On January 25, 1974, 18-year-old Guðmundur Einarsson disappeared without a trace. His body was never found, which caused great consternation in the community. Later that same year, another man, Geirfinnur Einarsson, also went missing. In late 1975, a young couple was arrested for embezzling one million ISK through the Post Office. The police believed the couple to be responsible for the disappearances, and so began the trial of the century—at least as far as Iceland was concerned.
The beginning of modernity
These historical occurrences are the subject of the new documentary, ‘Out of Thin Air,’ directed by Dylan Howitt. Much of the film may be familiar to locals, but to the outside viewer, this is an excellent introduction to the Iceland of a certain period, expertly executed. One of the joys of the film is seeing the Reykjavik of the mid-1970s brought to life. It feels like the beginning of modernity, the birth pangs of which are exemplified by the concurrent volcanic eruption in the Westman Islands. We get a glimpse of the future too: the glory of Björk on TV at Christmastime, aged nine, as well as the darkness of Davíð Oddsson, fresh out of law school and sitting in on Parliament for Morgunblaðið. (He would learn the game well, become Prime Minister and then editor of Morgunblaðið, bringing the economy to its knees in between.)
This era is also the height of Icelandic hippiedom, which arrived belatedly to our shores. The murder case that forms the central focus of the film could be thought of as the Icelandic version of the Manson murders in California—except in this case, the accused were almost certainly innocent.
Searching for a Shawshank redemption
Instead of simply relying on vintage footage, ‘Out of Thin Air’ portrays the Reykjavik of the period and does it better than the film about Bobby Fischer, ‘Pawn Sacrifice.’ Yet, at the core of the film are interviews with real people, particularly with Erla Bolladóttir (the Bonnie of the story), whose false confession triggered the whole disaster. Her innocence is belied in the film by the degree to which she comes across as a very sympathetic character.
Five suspects in the case confess and are put in jail, despite later withdrawing their confessions, which prompts the viewer to ask, why did they confess in the first place? The second half of the movie is devoted to finding an answer. Sævar Cieselski, is the main protagonist and serves the longest time. Upon release, he meets a girl and moves with her to America, has two children and tries to start over. If only the story would have ended there. Instead, Sævar is haunted by the need to clear his name and returns to Iceland determined to have the case reopened. But his life provides no Hollywood ending. Instead of achieving restitution, he bankrupts himself with legal bills and takes to drinking, a broken man. He finally dies at the age of 56.
A belated spotlight
Not long after Sævar dies, a brave journalist called Helga Arnardóttir delves into the case. It turns out that in the original investigation, Sævar was subjected to bouts of intense interrogation, applied through methods such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation. And since his confession turns out to have been forced, the viewer can conclude that confessions made under duress are not always reliable. Who knew?
The narrative is engaging, but perhaps the film’s major flaw is that we do not get the police’s side of the story, but this is only because they refused to comment. Also, the film does not manage to solve who actually committed the murder, which would have made for a better ending. But reality is more complicated than fiction. With the case now being reopened, perhaps a sequel will be called for soon.
Mostly though, ‘Out of Thin Air’ is a timely reminder that suspects should be considered innocent until proven guilty—something easily forgotten in our outrageous times.