Cool World: Norway’s Capital Through the Eyes of the Oslo Trilogy

Renate Reinsve, as Julie, takes in an Oslo sunset on the balcony of Ekebergrestauranten in The Worst Person in the World. — Photographer… Kasper Tuxen
Renate Reinsve, as Julie, takes in an Oslo sunset on the balcony of Ekebergrestauranten in The Worst Person in the World. Photographer… Kasper Tuxen

Oslo Trilogy actor Anders Danielsen Lie, screenwriter Eskil Vogt and film journalist Karsten Meinich take Ella Kemp on a tour of the Norwegian capital as the city wrestles with its sudden status as a cinephile destination.

Cool World is a Journal series exploring the places we see in the movies, through the eyes of local Letterboxd members and filmmakers.

Despite having lived in the city for the majority of his life, Anders Danielsen Lie can’t wrap his head around why anyone would come to Oslo. “I’ve sometimes wondered what it must feel like to come here as a student or tourist,” the actor and doctor tells me over a coffee on a recent, sunny Sunday morning in Damplassen, an affluent residential district. “What do people do when they are in Norway? In Oslo?” He pauses, trying to answer the question himself, before giving up and shielding his eyes from the sun, looking back at me. “What did you do?”

Last week, I spent three days in Oslo getting to know the city through the lens of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, and more specifically through its final chapter, The Worst Person in the World. You might not need me to tell you how good the twice-Oscar-nominated film is, but beyond its poignant familiarity when it comes to love, success, doubt and everything in between, Trier’s film beautifully paints the city that played such a huge part in sculpting its characters.

Anders Danielsen Lie takes in the Sunday morning Oslo sunshine. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Anders Danielsen Lie takes in the Sunday morning Oslo sunshine. Photographer… Ella Kemp

I wanted to feel that late-afternoon sunshine, the same rays that landed on the shoulders of Julie (Renate Reinsve) while she took a moment to have a quiet cigarette on a terrace as her boyfriend Aksel (Danielsen Lie) launched his new comics series inside. I had to know how busy those streets were, the ones she sprints down as she freezes time to run across the city for just one kiss with another man. I wondered how the Åpent Bakeri coffee shop smelled—the one where Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) works, which suddenly became the most romantic place in the world.

Åpent Bakeri, Eivind’s workplace in The Worst Person in the World. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Åpent Bakeri, Eivind’s workplace in The Worst Person in the World. Photographer… Ella Kemp

Oslo is a fairly small city, not lacking in cultural heritage, viking artefacts and a-ha, but still somewhat defined by its infancy. Norway only gained its full independence in the early 1900s, and its capital became the Oslo we know in 1925. Until the turn of the millennium, the state owned and therefore influenced the film industry. Things are constantly evolving, and international movies from Ex Machina (Juvet Landscape Hotel) to Tenet (Oslo Opera House) to No Time to Die (Atlantic Ocean Road) have put many of the country’s sights on the world’s screens, but the global success of the hyper-local The Worst Person in the World has taken the capital by surprise.

At least, that’s what Oslo Guidebureau CEO Marit Utaker candidly tells me in an email the day before we meet. We’re due to walk through the city to see the Oslo Trilogy sights for ourselves, but she warns me that she’s still figuring out the itinerary; this is all brand new. Although Marit has been one of Oslo’s finest tour guides for the last 30 years, taking people to see otherwise unexciting street crossings and bookshops wasn’t quite part of her repertoire until now.

Interior views of the café at Kunsternes Hus, an art centre, museum and cinema that served as the location of The Worst Person in the World’s epilogue. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Interior views of the café at Kunsternes Hus, an art centre, museum and cinema that served as the location of The Worst Person in the World’s epilogue. Photographer… Ella Kemp

Eskil Vogt, Trier’s long-time partner in crime and co-screenwriter on the Oslo Trilogy, is painfully aware of the banality of his city—it’s what initially made the duo want to write stories set literally anywhere else. “We wanted to make international movies, because we didn’t feel any kinship with Norwegian films at the time,” Vogt explains, having suggested we meet in the café at Kunsternes Hus, where the Worst Person epilogue takes place.

As teenagers passionate about movies, he and Trier decided to go their separate ways, hone their craft in other countries, and come back to swap notes later. Trier went to the National Film and Television School in London, Vogt studied at La Fémis in Paris. “We felt Oslo had never been filmed in the way we thought of Oslo, and you become a bit more aware of it when you’re abroad,” he says. “So sitting in London, sitting in Paris, we were writing about Oslo.”

