"Jezero" and the Slovenian Art of Anti-Thrillers, Part 1
I was commissioned to write a review of "Jezero," a high-profile police procedural TV series that ran in the winter 2020 on RTV, Slovenia's national station. It was published in AirBeletrina in Slovenian. Below is the original, English text.
Still Waters: Jezero and the Un-Thriller
Jezero is a phenomenon. It was hugely-hyped by RTV, the national television, and has the perfect prime-time slot of 8:00 p.m. on Sundays. The series is based on a popular book by Tadej Golob and it strives to be an Alpine equivalent to the trend in Nordic Noir crime fiction. And you know what? The TV series, which just ended, is…okay. That may seem like I am damning it with faint praise, but let's examine this further.
The show would not come under such scrutiny had it not been so hyped. It was meant to be a landmark television event. So, what does it do well? It is very beautifully shot. The cinematography is engaging and elegant. However, with such a photogenic location as Lake Bohinj as the site of the murder mystery, they would have had to work hard for it not to look great.
The series features the clichés of the Nordic Noir police procedural genre, but this is not necessarily objectionable, because they seem to work over and over again, from one series to the next. Audiences expect them and don’t mind the formulaic nature. The basics of police procedurals and the Nordic Noir genre fiction repeat—it is only the details that differ and are original. Police procedurals, particularly of the Nordic variety, have come to be overpopulated with morose, mumbling, rakishly handsome, haggard male detectives with troubled home lives and a problematic dynamic with their kids. And, de rigeur, some skeletons and scars in their closet and their souls. Jezero’s protagonist, Taras Birsa, checks all the boxes. There is also usually a younger female sidekick who ends up in bed with the haggard and depressed male detective. We've got that, too, with Birsa’s colleague, new to his team, Tina Lanc. We need a stark and cold and atmospheric location and we need a body discovered, preferably with some exotic method of execution. All those are covered: Jezero opens with a female body found beside Lake Bohinj, minus its head.
Just because this is all predictable does not make it bad within this genre. But it does mean that we are not dealing with anything new or exciting or with a particular twist to it. Keep in mind that such works of fiction and film will be disappointing if they do not have some sort of twist, especially at the end. This series has been without twists—the most surprising thing in the series was when, after consummating the flirtation between the two leads, the next morning Tina makes fun of Taras for feeling awkward about having slept together, by saying, “Come on, Taras, it was just sex.” This was refreshing and was the first note in the whole series that struck me as surprising and a bit different, exceeding our expectations. Even the revelation of who the murderer is was without a “wow” factor.
We come to some issues that are initially nit-picky, but then we will go into the one larger issue that is more of a Slovenian phenomenon, and which makes this series ultimately less than it could have been.
First of all, there seems to be either a problem with the sound or with the interpretation by the lead, Sebastjan Cavazza (who plays Birsa). It has become a running joke that nobody can understand what he is saying, but that he’s so sexy that we don’t care. It seems we would all benefit from subtitles. Being America, and with an imprecise understanding of the Slovenian language, I thought that this was just me being me, having trouble following what Cavazza said. Turns out it's a running joke among native speakers, as well. It has been suggested that there was some technical problem with the sound recording. Cavazza has such a lovely, rumbly, deep voice that is beautiful to listen to, but is so low and rumbly that his words disappear. But then it was difficult to hear any voice on a phone call in the series, and some of the other actors, too. No matter how atmospheric a show wishes to be, audiences must be able to hear dialogue clearly.
Next is the complete lack of electricity between Birsa and Lanc, played by Nika Rozman. It may have to do with the fact that Cavazza is famously sexy and Rozman is a “plain Jane.” We have trouble believing that he would become attracted to her and the moments that were meant to convey awkward sexual tension did nothing of the sort, because of that lack of electricity. And so their slow dance into bed feels more like going through the paces. It was just a matter of how many scenes we had to watch until it happened. But there was no actual tension on the part of the viewer when watching and wondering when their pants would come off. It was just about when…and eventually a sort of “get it over with, already” reaction.
Then there is the non-flattering comparison to the HBO series, True Detective. The opening credits of Jezero are a clear homage (I assume it is an homage and not a rip-off) to the credits for True Detective, from the cinematography to the music to the aesthetic. This could be a cute homage, but the two series could not be more different. True Detective was a tour-de-force, absolute genius, gripping and powerful and taught as a wire from start to finish. Jezero is…okay. The makers would have been better served not serving up credits that encourage a direct comparison. This is not the Slovenian True Detective, I’m afraid.
