In a poem about the German occupation of Norway, Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg states that: “We are so few in this country/Each fallen is friend and brother.” Both Grieg’s poetry and this mentality from the war-years resurfaced among the Norwegian people after July 22 2011, when 77 people were killed in coordinated terrorist attacks. Eight people died after a car bomb went off in the executive government quarter in Oslo, and 69 more people were killed in a massacre on the island of Utøya, where the Labour Party held their annual youth camp.
The man behind the attacks, Anders Behring Breivik, claimed to have acted on behalf of a European resistance movement (that turned out to be of his own invention) in order to protect Norway from multiculturalism. Now, seven years later, two feature films about the attacks have been released in quick succession – one Norwegian, one English. Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s film “Utøya 22. juli” premiered in March to almost unanimous praise, while Paul Greengrass’ “22 July” was released on Netflix last week. With the two films released in quick succession, it is impossible not to compare the directors’ differing approaches to depicting the darkest day in modern Norwegian history.
Poppe’s film features fictitious characters and focuses exclusively on the teenagers’ fragmented experience of the torturous 72 minutes when they were hunted around Utøya. Like many of the people who were there that day, the audience never get a clear view of the terrorist. Some critics compared Poppe’s work to the Hungarian film “Son of Saul”, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2015. Set in Auschwitz, the film follows a father’s desperate attempt to give what he believes to be his son a proper burial.
“Son of Saul” was praised for how it did not open up for hope or redemption, like films about the Holocaust have been tempted to do in the past, but instead portrayed the gruesome events with the same meaningless brutality that existed within the camps. Director László Nemes allows the camera to always stay close to Saul; we witness his extreme circumstances from his perspective. Poppe has made the same choice with “Utøya 22. juli”. He has argued that focusing exclusively on the young people and their intense terror was a conscious artistic decision – a lot has been said and done since July 22, and perhaps those 72 minutes can get in the background of trials, controversial memorials, and the reconstruction of government buildings.
Greengrass has a very different approach; loosely based on Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s harrowing non-fiction book One of Us from 2013, “22 July” depicts the attacks, but also the victims’ slow recovery and the subsequent trial against Breivik in 2012. Although an English-language film, all the characters are played by Norwegian actors. Jonas Strand Gravli is very good as the film’s protagonist Viljar Hanssen, who was only 17 years old when he was shot five times by the terrorist. Isak Bakli Aglen is just as good as Viljar’s little brother Torje who escaped the island physically unharmed, but who’s trauma perhaps got in the shadow of his brother’s massive physical injuries. Seda Witt plays the other protagonist Lara Rashid, who was on the island and lost her big sister Bano. Anders Danielsen Lie has taken on the much-discussed task of playing Breivik, while Jon Øigarden portrays his lawyer Geir Lippestad.
Despite how the film was made in Norway with skilled Norwegian actors, my first impression was that I didn’t like Greengrass’ film. There were many simplifications in his script, and extensive use of cliché made the characters deliver what to me sounded like some thoroughly un-Norwegian lines. (“We must fight, but we must not become changed. Instead we must strengthen our values and fight this terror with rule of law, not the barrel of the gun.”) Some scenes were clearly fictionalised, like a violent car-and-snowmobile chase that looked as though it was taken straight out of a Hollywood film rather than a small town in northern Norway.
The torturous statements given by young survivors during the actual trial had also been changed, and I can never imagine that the private conversations that were held between politicians, or indeed between the terrorist and his lawyer, were so thoroughly cinematic and thriller-like as how Greengrass presented them. Poppe called “Utøya 22. juli” an anti-project, while Greengrass’ “22 July” contains more elements that we would find in a traditional entertainment film. Perhaps what actually happened on July 22 and in the wake of the attacks was too appalling, too heart-breaking, and sometimes even too absurd for the big screen – you would never believe your eyes if you could sit through it all.
I also acknowledge that Greengrass’ film was probably not made for anyone who lived in Norway at the time of the attacks. When Poppe’s film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, critics were positive, but would have liked more context – why was the film made the way it was? When reviewing Greengrass’ film, simplified as it is, I try to take into consideration that most Norwegians know the story of that day in and out, but there are of course those who don’t. Reviewing “22 July” for New Statesman, Paul Mason writes that, “few of us have a vivid mental image of what happened on that day”. For some, the events on July 22 now feel distant and vague, but to us each fallen was friend and brother.
However, we as a people may have been too focused on this mournful sense of unity to truly examine Breivik’s ideas and where they came from. The newspaper Aftenposten all but confirmed this when they, days before the seventh anniversary of the attacks, published a revealing article on how young survivors from July 22 are still harassed and threatened on their lives. The murderous hatred is still out there; it is channelled in letters and on social media, and it re-traumatises those who in 2011 feared that their lives would end on an island in the Tyrifjord.
Since that day seven years ago, right wing extremism has been on the rise, and many of Breivik’s opinions about multiculturalism are now expressed openly within the established political landscape. Meanwhile, my non-Norwegian friends ask me to remind them of what happened on July 22 2011. This is what makes me think that Greengrass’ film, flawed as it may be, could be of good use if it can reach a wider audience outside of Norway. I will even use a cliché of my own: we cannot allow ourselves to forget, and Aftenposten’s article means that we can no longer insist on the marginality of Breivik’s world-view.
In his review, Mason also wrote that since Breivik was “white and Christian, the attacks did not feed into a wider paranoia at the time.” In the wake of terror attacks in Europe over the past few years, Norwegian commentators and political analysts eagerly discussed what we would do if terror eventually came to Norway. They made it sound as though Breivik’s religious beliefs and the colour of his skin made the attacks on July 22 very different from what happened at Bataclan, on London Bridge, or in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Those attacks fed into my country’s xenophobia to the extent that we seem to have completely forgotten that the only modern terror attack to take place on Norwegian soil was carried out by a man who despised multiculturalism.
Towards the end of Greengrass’ film, Breivik assures his attorney Geir Lippestad that others will “finish what we started.” “And we will beat you”, Lippestad responds. “You can’t even see us”, Breivik says, and once again I am reminded of a line from Grieg’s poem: “Worse than burning cities/Is the war that no one can see.” We did not see Breivik – to us he came out of nowhere. Up until now we have failed to take those who think like him seriously. So although Greengrass’ film spells everything out in capital letters, there are stories that must be retold, in many different formats meant for many different audiences, again and again, so that we know what is out there. So that what happened can never happen again.