Culture / Film

Dramatising Norway’s Massacre


NIGEL ANDREWS and MANOHLA DARGIS share their thoughts on a recently released adaptation of Anders Breivik’s massacre…

Nigel Andrews

22 July is so good it hurts. That’s what it should do. This Netflix-backed drama recreates the story of Anders Behring Breivik and the summer-camp murders on the Norwegian island of Utøya. Seventy-seven people died that July day in 2011, eight in an earlier explosion, also Breivik’s work, in Oslo’s government zone. It was the worst outbreak of violence in Norway since the end of the second world war.

Whatever the word “docudrama” means, with this movie Paul Greengrass (also of Bloody Sunday and United 93) just about owns it. His cast of Norwegian unknowns, enacting Greengrass’s own English-language script from Asne Seierstad’s book on the murders and trial, are dumbfoundingly good. Dumbfounding, because we sit there mute, astonished, confounded with admiration, thinking: “These can’t be actors. Surely they’re real people.”

The film is a procedural: a massacre procedural. It goes straight into the horrific story and starts working. There are no front-loaded backstories. We learn what we need about individuals later, as we learn it in life, by trickles, throwaways and chance revealings. Breivik, played by Anders Danielsen Lie with a chill impassivity that becomes electrifying, is suddenly there on a rural dockside. He is wearing a police vest, carrying weapon cases and requesting — or requisitioning — a ferry.

“There are no front-loaded backstories. We learn what we need about individuals later, as we learn it in life, by trickles, throwaways and chance revealings.”

The summer camp kids are like real summer camp kids. A babbling chaos, they are suddenly transformed into a new chaos, focused, frightened, fugitive. The screams of flight or injury are overlaid with the arrhythmic staccato of rifle shots. It’s human agony versus the affectless dispensing of a fanatic’s justice. (“Come on out, you Marxists” is almost his only shout, and even that has a slight feel of direction-guidance for the audience.) The “music” score, by Sune Martin, is like a tinnitus hum, grimly modulating.

Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) — yes, that Stoltenberg, now Nato chief — flits in and out of the sombre crisis meetings. One badly wounded boy, Viljar, played by Jonas Strand Gravli with a conviction and intensity purged of all theatricality, becomes a spokesman for the victims. Breivik’s lawyer (Jon Øigarden) tries to gather a defence case, while faultlines of doubt fissure his conscience and his family life. The kinetic, handheld filming style, a Greengrass speciality, catches everything on the move: the horrifying and the humdrum, happening almost to the same beat and pulse. That’s life. And death. One moment there is banality. The next there is cataclysm. Tick tock, tock tick . . .

If there’s the smallest fault to the movie, it’s the hint of humanist triumph at the trial’s climax. Or are we the audience putting that hint there ourselves? Are we emotionally or spiritually monetising the neo-Nazi defendant’s downcast looks as Viljar speaks, as well as Viljar’s own eyes shining with conviction, because we are terrified of the bankrupting nihilism with which this story, honestly regarded, might leave us?

Manohla Dargis

“The civil war has started.” This is what the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik announced to the interviewers interrogating him on 22nd July 2011. Earlier that day, Breivik had parked a van crammed with about 2,000 pounds of explosives in front of a 17-story government building in central Oslo housing both the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Justice. The bomb exploded, killing eight, while he was driving the 19 miles to a summer camp on Utøya Island run by the Labour Party. There, he slaughtered 69 additional people, most of them teenagers.

Paul Greengrass’s latest, 22 July, recreates the massacre and its aftermath. Fiction that hews close to fact, the movie is serious and meticulous, yet hollow. Best known for his contributions to the Bourne franchise, Greengrass also has a longstanding interest in terrorism, which he’s explored in movies as distinct as United 93 and Captain Phillips. He brings his estimable skills to this new story, taking you through it, grim beat by beat. He introduces the characters, some soon to be dead, and restages the assault, the trial and the grief. Guns are discharged, tears shed, experts consulted, Breivik’s noxious views aired. All that is missing is a clear, motivating idea (political or otherwise).

The movie opens on the day of the attack, and after some pro forma place setting — aerial shots of the lush countryside — quickly gets to the carnage. As is his wont, Greengrass employs a fast, kinetic approach and uses crosscutting to knit together assorted locations and characters, especially Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), who’s seen preparing for his mission, putting on a police uniform and hitting the road, all while crowds of smiling young people arrive on Utøya. Breivik’s lethal actions tie these and a few other places and faces together, including his watchful, distant mother (Hilde Ølausson), and the prime minister (Ola G. Furuseth) and other government types.

Beginning with the assault carries some risks simply because it could turn you off right from the start. It also means that Breivik — his plan, inscrutable face and horrifying actions — immediately takes over the movie, making him its focus and most obvious reason for being. At the same time, because Greengrass frontloads the story in this manner, he doesn’t build to the massacre, an approach that might (as is too often the case) turn horror into the narrative climax. Instead, he gets the bloodshed out of the way, showing that his interest lies elsewhere, including on Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), an idealistic camper who’s repeatedly shot by Breivik.

“Greengrass doesn’t build up to the massacre. Instead, he gets the bloodshed out of the way, showing that his interest lies elsewhere.”

Written by Greengrass, the movie is based on the journalist Asne Seierstad’s 2013 book, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, a movie-ready nonfiction account that reads like a page-turning thriller. Like 22 July, the book is certainly unsettling, although, as its subtitle suggests, it also has ideas about Norway, not just documentation. Her portrait of Breivik is bleakly common: He had an unhappy childhood and spent a lot of time alone in his bedroom. There, he went from obsessively playing video games like World of Warcraft to scrolling through extremist sites that fulminated against women, Marxism and Islam, a correlation that Greengrass wisely avoids.

In the movie, Breivik announces his beliefs (they’re too muddled to rise to the level of ideology, at least here) while he’s unloading his guns on Utøya, promising the campers — he calls them Marxists — that they’re going to die. After he is captured, he continues his vocal offensive, self-importantly calling himself a soldier in a larger political war involving the West and Islam. Best known for his sensitive performances in movies by Joachim Trier, including Oslo, August 31, Lie does what he can with a role that doesn’t call for much introspection. Even so, his is the most nuanced and convincing performance by far in the movie, which means that Breivik becomes the character we most want to see.

Greengrass clearly wants to understand Breivik, to get at — much as Seierstad tries to do in her book — or even explain why someone like this exists, presumably as a political warning. And so, much like the trial lawyers, Greengrass gathers the evidence, sifts through the facts and pokes in shadowy, right-wing extremist corners. Still, the larger political and national picture remains blurry as the story jumps from the trial to scenes of governmental reckoning and Viljar’s long, hard recovery. And while the decision to consistently cut between Breivik and Viljar creates tension, it also means that victim and victimiser too often carry similar narrative weight, which is unfortunate.

NIGEL ANDREWS writes for The Financial Times, MANOHLA DARGIS for The New York Times.

22 July is out now in cinemas across the UK and has been released simultaneously on Netflix.


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