True Crime Tuesdays: Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall
Helen Archer | On 07, Jun 2022
The murder of journalist Kim Wall is notorious for a number of reasons – the sheer brutality and horror of the crime chief among them. Add to that the fact it happened in her home country of Denmark, the safest country in the world, while she was doing her job – and that she was killed in a private, homemade submarine, when she was alone on board with its inventor – and it’s little wonder that the story of the long search for her dismembered body became international news, and that the eventual trial of Peter Madsen was a media circus.
There was a lot of interest in telling Wall’s story. The difficulty arises in how to do this in a respectful way, because the crime was so gruesome and the killer so diabolical that it is difficult to avoid falling into the trap of sensationalism. The Danish drama The Investigation eschewed this by focusing on the oceanographer, Torben Vang, and the way in which he used his expertise to assist the search for her body. He is interviewed in Erin Lee Carr’s two-part HBO documentary about the crime, along with a handful of Kim’s friends, journalists, naval officers, and acquaintances of Madsen. If any documentary-maker was going to tackle this sensitively, it’s Carr, whose previous work includes Mommy Dead and Dearest and I Love You, Now Die, where – despite the sometimes schlocky titles – she takes nuanced looks at infamous crimes.
This is, of course, a horrifying story, and the film doesn’t shy away from that. Though some may come to it blind, especially those outwith Europe and Scandinavia, there is a drip-drip of truly awful information that prepares viewers for the abyss they are about to enter. Part one deals, in the main, with the sinking of the submarine and the search for Kim, as well as the changing stories of Madsen as he attempted to get away with murder.
The second part looks at the trial, which is full of significant, albeit sickening, detail.
Though Carr secured telephone interviews with Madsen in prison, these are used sparingly. Much more time is given to Kim’s thoughtful friends, who paint a picture of an intelligent and curious woman, brimming with energy. Her career took her around the world, to many dangerous places, and she felt strongly about telling the stories of communities otherwise overlooked in the mainstream press. At the time of her death, she was about to move to China with her boyfriend. It seems fair to say she was on track for a wonderfully fulfilling life.
That is, until she stepped on board the Nautilus with a man who, unbeknown to her, was planning to sail over the River Styx and into Hell itself. The film shows footage of him as he was rescued from his drowning submarine, to begin telling a web of unthinkable lies about Kim’s fate. It’s only later that you notice the blood on his face as he gets into a waiting police car, or the saw in his back pocket that was taken from his workshop on to the submarine, indicating clear premeditation.
Throughout the documentary, there are shots of water and the interior of a submarine. One of Madsen’s colleagues describes the deafening silence that descended the moment the Nautilus submerged. A court artist, interviewed in the second part of the documentary, voices the reason that the nature of the murder is so disturbing – the fact that, once underwater, there was no escape.
Carr briefly examines the type of victim-blaming response that is so endemic in the reporting of such crimes – people admonishing Wall for wearing a skirt, and for taking the assignment in the first place. That is batted swiftly away by the various journalists interviewed, who state that refusing a job such as this wouldn’t cross their minds.
And yet therein lies the rub. We can, perhaps, prepare ourselves for entering dangerous territory. We can’t prepare ourselves for random acts of violence on our own doorsteps. Wall wasn’t targeted because she was a journalist; she was targeted because she was a lone woman. After her death, her family set up the Kim Wall Memorial Fund, which allocates grants to female journalists, to carry on Kim’s legacy. Carr’s film ends with her parents at the awards ceremony, giving an emotional speech, before her brother, holding a pen aloft, says: “Let’s arm ourselves with our swords, and make her proud.” Kim’s weapon was her pen, her passion reportage. Perhaps she could have found the right words for a crime so cruel.