There’s a general rule in scriptwriting, regardless of genre. There should never be a scene that is just there, for no particular reason. Every scene should either advance the plot or deepen our understanding of character or both. In this series, there were numerous scenes that felt that they did neither. For instance, in the finale, just when we think the pace might really pick up, full-throttle until the end, the episode opens with around six minutes of nothing really happening. This includes a scene that was several minutes long of two members of Birsa’s team having the DNA results that they were eagerly expecting explained to them by Golob, the forensic specialist, starting with the number of chromosomes in humans and the number of strands… I’m still not sure what we were supposed to get out of that scene. Was it meant to be funny? It wasn’t. Did it deepen our understanding of character? Maybe of Golob’s, that he is didactic, but he’s an unimportant ancillary character. That Birsa’s team members are not so bright? Not important to the overall series, as we are only really interested in Birsa and Lanc. There was no plot advancement…in fact, it almost felt like a joke about the lack of pace in the series. Not even the forensic specialist could be bothered to speed things up, as he had the DNA results Birsa needed and had not passed them on.
There is a shorthand for making characters feel more three-dimensional and endearing to us, so that we feel invested in their success and well-being, that we cheer for them. It is to make them weird. To give them quirks. Birsa has a few of these: he goes running a lot and he is allergic to alcohol. But, at least with this script and Cavazza’s interpretation of it, these traits feel tacked-on, they do not endear us to him. The character for whom this works best in Jezero is played by Gregor Čušin: he is always with his dog, even trying to bring him into the forensic lab, and feeding him bits of sandwich, he smokes and makes jokes and has a charm that Birsa totally lacks. He winds up as the character we most “like,” which is okay, but it highlights our lack of emotional investment in the main characters.
And now we get to the real issue. This whole series is without tension or thrills, in a genre that is meant to be tense and thrilling. Police procedurals and detective stories are meant to keep us on the edge of our seats, wondering what will happen next. That did not once happen in this series, not even in the brief bursts of action (chasing a junkie, taming a coked-up teenager). It is almost like there is an intentional conspiracy to make this as unthrilling as possible.
It is a longstanding cliché that Slovenian films and television programs are slow and artsy and involve a lot of people smoking cigarettes and staring out windows…and, at some point, boobs must appear. These are clichés, but they are true—and all present and accounted for in this series. A few years back, I wrote an article for Film International magazine joking that I had never seen anyone running in a Slovenian film (jogging doesn’t count). Until the horror film Idil this was true (but that film doesn't really count, since it was an intentionally over-the-top slasher movie which featured only people running or being killed in exciting ways). Very few moments of high tension appear over the entire history of Slovenian film. It is interesting that this should continue, especially in this contemporary era, when internationally popular films are usually built entirely on tension, whether or not they are thrillers. This lack of tension in Jezero was nowhere more obvious than in the penultimate scene of the finale, when Birsa is confronted, at gunpoint, by the murderer. Then…nothing happens. They sit in a boat on the lake and we get many minutes of exposition. There was never any doubt that Birsa would survive, never a sense of danger. The music maintained the calm, when it could have tightened the knot. The only question was how he would “miraculously” escape death…and how many more minutes of exposition we would have.
When I teach writing, I examine and teach how tension is inserted into texts, and the same lessons go for the screen. Tension exists when a question is asked and the response to it is delayed. In a police procedural like this one there is one over-arching question that drives the whole series. Who is the killer? And then there are periodic questions, such as whose body was found in the opening episode, a woman missing her head? There may also be miniature questions, such as whether Birsa will harm a coked-up teenager who was being an asshole, or whether Birsa’s team members will catch a junkie who is running away from them. These questions are then answered at various intervals throughout the series, sometimes quickly, sometimes after a pause of many minutes, or even whole episodes, with the revelation of who the bad guy is, the murderer, normally reserved for the end. Other questions include if and when (although in this case we all knew that it was just a question of when) Taras and Tina would sleep together.
Thrilling programs have a variety of short-term questions and answers throughout them, not relying only on the over-arching one to draw viewers through to the end. For example, if someone is locked in a room there is a question of whether they will get out. If a car is racing towards a pedestrian who does not see it, there is a question of whether it will hit them or whether they will get out of the way. Thrillers and police procedurals are at their best when they are pock-marked by these sorts of moments of tension.
In this series, such moments are conspicuously lacking. It is procedural in the literal sense: this happened, and this happened, and this happened. But just because it is a procedural does not mean that it must proceed in this wholly formulaic manner. It is true that, in most real-life investigations, the investigators are never in any danger. Real-life policing is pretty boring. Perhaps this series, then, is a nod to realism.
I did not dislike Jezero. It was, as I wrote, okay. Because it was so hyped, I was curious to see it and sufficiently intrigued to see what the film-makers would do with it, to watch it all. But I watched more out of sociological curiosity than investment in the story or characters. At a certain point, having seen so many Slovenian films and TV series, and heard the same observations that I have from numerous other viewers and critics, one must come to one of two conclusions: either film-makers here do not know how to make thrilling, tense, pacey films, or they choose not to. Slovenia is too full of talented, world-class creative individuals for the former to be true. Therefore, I have to assume that it is the latter. Either the film-makers, or their professors at the academy, or the commissioners at RTV and the Film Center are not interested in creating works of tension. If that is their decision, then fair enough. But I would love to see these same mega-talents try their hand at something that would have a chance at international success.