“The Dark Heart” Finds Crime in the Forests of Sweden

Gustav Lindh and Clara Christiansson Drake appear in The Dark Heart by Gustav Möller.

By Vanessa Zimmer

True crime makes for the best stories, as director Gustav Möller and screenwriter Oskar Söderlund found out when they tackled the project that became The Dark Heart, opening in the Indie Episodic section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. 

A decade ago, a wealthy and influential 62-year-old landowner in southern Sweden went missing. When the local police found nothing to go on, one of his daughters reported his disappearance to the missing persons agency. There, an investigator took a special interest in giving the family peace, launching a widespread search — and uncovering a sordid tale.

Set in the rural farmland and forests of the country, where Bengt Ljungqvist made a fortune off leasing his land and running a forestry operation, the series is written cliffhanger-style through each of three episodes. The story switches back and forth in time, covering Bengt’s last days and the missing-persons investigation that followed two years later.

Another daughter, Sanna, has pursued an education in forestry and works side-by-side with Bengt at the ranch. Angered when she takes up with the son of a neighboring farmer — the two families have feuded for years — he threatens to cut her off from her inheritance.

Söderlund pitched the story to Möller, having worked up a plan for scenes drawn from the book about the incident, The Dark Heart: A True Story of Greed, Murder, and an Unlikely Investigator, written by Joakim Palmkvist, a well-known crime reporter in Sweden. The book was published in 2018. 

The result is not a “reconstruction” of the book, Möller said in the Q&A following the screening. He and Söderlund were looking for the universal aspects of the story. They changed the names, and put away the book and the true story, using it as a springboard.

“While the premise of the story is a detective story, our focus has been on the people of the story, drilling into the psychology of the characters, rather than what makes them the protagonist or antagonist,” Möller says in his Meet the Artist video.

Möller also directed and co-wrote The Guilty, which won the Audience Award in World Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Festival, as well as several Danish awards. It is a thriller in which a police officer recently demoted to desk work takes a phone call from an alleged captive, which abruptly disconnects. The officer helms an investigation from the police station, using the ears and eyes of others to track down the kidnapper.

His new series was a welcome change to the natural world from that confined space, he said.

The two Dark Heart timelines meet when Episode 3 ends, but Möller and Söderlund have Episodes 3 and 4 for the series.