On 22 July 2011 a Norwegian neo-Nazi stunned the world with his cold-blooded slaughter of 77 people. Another 242 were seriously injured, many permanently disabled.
Most victims were members of the Norwegian Labour Party at a Workers Youth League camp on the tiny island of Utoya. Eight of the deaths plus most casualties were caused by his van-bombing of a government building in Oslo earlier the same day.
Two riveting, recently released commercial films raise differing artistic and political problems in representing these specific issues and the challenges of neo-Nazism more generally.
Cinema release Utoya – July 22 is a Norwegian-language production directed by Erik Poppe. After consultation with numerous survivors he has contrived a work of faction – fictionalised characters recreate specific historic events.
Found footage depicts the Oslo prologue to the island massacre 40km away. Poppe’s structure thereafter is two-fold. Firstly to present a 72-minute take of events on the island foregrounding a particular female character brilliantly acted by Andrea Berntzen. The entire film looks like one “real-time” shot. His second tactic is to refuse to name, credit or depict the killer, apart from a fleeting long-shot.
This deeply horrifying ordeal makes for uneasy viewing. Knowing nothing of what is going on beyond the cracks of gunfire, distraught teens dash for their lives in all directions. Random groups hide within wooded areas. Others take refuge at the water’s edge. Some swim for it.
This harrowing watch simply concludes when the gunfire stops. Yet I wonder how many viewers are left terrified by such a movie, never wanting to protest against actual neo-Nazis on our streets in future?
In contrast to Poppe’s minimalist, visceral focus British director Paul Greengrass’s English-language Netflix production 22 July concentrates on who the killer is and what ensued after his willing capture on Utoya. It is derived from journalist Asne Seierstad’s 2015 background book One of Us.
Greengrass comes from a documentary tradition. He cut his teeth on the progressive Granada TV news magazine World In Action (1963-98) before making The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999) and Bloody Sunday (2002). But he is now a top action-movie director, making the Jason Bourne franchise movies, and Captain Philips for example.
The carnage makes up merely a frantic opening act for Greengrass. Customary fast editing, shaky cameras, chaotic exterior scenes and soundtrack give way mostly to interior worlds of prison, courtroom, hospital, and family homes.
He wants to look deeper into who the killer is, why he acted, and particularly how the state responded thereafter. Thus Greengrass’s key dramatic design is to pit the killer’s awful disdain for everyone – from his single mother, the jury, public officials to the victims generally – against a range of other liberal men.
One is the lawyer specifically requested by the killer to represent him, who accepts the defence case while being personally on the side of the victims.
Another is the then Norwegian prime minister who quickly establishes a public enquiry into police failings on 22 July and resigns – to head up NATO! – when the inquiry confirms so many shortcomings.
The third is a young man whose life we have seen being saved on Utoya’s shore, now carrying bullet fragments for life lodged near his brain stem, determined to prove the killer’s intimidation vacuous on his day in court.
This focus on four white men has led survivor Lara Rashid to express regrets at the lack of central female and ethnic minority representation in the film.
Greengrass gives too much ground to a “lone-wolf” analysis of this act of neo-Nazi terror. He portrays a single, psychologically damaged killer, with an absent father and difficult relationship with his mother.
In this the film moves too far towards the depoliticised representations of such cases of far-right violence in the mainstream media.
Greengrass is also clearly in awe of Norway’s legal and political institutions, seeing in them an exemplary method of defeating the new fascists.
Many victims across the world beyond Norway know only too well that neo-Nazism is not going to be halted by liberal, legalistic politics. Capitalism’s apologists will exploit economic and social despair by any means necessary to retain profit and privilege, unless there is a united mass response across borders and seas against racism and in defence of workers’ rights.
By choice or ignorance both Poppe and Greengrass are silent on such ideas.
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