I recently ran across the shortlived Danish tv Heartless (Danish with English subtitles) on Netflix. It was only 8 episodes and I’d read some interesting things about it, so I gave it a try. It’s not a great show, but it has an interesting take on vampirism and part of the show is set in 17th century Denmark, so I figured I’d fire off a quick post about it.
Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) and Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) are teenage homeless twins living in Copenhagen, dealing with a dark secret. To survive, they need to steal people’s life energy through kisses. If they take too much, the victim bursts into flames and dies. Sebastian is guilt-ridden over this while Sofie shrugs her shoulders and is resigned to her existence. But Sebastian convinces her that they need to find out why they are the way they are, and their investigations eventually reveal that their mother, shortly after dropping them off at an orphanage, went to Ottmannsgaard Academy, an elite private school (the school prides itself on the quality of its fencing instruction) where she evidently vanished. So they manage to enroll and begin seeking clues. Cue all the usual teen drama angst that one expects at that age: social competition, teen romance, existential angst, and vampiric murder.
It turns out that Ottmannsgaard has its own dark history, stemming back to Denmark in the 1670s, when the local nobleman, the weak-willed Count Ottman (Lior Cohen) gets his peasant mistress Ane Sørensdatter (Shelly Jacquline Levy) pregnant. His pregnant wife, understandably pissed about her husband’s wandering eye, evidently leans on the local Lutheran minister to accuse Ane of being a witch (like you do). The count tries to get Ane to flee the area, but she refuses because she’s young, in love, and fated to die for the plot to happen, and so instead she gets arrested, tortured, and sentenced to burn at the stake, even though she’s carrying his child.
The execution succeeds, but triggers a curse that follows the children of both the Countess and Ane (who must have been a witch, because her unborn baby somehow survives her mother being burned to death. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is). There’s a twist of sorts here that I won’t give away, although it’s not a huge one (so don’t get your hopes up).
Eight episodes of that doesn’t give me a whole lot to comment on. But the show at least gets the witchcraft details in the right ballpark. There were no executions of witches in the 1670s, but there was one in the 1680s (the Rugard Trials), in which Jørgen Arenfeldt, a local nobleman, used his authority as the lord of the manor to imprison, try, and execute a half-dozen women as witches. One of the unfortunate women was named Anne Sorensdatter. In doing this, Arenfeldt violated the law by torturing the women and by prosecuting women who lived outside his jurisdiction. The last execution for witchcraft in Denmark happened in 1693.
So the trial and execution of Ane Sørensdatter could actually have happened in loosely the fashion the series depicts. Like the Rugard women, what Ane is subjected to is, I think, supposed to be ducking. As usually happens with this practice, the show misunderstands ducking as a form of torture intended to elicit a confession when in fact it was an effort to obtain objective evidence of witchcraft. But Ane’s ducking is more like just being held underwater rather than being put in a classic ducking stool, so maybe it’s simply supposed to be torture. Torturing witches was illegal in Denmark in this period, but the show doesn’t touch on that, so I think we’re just intended to understand that early modern authorities were gullible sadists and we’ve moved beyond that.
It’s nice to see a show in which historical research (albeit conducted at the high school level) is actually an important component of the series. Throughout the show, Sebastian is constantly seeking clues to the past, speaking with his history teacher, asking to write his term paper on witchcraft trials, reading old books, and so on. So in a way, the show offers a nice example of the way a historical researcher chases events through the evidence to unravel the mysteries of the past. It’s rather convenient that at key moments he runs into people who just happen to have saved boxes of old stuff for more than a decade and those boxes always have a clue he needs, but hey, it’s a teen drama so I think we can forgive that wild coincidence.
Sofie’s character is handled particularly nicely. As the show goes on, she develops an attraction to the headmaster’s daughter Emilie (Julie Christiansen) who gradually reciprocates her feelings. When the headmaster discovers this, he’s uncomfortable with the relationship, not because of the lesbianism but because he’s suspicious of Sofie’s motives and nature. There’s a very nice scene in which he tells Emilie that he doesn’t care that she might be attracted to women, but that he doesn’t want her involved with Sofie. The show’s treatment of two young lesbians is really refreshing because their lesbianism isn’t in any way the problem in the relationship.
Heartless is not a great show, either in its treatment of its historical themes or the quality of its teen drama. It nearly got cancelled after 5 episodes, and the network apparently decided to film three more episodes simply as a way to give the story a conclusion. It’s filled with lots of wordless brooding of the kind Scandinavians are so good at depicting but which can get sort of tedious for American viewers. But it captures some of the complexities of teenage sexuality and identity quite well, in which the problems of vampiric existence become an interesting metaphor for the transition to adulthood, and the show doesn’t try to stretch out its central mystery further than the story can support. So if you’re in the mood for a novel approach to vampirism or just want to see lots of Scandinavian teens yearning for what they can’t have, give it a look.
Want to Know More?
Heartless is available through Amazon.
I can’t offer you anything on witchcraft in Denmark, but if you want to know more about witch trials and related matters, a good introduction to the Early Modern Witch Hunts is Joseph Klaits’ Servants of Satan.