Salamander (Belgium 2012/3)

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the 'face' of 'Salamander'?

Mike Verdrengh as Raymond Jonkhere, the owner of the private bank that is robbed – and the ‘face’ of ‘Salamander’?

For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4’s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.

‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.

The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.

The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?

At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.

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5 comments

  1. sam

    I have been engaged by the series. I welcome more european drama and am glad it is not all the same. I was intrigued by the religious order as a place of safety and then betrayal. It seems to signify a mistrust of institutions like the police who are supposed to protect you but are in the end corrupt. This is different to nordic noir where the political correctness of their police force is somehow reassuring.

    • Roy Stafford

      Yes, I was interested in the representation of the priory and the images that Gerardi left with the young brother mean that the narrative must return there at some point. I’m not sure that the police have always been ‘politically correct’ in the Danish and Swedish stories but I take your point. The paranoia thriller narrative depends on Gerardi being isolated and trusting as few people as possible.

  2. Jake Baldwinson

    However, British film buffs aren’t quite willing to mock the Belgians, what with talent like the Dardennes, Andre Delvaux, Chantal Akerman and the overlooked Olivier Smolders!

    • Roy Stafford

      Unfortunately cinephiles are only a tiny proportion of the audience and I don’t think many of the more numerous ‘buffs’ know much beyond the Dardennes Brothers – who are often taken to be French. But perhaps Salamander will do something for Flemish recognition in the UK?

  3. John Fitzgerald

    I have only watched the first two episodes but I like it even though the boss of the bank reminds me a great deal of Phillip French.

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