Bergen’s cold case heats up

The decades-old mystery of the Isdal Woman haunts investigators, spurs imaginations

Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American

Isdal Woman

Photo: Politiet / NRK
An artist’s composite sketch of the Isdal Woman was drawn up according to descriptions given by Norwegian eyewitnesses.

For over 48 years, her life and death have remained a mystery. Isdalskvinnen, the “Isdal Woman” or the “Woman from Ice Valley,” is one of the most famous unsolved cases in recent Norwegian history. Her burnt body was found by a professor and his two daughters on a Sunday afternoon hike on Nov. 29, 1970, in a remote area behind Mount Ulriken, the Isdalen Valley, also known as the “Valley of Death” in local lore.

An extensive investigation was launched by the Bergen authorities, and for lack of solid evidence, her death was ruled a suicide. But this conclusion has never been satisfying, with many questions around her death left unanswered, and to this day, her identity remains unknown.

The story of the Isdal Woman first came to my attention in 2014, when I saw the German-Norwegian film Two Lives (Zwei Leben/To liv), starring the acclaimed actresses Juliane Köhler and Liv Ullmann. Released in Europe two years earlier, it tells the story of Katrine, the daughter of a Norwegian woman and a German occupation soldier. She lives an idyllic life in Bergen with her husband, an officer in the Royal Norwegian Navy, their daughter, and her mother. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, her life is disrupted when she is asked to testify at a trial against the Norwegian state on behalf of the “war children” ostracized in Norway or sent away to orphanages in Germany.

In the movie, a tangled web starts to unravel, and we learn that Katrine has been living a double life as a Stasi agent. It is a world of assumed identity, disguise, secret travel, and clandestine meetings, and yes, even murder. Years earlier, when the movie’s real Katrine escaped East Germany to be reunited with her mother, she was brutally murdered by the Stasi in the woods outside Bergen. The corpse was set on fire to destroy the evidence, as the protagonist continued on with her double life in this intriguing thriller.

Interweaving fiction and fact, the parallels to the story of the Isdal Woman were apparent. The screenplay was based on the unpublished manuscript Eiszeiten (Ice Ages) by German author Hannelore Hippe, who had read about the Isdal Woman in Bergen. Her unsolved mystery had to some extent served as a point of departure for the storyline, and with the film, a new interest in the cold case was awakened. I was intrigued, too, and wanted to learn more about her story. Fortunately, in the years following the film, there has been extensive research to explore.

Two Lives - Isdal Woman

Photo: Farbfilm
The 2012 thriller Two Lives is a both a family tragedy and a story of international espionage, inspired by the mysteryof Bergen’s Isdal Woman.

From the outset, it had been speculated that the mysterious Isdal Woman was part of an espionage ring. But up until the recent reopening of the case and modern forensics, next to nothing was known about her. An autopsy had concluded the woman died from barbiturate poisoning and carbon monoxide. A blood analysis showed that she had consumed at least 50 sleeping pills. Her neck was severely bruised, possibly by a blow, and her face was burned so badly the she was unrecognizable.

But in the days prior to her disappearance, the face of the Isdal Woman had made an impression on many in Bergen. While she was never captured in a photo during her travels throughout Norway, a distinct description of an attractive, exotic-looking woman emerged.

Alvhild Rangnes, who worked in the dining room of Bergen’s Hotell Neptun as a 21-year-old, has never been able to forget her. She recalled how unusual it was for a woman to be traveling alone in the early 1970s, how self-assured and unapproachable the Isdal Woman was. She remembered wishing she could someday be like her, and she noted that the exotic hotel guest didn’t seem to be the type who would put on sweatsuit to head out on a hike up in Isdalen.

The police’s composite drawing of the stranger shows an attractive women with dark hair, with sharp, distinct features, and small eyes. Some described her as Asian-looking. She appeared to be between the ages of 30 and 40, was about 5’5”, her figure pleasing with its wide hips. Wherever she went, she stood out in her stylish clothes. This mysterious woman was seen out and about with several men in Bergen, but none of them ever came forth with any information about her.

