Shame on Dry Land, by Swedish writer/director Axel Petersén, is a flinty noir set in sunny Malta. The film, which had its World Premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, is as slippery as its protagonist, Dimman (Joel Spira), who committed fraud and fled years earlier, leaving his business partner, Fredrik (Christopher Wagelin), in the lurch.

Petersén immerses viewers in Dimman’s story as he arrives in Malta to apologise to Fredrik, who is about to marry Sara (Julia Sporre). To be clear, Dimman was not invited to the wedding. Of course, Fredrik is none too pleased to see his former partner; his silent rage speaks volumes. While Dimman hopes to make amends with Fredrik, he gets ensnarled in another situation. Kicki (Jacqueline Ramel) wants Dimman to follow Krumm (Michal Axel Piotrowski), an economic crime authority, who is investigating the interests of various Swedes in Malta.

Shame On Dry Land

Shame on Dry Land is a fascinating character study because Dimman is an enigmatic antihero. Is he to be trusted? Can he be redeemed? The film keeps viewers on tenterhooks as Dimman gets embroiled in various criminal activities. There are large sums of cash, talk of blackmail, and possibly a few murders. When a body falls out a window, and Dimman is at the scene, he slinks away to avoid involvement. Such is his need for invisibility and un-involvement.

Petersén films Dimman as if he were shooting a nature documentary (without the narration). The camera lens studies the protagonist with the same intensity as Dimman studies Krumm. The detached approach forces viewers to observe Dimman and decide if he is cunning, hapless, or just unconcerned. And Spira, in a fantastic performance, invests his character with a weariness that is palpable. Dimman feels restless; in one scene, he deliberately bangs his head into a post. He is sweaty and ill at ease, a man haunted by his past and uncertain about his future.

Much of the film has Dimman lurking in bars, streets, and balconies spying on Krumm, perhaps more out of necessity than interest. The ‘investigation’ set pieces create much of the film’s tension as the story slowly unfolds. A subplot has Fredrik, who is deep in debt, going missing at one point. This allows Dimman the opportunity to possibly “save” his friend – although it is a task that may come at a price. 

Petersén keeps many of the plot points and relationships ambiguous which makes Shame on Dry Land intriguing. What happened in the past with Dimman and Fredrik’s company is vague. Kicki’s relationship with Dimman is also unclear. (There is a suggestion that she and Dimman were once lovers). And there are intangibles involving Krumm and his business on the island. By hinting at these themes and relationships, Petersén brings the shadiness of his characters to light; viewers can determine what to think and feel about them.

The filmmaker also creates a wonderfully uncomfortable atmosphere. Malta may be a picturesque tourist destination where a colony of Swedes have formed a tight-knit community, but there is a sinister undercurrent. The jangling score, a wailing scream, a shot of dead fish, the moody, filtered lighting, and the washed-out landscape are all deeply uninviting. The idle Swedish rich may be enjoying the casinos, bars, and nightclubs, but Shame on Dry Land highlights the seediness in this glamorous environment. There is something desiccated about the characters, who all look worse for wear. 

Joel Spira

The strength of Petersén’s film is that like Spira’s performance, it gets under one’s skin. And as the storylines rise and converge, there is a satisfying denouement. 

Petersén and Spira spoke with Senses of Cinema about making Shame on Dry Land.

Axel, what inspired this story, and what decisions did you make in developing it? Were you curious about depicting Swedes behaving badly in Malta? Did you research criminal activity? What was the impetus for all this?

Axel Petersén: It started with stories from friends near and dear, who left Sweden 10-20 years ago and are now living weird ex-pat lives in limbo somewhere – if not off the grid, in Hong Kong, Malta, and other places. I guess that’s Dimman’s perspective, mainly, of someone who has been staying away, avoiding adulthood or responsibility. I realised there was a big Swedish community in Malta working in the e-gaming industry. They weren’t just sun-loving tax evaders; they were there for a reason. They couldn’t do what they were doing at home, because the Swedish government had a monopoly on gambling. I was fascinated by that community, but I didn’t want Malta Swedes to look bad. The dodgy or criminal activity was never really in the forefront. It was about this man coming to terms with his past and his future. It’s a story of redemption. 

Joel, can you talk about Dimman and how you approached his character? What decisions did you make about him as a person. Is he amoral? Hapless? Cunning? What is his goal?

Joel Spira: It took Dimman a long time to figure out that he needs to get rid of this burden on his shoulders, this guilt. Being forgiven by a system is one thing, but being forgiven for something you care about is something else. That was the starting point for me. He has all of those traits you mentioned – as all of us do. He is cunning and has a lack of morals, and that triggered me with the part, to show that he is not 100% of anything. He has this inner struggle he is constantly battling. He has bad timing and is self-righteous in a way. And then there’s fate. Things happen, and he has to navigate them. When he arrives in Malta, he’s tired. He is hoping to reconcile with Fredrik and get out of there. He doesn’t want to sail boats for Kicki anymore. He has a few months before he’s ‘free’ [from exile or punishment for his crimes.] He doesn’t know what he’s going to encounter in Malta. He just knows that he will do one last sail and try to go back home. Kicki just laughs at him and says, “You can’t go back!”

