U – July 22 (Utøya 22. juli) review: Norwegian kills for thrills?

Erik Poppe’s hyperrealist one-take dramatisation of Anders Breivik’s summer camp massacre offers little sign of moral perspective.

Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.

Ian Mantgani
Updated:

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Andrea Berntzen as Kaja in U – July 22 (Utøya 22. juli)

Andrea Berntzen as Kaja in U – July 22 (Utøya 22. juli)

On 22 July 2011, when Norway suffered its largest killing spree since WWII, television crews broadcast long shots of the island of Utøya as authorities recovered bodies and struggled to establish what had happened. The distant pictures of the dredge of death from that massacre are already part of the contemporary collective consciousness of international horror. But now, perhaps working from the philosophy that no story is complete until it’s been told with assaultive spatial closeness, cinema is weighing in with its own propinquitous immersions.

Soon we’ll get a Paul Greengrass Netflix movie about the killings, and here we have Utøya – July 22 by Scandinavian director Erik Poppe. The film starts with CCTV footage of Anders Breivik’s bombing of a government building in Oslo, before moving on to a fictionalised staging of his follow-up crime the same day, shooting up the Norwegian Labour Party Youth League summer camp and causing 77 people to lose their lives, 99 to be injured and hundreds to carry psychological trauma.

As in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Alan Clarke’s Elephant before that, Utoya – July 22 goes for muggy hyperrealism, tracking its protagonists through disconcerting handheld camerawork, often from the backs of their heads as they walk from one place to another. Initially, the kids on the island eat waffles and wonder aloud about whether the Oslo incident may have been a gas explosion. From there, there’s running, screaming and pounding on wooden floors as the group we follow floods into a Portakabin for safety. Anchored by the responsible yet understandably scared character of Kaja, played with emotive maturity and adrenaline by Andrea Berntzen, the picture plays out as a series of long stranded sequences across the island, punctuated by furious dashes to new areas of potential safety as the gunfire booms out at various proximities.

This is tense, scary and infuriating, as we’re subjected to a real-time vision of the 72 minutes these children were in mortal danger, full of crunching, screeching and rocketing sound effects. As effective as it might be, though, the moral integrity of Utøya – July 22 is, to say the least, up for debate. Shooting in the one-long-take methodology that was as recently as 2015’s Victoria a novelty but is now something of a vogue, Poppe makes a series of aesthetic choices that make this feel more like a cynical film-school grad’s sensationalist calling card than an established filmmaker’s respectful reckoning with a national wound.

There’s a red flag immediately, when Kaja looks into the camera and says, “You’ll never understand… just listen to me.” It plays as a presumptuously grandiose address to the audience, though it’s soon played off as dramaturgy, when Kaja is revealed to be on the phone to her mother.

Later, in the first sequence of hiding in the bushes, the camera shifts from observing the characters to peering into the distance as a soldier would over a foxhole – but as the filmmakers are not showing a character’s point-of-view, it’s an overfamiliar piece of fake immediacy, implying the filmmakers are in a real situation and themselves not sure from where they could be attacked. In one scene, a young boy is seen stranded in a yellow jacket; it’s an obvious, predictable crib of the red dress from Schindler’s List, and indeed later we see that boy’s corpse, fluorescently marked.

There’s more cloying, unnecessary underlining of implicit tragedy, like when we see another child snort to death from a grisly back wound, and immediately after, his phone rings – the camera portentously creeps in, as a piteous word fills the screen: ‘Mamma’. For a time, it seems like an act of restraint that Poppe doesn’t name Breivik or show anyone being shot onscreen, but the sordid realisation dawns that he may be waiting to show us a grisly closing money shot of one of the key characters being blasted. (Spoiler: He is.)

Turning real-life bloodshed into stylised screen tours de force has plenty of precedent: Son of Saul was accused by some of exploitation, though it could be defended on the basis of more cohesive artistry than here, not to mention it was a compression of a whole historical chapter. The Ed Gein murders were turned into haunted-house thrill rides like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they created new myths of their own and metaphorically channelled other national anxieties. It’s unclear whether Utøya – July 22 wants to inform or empathise, but in the event it’s a self-regarding and misguided piece of exploitation.

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