The Isdal Woman was last seen leaving the Hotell Hordaheim in Bergen, from where she took a taxi to the train station. Two decades later, it was reported that another man joined her in the cab before arriving at the station. How she got to the isolated place where her body was discovered is unknown.

Two suitcases found at the train station were connected to her and left behind some clues. Among other things, there was clothing with all identifying labels removed, a mahogany-colored wig, a prescription for lotion with the doctor’s name and date removed, 500 Deutsche Marks, NOK 130, a few Belgian, British, and Swiss coins, spoons similar to the one found melted at the site of the corpse, a pair of sunglasses with partial fingerprints, and a brief diary with coded dates and places the woman had visited.

The investigation uncovered that the mystery woman had led a murky existence. She had traveled throughout Norway and other European countries under a number of assumed names and at least eight falsified passports. In Norway, she had checked into hotels in Oslo, Trondheim, and Stavanger before coming to Bergen.

But why? She told hotel staff that she was a traveling saleswoman and antiquities dealer, but there is no evidence that she conducted any business while in Norway, and why would this require so many fake identities? She was reported to speak broken English, Flemish, and German. One witness in Bergen overheard her tell a man in German, “Ich komme bald.” “I’m coming soon.”

Isdal Woman

Photo: Politiet / NRK
The burned corpse of the Isdal Woman was found in a remote wooded area behind Mt. Ulriken in Bergen in November 1970.

The year 1970 was at the height of the Cold War, and there were strong suspicions that the strange woman was connected to espionage. Declassified records from the Norwegian National Defense show that many of the stranger’s movements seem to correspond to top-secret trials of the Norwegian Penguin missile. A Stavanger fisherman claims to have seen a woman fitting her description while observing military movements.

But Norwegian police were never able to connect the case to international espionage, and the death was ruled a likely suicide. On a rainy Bergen day in February 1971, the Isdal Woman was given a Catholic burial in an unmarked grave. Her body had been put in a zinc coffin to preserve it in case her family should one day come forward to identify her.

Over the years, other theories have been put forth in an effort to solve the mystery. It has been proposed that the Isdal Woman was involved in illegal check trafficking; others have speculated that she was involved in transporting stolen artwork; a Stavanger researcher maintained that she was part of a prostitution ring. All of these theories have been discredited.

In 2016, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) commissioned the American artist Stephan Missal to create new set of drawings of the Isdal Woman to spark new interest in the case. Two years later, NRK and BBC produced a podcast series “Death in Ice Valley” with interviews with eyewitnesses and forensic scientists, bringing the story to an international audience.

Modern forensics yielded new, valuable information about the case. In 2016, a DNA profile obtained from the woman’s teeth tied her ancestry to Western Continental Europe. In 2017, stable isotope analysis of her teeth indicated that she had been born in about 1930 in or near Nuremberg, Germany, but had moved to France or somewhere near the border as a child.

These findings reinforced an earlier analysis of her handwriting, which suggested that she had been educated in France or a neighboring country. Further analysis of her teeth also indicated she had been to a dentist in East Asia, Central Europe, Southern Europe, or South America.

None of this suggested a life that had been a straight line. Could the Isdal Woman have been born into a Jewish family that had to leave Hitler’s Germany? It was speculated that she had been an Israeli agent, while others believed she was working for Russians or the East Germans. To this day, few doubt that she, like the fictional character in the movie Two Lives, was living a dual existence.

With the new DNA evidence, investigators have not given up hope that a family match will be found in a database and that living relatives of the Isdal Woman will come forward, as Bergen’s famous cold case continues to captivate us.

Recently, it was announced that the Isdal Woman will also have her own TV series. Icelandic director and writer Óskar Jónasson is working with a screenplay. Her story will be told in both the present and past and will be filmed on location in Norway.

Jónasson is basing his protagonist on Tore Osland, son of the lead investigator of the Bergen case and author of the biography Isdalskvinnen (2002). While the Icelander is crafting an imaginative piece of fiction, he is carefully weaving it together with the facts. Jónasson sees new theories and evidence emerging from experts and witnesses, and like many others, it is his hope that someday the mystery of the Isdal Woman will be solved.

Lori Ann Reinhall is a multilingual journalist and community activist based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association and state representative for Sister Cities International, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.

Western Norway Travel

This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.