Screenwriter and director Eskil Vogt in Kunsternes Hus.  — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Screenwriter and director Eskil Vogt in Kunsternes Hus.  Photographer… Ella Kemp

And so these local boys traveled the world only to end up telling local stories. Their intention wasn’t to make Oslo subversively cinematic or romantic in order to ignite a tourism spark, but about documenting the everyday magic nobody else had seemed to notice. “We knew the streets so well that we knew where the light was interesting—but we still wanted to capture the ordinary quality of the city.” That was the idea with the first film in the trilogy, 2006’s Reprise, but as they began work on the second, Oslo, August 31st, Vogt says he and Trier noticed something more noteworthy happening.

This is obviously not the center of the world, but when we make films like this, about really basic human problems, maybe it’s best to do that as locally as possible.

—⁠Anders Danielsen Lie

“We were very aware the city was changing. There were huge building projects going out towards the sea, the opera house had just been built. We weren’t aware when we made Reprise that we captured something that wasn’t there anymore,” Vogt explains. “With Oslo we knew that. You see all these neighborhoods being built, and then in Worst Person they are built.” He nods to the film’s glorious freeze-frame scene as his and Trier’s love letter to a constantly evolving city. “When we had the idea of Julie running through the streets, we placed it in those areas that weren’t there before.”

The author on the spot of The Worst Person in the World’s freeze-frame poster image. — Photographer… Karsten Meinich
The author on the spot of The Worst Person in the World’s freeze-frame poster image. Photographer… Karsten Meinich

Danielsen Lie, who links all three films as the one returning actor—as well as the person who suggested to Trier that there even was a trilogy—deeply feels the passing of time, as pointed out to him by his own city on film. “It’s a fictional universe, but it feels like a place I can go back to and reflect on what I’m doing as an actor, a creative person, a human being,” he says. “Tarkovsky talked about films being like a mosaic of time, and that really makes sense to me. You can shoot bits and pieces and put it all together into a coherent, fictional narrative, but something in the film will always be pure reality.”

So, back to reality. A modest location which took on something of a spellbinding quality in The Worst Person in the World is the bookshop in which Julie works. It is here that she sees Eivind browsing the non-fiction aisles after having spent a heavily romantic and sexually charged evening with him at a wedding party she was not invited to. They didn’t cheat, of course, but they also deliberately, and cautiously, didn’t give each other their last names. Just in case. And yet, in the middle of Norli Universitetsgata, there they are.

Norli, the university bookshop location used as Julie’s workplace in The Worst Person in the World. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Norli, the university bookshop location used as Julie’s workplace in The Worst Person in the World. Photographer… Ella Kemp

It’s not the sexiest bookshop in the city, nor the most accessible. Editor, film journalist and Letterboxd member Karsten Meinich, who has lived in Oslo all his life, remembers schlepping down to Norli to pick up school books every August before term started. In reality, the comic books Aksel was writing would have been stocked in a cooler store, further up in town.

One of Norli’s managers, Helge, has welcomed a few tourists like me doing their own Worst Person pilgrimages (and some locals, who pop in to buy the film poster, which Norli stocks behind the main till)—but he has not taken on the unofficial role of bookshop tour guide yet. He remembers the two-week shoot in 2020, which blocked out a whole wing of the store. “They completely relit the place. I was surprised by how much time they spent here,” he says. “We thought there would be more scenes in the film!” Such is the reality for movie locations the world over; still, there’s no questioning how pivotal that one encounter in the film is.

You don’t make movies to be a travel guide, but good movies do show you the city in interesting ways because the films themselves are interesting. 

—⁠Eskil Vogt
Julie spots Eivind in the bookshop. — Photographer… Kasper Tuxen 
Julie spots Eivind in the bookshop. Photographer… Kasper Tuxen 

I ask Helge if he feels the city was well represented. “It depends on the reflection, of course, you can’t douse the city in pink and make it sweeter,” he says, reminding me of Danielsen Lie fondly pointing to the way Trier captured the city’s “fantastic light”, particularly its softness “when you’re walking home from a party early in the morning”.

“Summers in Oslo are magical,” Helge agrees. “And in many ways, it’s so different compared to Copenhagen or Stockholm, because those cities offer themselves up, they come and welcome you. But you have to discover Oslo yourself, and you depend on people showing you the city’s hidden secrets.”

It’s what’s kept Vogt wanting to make movies in his hometown too: “The urban quality here is quite unique. It’s not as in-your-face as Stockholm, not as continental as Copenhagen. You need to know your way around Oslo—that’s what makes you proud to live here. You don’t make movies to be a travel guide, but good movies do show you the city in interesting ways because the films themselves are interesting.”

