silent film, the next it might be Ocean’s Eleven. I took notes of all those showings and discussions… perhaps someday I will write it all up as a book. It might change people’s perceptions of Ingmar Bergman."

Along with his skills as a crime writer, Mankell is well known for his keen social and political engagement, and in 2010 he was captured by Israeli troops when he took part in the flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade. Mankell wryly notes that when the news of his capture reached Sweden, a journalist phoned up his wife. "At about 5am, Eva received a phone call from a journalist who said to her: "Can you confirm that your husband is dead?" He smiles again. "She was… well, just a little upset!"

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