THE DAY THAT CHANGED US FOREVER.
I remember United 93 (2006) from a press screening that year, feeling stunned after being subjected to the terror of what happened on that flight on September 11th, 2001. I don’t think there quite has been a similarly emotional experience for me in a movie theater – until now. There really is something special about being taken to the here and now of a disaster, if the portrait is handled by filmmakers as skilled as Paul Greengrass and Erik Poppe. But the path is a dangerous one to tread.
July, 22, 2011. Oslo is shaken by a bomb that explodes at the government headquarters, killing eight people. On the island of Utøya, 25 miles west of the capital, hundreds of teenagers are attending a youth camp organized by the ruling Labor Party. Some of them hear about the attack on the news and wonder if Islamic extremists are behind it. All of a sudden they hear sharp noises, as if someone’s throwing firecrackers. Then kids start running toward them, trying to escape something.
As they flee for their lives into the forest of the island, some of them can’t help but wonder if this is some kind of exercise… and Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) tries to reach her younger sister who was in one of the tents at the campsite.
Not about Breivik
When news came of Poppe making a movie about Norway’s greatest tragedy in modern times, he knew that it wouldn’t be easy. On that summer day, 69 people were murdered on the island by Anders Behring Breivik who spent 72 minutes walking around and shooting children with weapons and ammunition that caused as much tissue damage as possible. We only glimpse Breivik on one occasion in the movie; this is not about him and the filmmakers clearly want us to share the victims’ experience.
Poppe was contacted by the mother of one of the victims who told him, ”if you try to make a sentimental story about love, faith and hope instead of showing what really happened, that people were murdered, my daughter was murdered, I will never forgive you”. That became a guiding light for Poppe who had his international breakthrough with The King’s Choice (2016), a film about the Norwegian king’s refusal to surrender his country to the Nazi invaders in 1940. U July 22 also makes it clear that if we are to learn anything from the horrors of Utøya it is that right-wing extremism is on the rise and exceptionally dangerous; even a country that was once occupied by men of that ideology need to remember that. After an introductory scene at the government headquarters in Oslo, the Utøya scenes have the appearance of being shot in one continuous take, which force us to live through the nightmare. We are introduced to some of the teenagers, especially Kaja whose perspective becomes ours. She’s the one we follow from the start in real time until the final moments, more than an hour later, when the first vessels reach the island to rescue survivors. We begin to understand how long 72 minutes are if you’re trapped on an island with a homicidal madman – there isn’t a horror movie in the world capable of capturing that feeling, but Poppe comes close and there are several scenes where we can barely breathe.
This is also a deeply moving story, with a tremendous performance by Berntzen in the lead who conveys fear, angst and sorrow in a way that won’t leave anyone cold.
Kaja’s first scene has her looking into the camera, saying ”You will never understand”. It turns out she’s talking to her mother on the phone, but the message to the audience is loud and clear. There will always be a debate whether films like this are needed or not, considering the grief and pain involved. We’ll have to decide one movie at a time, but this one is worth it.
U July 22 2018-Norway. 90 min. Color. Produced by Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae. Directed by Erik Poppe. Screenplay: Anna Bache-Wiig, Siv Rajendram Eliassen. Cinematography: Martin Otterbeck. Cast: Andrea Berntzen (Kaja), Aleksander Holmen (Magnus), Brede Fristad (Petter), Elli Rhiannon Müller Osbourne, Sorosh Sadat, Ada Eide.
Trivia: Original title: Utøya 22. juli. The events of that day were also chronicled in the film 22 July (2018).
European Film Awards: Best Cinematographer.
Last word: “I spent more than a year-and-a-half by myself, meeting survivors to try to get their stories. I met the head of the police investigation so that I could look through the material to sort of figure out whether it would be possible to transform this story into a film. I was sceptical about whether it would be possible at all.” (Poppe, Cineuropa)