Oslo’s infamous Barcode Project. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Oslo’s infamous Barcode Project. Photographer… Ella Kemp

A case in point: the neighborhoods where The Worst Person in the World’s lovers live. “Tøyen is where Eivind lives, and it’s very defining for the character,” Vogt says of the trendy district, which somewhat echoes the infamous Barcode Project in the center of town, an architectural hub of buildings near Eivind’s movie workplace (where the baristas working on the day I visit can’t quite comprehend my excitement as I look at their very ordinary till). The much-maligned master-planning project was built in a post-Oslo, August 31st city; in Worst Person, Eivind secretly tells Julie he likes the look of it (and for what it’s worth, I think the buildings are extremely cool).

On the flipside, says Vogt, “Where Aksel lives is a boring part of town. You walk around and there’s a lot of embassies and people who sell you skin treatments and expensive vegetables.”

Lie, as something of a poster boy for the Oslo Trilogy (a role he says he’s happy to now share with Reinsve) has noticed a growing interest in the city’s unremarkable landmarks for some time. “I heard about people coming to Oslo and wanting to study here because of Oslo, August 31st, and wanting to go to all those places,” he says. “It was kind of like an Oslo 31st safari phenomenon, it deeply fascinated me. I took it as a compliment that it had such an emotional impact.”

Anders Danielsen Lie, as Anders, in Trier and Vogt’s Oslo, August 31st (2011).
Anders Danielsen Lie, as Anders, in Trier and Vogt’s Oslo, August 31st (2011).

Our own Worst Person safari continued. We saw the sunlight shimmer on the water at the port where Julie mourns Aksel, and I crossed the road at Louise’s Gate where her breathless run begins—a moment of euphoria forever frozen on the 35mm frame that became the film’s poster.

Of course, tourists being tourists, we also made time for the Munch-Museet, a museum dedicated to the life and works of painter Edvard Munch. Even that building made its way into Vogt and Trier’s film in a subtle way: as Julie looks over the city from the party taking place at Ekebergrestauranten, she is standing at the exact vantage point from where Edvard Munch found inspiration for his series of paintings known as ‘Skrik’ (‘The Scream’).

Two of those paintings can be seen in Oslo (one at the Munch-Museet itself) and of course the artworks’ central figure has been committed to film canon thanks to Kevin Williamson, Wes Craven and their scary pal Ghostface. The thread tying it all together? A 2008 documentary about the painter co-directed by Trier alongside his brother Emil, The Other Munch. Skjebne.

Munch Museum (middle-right) as seen from Ekebergrestauranten. — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Munch Museum (middle-right) as seen from Ekebergrestauranten. Photographer… Ella Kemp

Norway’s film industry spans a century and every kind of genre, but it has been rare for one local production to break out internationally in the way The Worst Person in the World has. Meinich, who created and runs the Montages film magazine, gives me a brief history lesson in terms of where Trier and Vogt fit into the wider picture, explaining that funding was and still is not a given for anyone (“the hierarchy is still very flat, even though we can say Trier is our greatest filmmaker”), and independence is still something to fight for.

“The cultural sphere in Norway was very left wing from the ’70s, and there was a company owned by the state, who made most of the films with state funding, until 2001,” he explains. "But instead of a fund being portioned out to independent production companies, all the funds were in that company. So the filmmakers who were politically ‘in’ had chances to get lots of films made, and others didn’t.”

In 2008, Norway’s various film institutions—the film fund, the commission, the development arm—were folded into a single entity, the Norwegian Film Institute, with equality of access a priority. This certainly made things better for a more diverse range of voices, but also meant those in a hurry to make movies had to find their film voices elsewhere. Oslo’s film school, built in the late 1990s, was situated in the middle of inland Norway, so you had to live in “nowhere land” or, like Trier and Vogt, go abroad to study, and then return to compete for funds in an egalitarian system. Back of the queue, boys.

Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida in the Norway-set The Innocents (2021), Eskil Vogt’s second feature film as director.  — Credit… Mer Films
Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida in the Norway-set The Innocents (2021), Eskil Vogt’s second feature film as director.  Credit… Mer Films

Meinich sees it much like “sending your best medical students somewhere else and they come back to the village to treat the illnesses”. He praises the Oslo Trilogy filmmakers’ grace, and nods to the unwritten Scandinavian law called Janteloven as a reason for their continuing loyalty to home, and their surprising modesty in the face of international acclaim. “If you’re a phoenix, society will make sure you burn when you get home, because you have to get down on the level with everyone else. That’s why the humility of Eskil and Joachim as public figures is so important. I think they’re well aware that even though they’re cheering inside, that’s not the way they speak about their success.”

