In 2017, the Scandinavian press became consumed by the murder of 30-year-old Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall, fixating on her killer and the brutality of the crime. Only a few years after the horrific incident captured the country and beyond, director Tobias Lindholm set out to do the exact opposite with Wall’s story. His dramatic recreation of the events in the six-part series The Investigation makes its American debut on HBO Feb. 1. The show goes to painstaking lengths to convey the factual details of the hunt for Wall’s killer, allowing the real heroes to be the central characters of the story rather than the murderer.
On August 10, 2017, Kim Wall got a text from a source she hadn’t heard back from in months. Even though it was the night of her and her boyfriend’s going away party—the couple was moving from Copenhagen to Beijing—she agreed to skip her own party to meet Danish inventor Peter Madsen and take a ride on his self-made submarine for an interview. Wall was set for a two-hour ride, from 7-9 p.m. She was the fourth woman that Madsen had invited that day for a ride on his vessel, but the first to accept.
When Kim Wall hadn’t come home or been in contact by 1:45 a.m., her boyfriend called the police. At 10:30 a.m. on the morning of August 11, the submarine was located by the Danish Navy. Not long after, it began to sink. Madsen swam to a rescue boat, but there was no sign of Wall. Although the inventor told the police that he had dropped Kim Wall off on shore the previous evening, he was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The following day, Madsen’s story changed. A hatch had fallen on Wall’s head, and she had died onboard. He never dropped her off on land, but carried her body out of the submarine and “buried her at sea.” On August 21, a torso washed ashore near where the submarine had sunk, and DNA testing revealed it to be Wall’s. It had 15 stab wounds. Madsen’s charge was changed to manslaughter. The Investigation chronicles faithfully and in great detail the grueling months of searching and diving that followed that eventually yielded Kim Wall’s head, arms, legs, clothing, and a saw from the water. Madsen’s story evolved as the case developed: he said that there was a technical malfunction on the sub, that Wall died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the bottom part of the submarine, and that he dismembered her body in order to carry it easier.
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Later, videos of women being decapitated, impaled, and tortured were found on his hard drive by the police. A woman Madsen had a sexual relationship with turned over texts where he told her he had a murder plan hatched out on his submarine which involved cutting a woman up. A web search including the terms “beheading,” “girl,” and “agony” was made on August 9, 2017, the night before Wall was murdered. On January 16, 2018, a new indictment for Madsen was released, for homicide that “took place with prior planning and preparation” as well as “sexual relations other than intercourse of a particularly dangerous nature, as well as for dismemberment.”
Madsen, at the center of the grueling, shocking case—there are only approximately 50 murders per year in all of Denmark—became a main character in the Scandanivan media at the time. The inventor was known to attend sex fetish parties, and his workshop colleagues said he was hot-tempered and erratic. His trial, which is about to begin at the close of The Investigation, was among the most watched in Scandanivan history. During the trial, which began on March 8, 2018, he spoke about himself in third and first person, switching between present and past tense, made many movie references, and even apologized for his account of the crime “sounding like a bad movie.” He also said he initially lied to “protect” Wall’s parents from the truth of her “gruesome” death, and when questioned about the violent videos he watched, explained that watching women suffer brought out his “empathy” and “tendency to always root for the underdog.” At the end of the weeks-long, high profile trial, Peter Madsen was sentenced to life in prison on April 25, 2018. The court also ordered him to pay an amount equal to approximately 19,700 USD to Wall’s boyfriend, as well as for the submarine to be destroyed. Madsen made headlines once again in October of 2020 when he escaped from Herstedvester Prison carrying a “pistol-like” object, with a fake bomb strapped to his chest. Officers recaptured him less than a mile from the prison.
There has been much controversy surrounding the media and entertainment coverage of the case. In Denmark, the publisher Saxo withdrew the first book in a true crime series about the case after it came under criticism for selling Kim Wall’s murder as entertainment. Netflix pulled an Australian documentary about Peter Madsen and his colleagues called “Into the Deep” from its lineup in March 2020 due to its ability to retraumatize unconsenting subjects. Discovery Networks Denmark produced a documentary based on secretly recorded telephone interviews between a journalist and Peter Madsen in jail, in which he confesses to the crime for the first time. The sensationalized nature of the case is exactly what initially deterred Tobias Lindholm from any interest in dramatizing the case.
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But Tobias Lindholm changed his mind when he met Jens Moller, the lead investigator in Kim Wall’s case. It premieres in the U.S. on February 1 on HBO, and details Moller and his team’s investigation without even so much as naming Peter Madsen. Instead, the six-part Danish series focuses on the hard working teams who helped to solve Kim Wall’s case, and the system that was able to provide justice for Kim Wall’s parents. “I hope that this story in the way we’ve told it, can at least invite a conversation about how we as media consumers are hurting [victim’s] relatives, and how we once in a while are celebrating brutal killers that don’t necessarily need that attention,” Lindholm told Esquire. “When you work with true crime, there are real people’s real lives, and we do have a responsibility towards survivors and relatives and victims.”
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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