Double disaster: Bølgen and Skjelvet
A few years ago in 2015, I was in Elverum in eastern Norway, far from the sea, on a school visit as a guest lecturer. I was absorbing all I could of Norwegian language and culture, and I found that going to the movies was an effective way to practice my Norwegian: the cinematic experience heightens the senses, the Norwegian audio with Norwegian subtitles gave my language brain dual info to strengthen my understanding, and I got to sit among Norwegians in their own element, so to speak.
That year, the film Bølgen (The Wave) had just come out. I went to see it at the little Elverum theater, and I remember emerging afterward with a mix of feelings. I was struck by the strange phenomenon of disaster films: why do we get such a strange pleasure in seeing depictions of places we know or love being destroyed by the magnificent forces of nature?
In The Wave, the picturesque town of Geiranger is pummeled by an 80-foot tsunami when Åkerneset, a great crag jutting into the Geirangerfjord, collapses into the water. The wildly popular Norwegian tourist destination adorning calendars worldwide is violently engulfed by the beautiful fjord it is nestled upon.
The Wave was followed up by a sequel, Skjelvet (The Quake) in 2018, starring much of the same cast. In the latter film, Oslo is leveled by a freak earthquake. Both films adhere to the disaster film formula, complete with the boy-who-isn’t-merely-crying-wolf figure in the middle of it all. But as a viewer who is captivated by contemporary Norwegian culture and the magic of Norwegian landscapes, I can’t help but dwell on the feeling that these films give of watching the vastness of natural forces turn places we love into mud.
Both films center their attention on Kristian Eikjord (played by Kristoffer Jonas) and his family. His wife, Idun, played by Ane Dahl Torp (a fan favorite in Norwegian TV shows like Okkupert and Heimebane), runs the flagship hotel in Geiranger in The Wave, and the recognizable Radisson Blu hotel tower in downtown Oslo in The Quake, apparently having moved there since Geiranger was, well, flooded with memories.
In The Wave, Kristian is a geologist (with a somewhat more nervous energy than most) stationed at Geiranger. On his last day of duty in the region, he suddenly notices patterns that convince him that Åkernes crevasse—an actual crevasse in an actual mountainside along the fjord contiguous with Geirangerfjord—is far more unstable than anyone thought. If the landmass were to plunge into the water, the resulting tsunami would careen through the fjord and smash into Geiranger at its eastern terminus.
You can guess where the plot goes, although it is, to be sure, one of Norway’s more impressive special effects efforts. In the chaotic and extensive escape sequence, Kristian and Idun both valiantly help neighbors and friends in deadly situations—with mixed success.
The Quake follows the events of The Wave some years later. The Eikjords’ marriage has not survived the trauma of that day, and Kristian lives alone along the fjord, while the family lives in Oslo. He is deeply depressed and haunted by all the people he believes he failed to save, barely able to tolerate a visit from his own daughter. He receives a package, however, from a recently deceased colleague in Oslo who was onto some disturbing seismic patterns in and around the highway tunnels beneath the city.
Spurred into action by the findings, he travels to Oslo to try to warn the authorities—and bridge the gap between himself and his family—and becomes embroiled in yet another wolf-crying fiasco, this time with a far higher potential for human cost. The daughter of Kristian’s colleague lets him spend time in her family home obsessing over her father’s research—instead of patching up his broken family. But he alone perceives the imminent danger of a devastating earthquake in the Norwegian capital.
At one rather poignant moment in the film, the daughter suggests how frustrating her father’s own obsession over his research was, and Kristian responds, “There are some things that are more important than a daughter, than family.” Soon after, we’re given another massive disaster sequence, this time watching iconic Oslo landmarks and architectural wonders (e.g., the Opera House) crumble, as the earth beneath them ripples like a pond.
Despite the excess of whispering, silent hand-wringing, predictable plot formula, and the soundtrack’s minor seconds to maintain a constant state of tension, The Quake, like The Wave that brought it here, hides at least a few compelling questions about the importance of human life in the face of the earth’s immensity beneath its formulaic, entertaining exterior.
The Wave and The Quake are both available with English subtitles on DVD and are streaming on Hulu. Both films can also be rented on most of the major streaming platforms.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.