Joel Spira

Axel, what observations do you have about creating a sense of detachment that can challenge viewers? Your approach made me lean into the film and unscramble what I’m seeing. I want to see the film again to pick up on what I may have missed.

Axel: That sounds great! You got enough!

Joel: We should ask you – were you frustrated?

No, I was satisfied!

Axel: Dimman means “the fog” in Swedish. What you are talking is a language that appeals to me and that I appreciate in film. I’m happy to hear that this film communicates like that. There was more information in the original script. However, while we were shooting, certain lines that might be heavy on [exposition] were taken out. In the editing, I took out even more. I’m not making something that is sparse, but making something dream-like that audiences that should be invested in or lean into. 

Joel: It is a tightrope balancing act. That’s why I ask if you got frustrated. You don’t want people lacking information. The film is character-driven; you want the audience to be close to Dimman, and that’s why you lean in. The facts become less important. It’s the struggle and longing of the character that comes into focus. 

Axel: There is a scene where Dimman is handed the mission of following Krumm, which he is not interested in. He does it, but it is not clear why, then he spots Krumm in this alley, and he sees him growling, and then he wants to follow him. Audiences follow Dimman for the same reason Dimman follows Krumm. 

Joel Spira

Joel, Dimman often has a blank expression, and his body language may be best described as coiled. You are on screen for most of the film and your character is wonderfully sweaty and fatigued. What can you say about creating such a lived-in performance? 

Joel: He is carrying a lot of secrets. He hopes one day to be the person he was before he left Sweden eight years ago. He seeks redemption but redemption doesn’t come for free. He sacrifices to get the burden off his shoulder, but that comes with the cost of never picking his old self up again. He can’t go back to being who he was. 

What can you say about the physical demands of your role? 

Joel: I trained a lot for his part. I was freediving and driving motorcycles. I trained with a boxer in Sweden, and I lost 8-10 kilos. I became as fit as I could to be prepared for anything. I think it paid off because it gives a sense that nature ground Dimman down over the years, and he is prepared for anything.

Usually, you want to show something about the character with your body language, but in this film, it’s more the other way around. When people hang their head when they walk, it is not because their head is heavy, it is because they have heavy thoughts. This is how Dimman was after leaving Sweden. From the first scene, he can’t hold his head up. 

Axel, the film is a sunny noir. Can you discuss creating the visuals and the atmosphere? There is a palpable sense of unease throughout, and it all feels deliberately unsettling. What can you say about developing a seedy tone in a picturesque location?

Axel: Yes, it is seedy, and it is sunny. We could have made this romanticised; with this genre, it might have a different cinematic language in terms of the visuals. I think there are beautiful things in this film. I love the tone and the music. I knew Dimman was some sort of wind instrument – a flute or a trumpet – and with the music we found his character, and that completed the whole feel and tone. I wanted to be warm, sweaty, and real at the same time. It is a balance of real and mysterious. 

Joel: You told me, “It can’t be too beautiful.” People have this assumption of being in a beautiful place on an island in the middle of the ocean, but when you put it in this context [of Dimman’s story] it has another layer. It doesn’t fit. In the clearest of water, and under the bright sun of day, the darkest things happen. It is a dreamy place – but not dreamy in a good way. 

Joel Spira

Axel, can we talk about the sex and violence in the film? These are staples of film noir, but you feature two scenes of oral sex – one is a bit explicit – and at least two dead bodies although no real bloodshed. It is as if you are flipping the script on the tropes of the genre. Was that deliberate? 

Axel: I love the genre, and I think the sex and violence has to be there because it’s part of it. However, in this story, it comes out in a different way. There’s a masturbation scene, but it is [Dimman spying on] the bad guy whacking off. I don’t think I deliberately wanted to flip the genre. I wanted the genre to suit the film, not control it. It’s a redemption drama that is stuck in a sunny Mediterranean noir, and not the other way around. I wanted the film to have a life of its own and that has to grow organically though writing, and cinematography, and music etc. I see it as a noir, straight up. The conventions are there.

To me, this is a film about reputation. It is also a redemption tale about forgiveness with themes of guilt and shame. What is motivating this morality?

Axel: First and foremost, it’s about a character who needs to be forgiven to be able to move on and let these things go. If that happens, Dimman can go back to his home, walk upright, and look people in the eye. But I don’t think it really applies for Dimman’s character. The others, sure, it is about keeping up appearances.

Joel: I think Dimman cares about Fredrik and his wife. Fredrik has lost everything – his family and his children because of Dimman. Dimman cares about Fredrik and is focused only on him. He wants to be forgiven, by Fredrik and it has to be genuine. Dimman does not give a shit about Kicki. He does not respect all those Swedes who are hustling, and he can feel that when he meets them. 

What is the appeal of grifters and the shadowy world they inhabit? There is a line in the film about “accepting who you are and making the most of it.” The film does not give us anyone to trust. They are shady people. 

Axel: That again, goes back to the genre, and the noir. That is where the tone and core of the film blend with the genre. I’d rather spend an hour and a half with a mysterious man like Dimman than watch a family drama about domestic problems. I want escapism and to have fun and be seduced.

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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