Vogt is confident about the future of independent film in the city. “The movie market is expanding here, because there was too much demand,” he says. While a handful of tiny local cinema gems closed (pre-Covid, alas) and new multiplexes have joined the city (Sing 2 is currently playing at the Colosseum Kino, if you were wondering), there is room for all of the theaters. “When new screens open it increases the total admissions,” says Vogt. “They’re not killing each other.”

His favorite place? An independent cinema called Vega Scene, near Hausmanns Gate. Recent marquee titles include Red Rocket, Drive My Car, The Batman and more. Vogt is particularly proud of one Vega Scene triumph: “Their most popular movie ever was The Worst Person in the World. We overtook Parasite!” You hear that, Academy?

Eskil Vogt’s favorite kino house, Vega Scene.  — Credit… Visit Oslo
Eskil Vogt’s favorite kino house, Vega Scene.  Credit… Visit Oslo

Meinich, who has edited several films including features by Eirik Svensson, is happy to recommend to me several other contemporary Norwegian films that show the capital in different lights, including Svensson’s One Night in Oslo (​‘​Natt til 17.’). “The Norwegian title is very culturally specific,” Meinich explains.

“The seventeenth of May is a national day, everyone walks around waving flags. Because it’s a day off, the night before is famously a party night. These kids are around fifteen, looking for a party. That film’s a good example of the multicultural identity of Oslo, which isn’t often represented in a lot of great films. A lot of our great films are particularly white. A few are not, and this is one of them.”

The young cast of One Night in Oslo (​​‘Natt til 17’, 2014).  — Photographer… Karl Erik Brondbo
The young cast of One Night in Oslo (​​‘Natt til 17’, 2014).  Photographer… Karl Erik Brondbo

He also highlights Beware of Children (‘Barn’): “It’s not a comedy, but it is a film about how Norwegian society behaves when something like this happens.” And then there’s Itonje Søimer Guttormsen’s Gritt, starring Birgitte Larsen as the title character, a self-destructive, messy, socially awkward artist. “She’s so unsuccessful and she applies for this funding—that’s a very known thing as an artist in Norway, you apply for state funding—and she works in health, taking the night shift.

“In a way it’s much more radical than The Worst Person in the World. Gritt is the backside of Julie. These two main characters, thirty-something women in Oslo, both unable to grasp opportunity versus love. There’s a mirror between them and they would make a great Oslo double feature.”

Meinich is optimistic about the city’s film community, heaping praise on its most famous members. “Eskil and Joachim are always coming to screenings by other filmmakers,” he says. “Joachim always gives advice—he’s known as one of the harshest critics, but often very constructive!”

When it comes to Danielsen Lie, his favorite pockets of Oslo as a movie lover are those that, actually, let him escape it all. “The special thing about living here is that you have at least the illusion of a city, but it’s very close to nature,” he says. "As I get older, when I’m traveling I always miss the air. I lived in New York for a short while. Every time I’m there I feel inspired, but I can never concentrate. I can always concentrate here. There are hideaways. Places to escape and reflect.”

Ekeberg at night.  — Photographer… Ella Kemp
Ekeberg at night.  Photographer… Ella Kemp

You see this everywhere: in the shady corners on the roof of the opera house, on the wide, quiet streets leading into sleepy neighborhoods and best-kept-secret restaurants (Grådi, around the corner from Eivind’s apartment, should be your first stop). Watching the sun set over the city from the Ekeberg sculpture park, seeing exactly where Julie stood, there’s something intangible in the way the light changes and the air is still. It’s emotional on film, but even closer to magic in real life.

Oslo feels immediately welcoming. Not in a take-my-money touristy way, seeking to sell you on the weird and wondrous locations real and fictional that shout for attention on the big screen, but in a way that makes you appreciate just how easily you could fall in love with, and in, such a place.

“This is obviously not the center of the world,” Danielsen Lie says, “but when we make films like this, about really basic human problems, maybe it’s best to do that as locally as possible. As close to what you know best—that’s when it travels.” He, like Vogt and Meinich, has no plans to leave Oslo. Now that I've visited, it’s so easy to see why. “I’ve always had a feeling this is where I’m going to end up. This is where I belong.”


The Worst Person in the World’ is in UK and Irish cinemas now courtesy of MUBI. ‘The Innocents’ opens in US theaters and on demand on May 13 via IFCElla’s visit was made possible by Off the Map Travel and Visit Oslo.

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