One of Norway’s most esteemed directors, Erik Poppe, tackles the 2011 terrorist attack on Utoya Island from the point of view of the victims in this harrowing Berlin competition title.
The 2011 massacre caused by a right-wing extremist on the Norwegian island of Utoya, not far from Oslo, is reconstructed from the victims’ point of view in the harrowing drama U-July 22 (Utoya 22. Juli). The carnage lasted for a staggering 72 minutes, and director Erik Poppe lets events unfold in real time as he focuses squarely on his constantly running and hiding lead, 18-year-old Kaja, and her friends and fellow camp mates who all attended the same political summer gathering for young people on that fateful day.
Acted with striking naturalism by its cast of unknowns, the feature is also formally impressive, as it is constructed to look like a single shot, giving viewers the impression they are one of the teens’ peers. And, there is no denying that the film, which reduces the perpetrator to nothing more than shadowy silhouette only occasionally glimpsed through the trees, has the best of intentions. But dramas require their own rules, which trip up the film’s third act and the question lingers as to what audience the film is finally trying to reach. Do the makers want to turn it into a supposedly cathartic event movie at home? Or a quiet art house rumination on a tragedy? Do people want to or can we even expect people to pay to live or relive this kind of experience?
Reactions will likely be all over the map, similar to those to a film like Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winning Elephant. Beyond home turf, this late addition to the Berlinale competition might also suffer from the fact that it has been scrubbed of any political details, background and context, as Poppe has made a pure run-and-hide feature that could be set anywhere and in any time. This at least is likely to set it apart from Paul Greengrass’ upcoming Netflix film about the same subject, which has cast Norwegian name actor Anders Danielsen Lie (Personal Shopper, the films from Joachim Trier) as the terrorist.
Screenwriters Siv Rajendram Eliassen and Anna Bache-Wiig, who earlier partnered on the TV series Acquitted, based their work on eyewitness accounts but created fictional characters for the story. But before we are introduced to protagonist Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), a short prologue shows actual footage of the Oslo bombing caused just a few hours earlier by the same massacre. News of this event has reached Kaja and her friends on Utoya before all hell broke loose there. Indeed, Kaja scolds her sister, Emilie (Elli Rhiannon Muller Osbourne), for shouting loudly in the early going. This is disrespectful because some people are still waiting to hear if they have loved ones involved in the Oslo bombing, Kaja explains to Emilie like a bossy older sibling.
About 15 or so minutes in, offscreen gunfire is heard and the chaos starts, with people first locking themselves inside a building before scattering into the woods on the island, trying to hide wherever they can. No one knows what is going on. For a long time, Petter (Brede Fristad) believes it must be an elaborate safety exercise, even asking the police on the phone whether they are aware of any drills. The sound of gunfire just keeps coming — 69 kids finally would be killed and over 100 more injured — and though everyone is clearly scared, the reality really starts to sink in when Kaja and some of her friends come face-to-face with a blood-covered boy who seems to confirm their worst suspicions.
Poppe stays with Kaja, as if the viewer were tagging along very closely to the bright young girl, with the film’s documentary reality augmented by the fact it is shot as if the film were one continuous take (the fact an editor is credited suggests otherwise). She at one point ventures back to the main, now completely abandoned, campground in search of her sister, who stayed at their tent when Kaja went to a barbecue, but the only thing she finds there is a shell-shocked boy (Magnus Moen) and her sibling’s cellphone. Any viewer’s heart will stop when, inside the tent, suddenly Kaja hears footsteps outside and it’s hard not to well up when she cries and whispers on the phone with her mother, apologizing for the fact she can’t find Emilie.
Since the choice has been made to stick to one main character, Kaja is kept moving from place to place so she can encounter different people and situations, like when she tries to help and console a severely injured girl (Solveig Koloen Birkeland) who begs her not to abandon her even as it seems clear that the terrorist is coming in their direction. The question is to what extent the rules of fiction and authenticity are compatible in a morally complex exercise such as this one. A film about a person hiding somewhere safe for 72 minutes would have a happy end but would be boring and probably pointless to watch. Kaja’s constant moving around helps to give audiences an idea of some of the dilemmas faced by those on the island — how to abandon someone fighting for their life while knowing your life might be next if you stay? — but it’s unlikely they all happened to the same person, so the fictional creation has to convincingly cheat reality so it can better deliver a wider view of reality than anything that could happen to one person.
For this critic, the events in the home stretch finally feel too much like concessions to the necessities of the laws of fictional drama, with first an unexpected twist followed by a melodramatic one. They cheapen the experience because the documentary illusion is ruined as the work’s fictional gears, until that point perhaps only visible in the background, grind right into view. While it’s clear there is no happy ending in store for a story like this one, the ending the filmmakers have come up with feels too much like a cheat from the fiction playbook.
Technically, the work is realistically and convincingly acted and strikingly assembled, with cinematographer Martin Otterbeck, a camera operator on Poppe’s local mega-hit The King’s Choice, delivering a remarkable you-are-there experience. Equally important is the sound work, which plays a large role in setting the tone for the difficult material as it often represents the unnamed and largely unseen but oh-so-clearly deadly threat.
Production company: Paradox Film
Cast: Andrea Berntzen, Elli Rhiannon Muller Osborne, Jenny Svennevig, Aleksander Holmen, Ingeborg Enes Kjevik, Sorosh Sadat, Brede Fristad, Ada Otilde Eide, Karoline Schau, Solveig Koloen Birkeland, Torkel Dommersnes Soldal, Daniel Sang Tran, Tamanna Agnihotri, Mariann Gjerdsbakk, Magnus Moen
Director: Erik Poppe
Screenplay: Siv Rajendram Eliassen, Anna Bache-Wiig
Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae
Executive producers: Erik Poppe, Jan Petter Dickman
Director of photography: Martin Otterbeck
Production designer: Harald Egede-Nissen
Costume designer: Rikke Simonsen
Editor: Einar Egeland
Venue: Berlinale (Competition)
No rating, 92 minutes