The problem with many movies about real life killers is that they are shown from the murderer’s point of view, making him by extension the protagonist of the tale, rather than their victims. After all, we know the name of Anders Behring Breivik, less so of the 77 that he killed that day. The film version of the Utøya tragedy ably sidesteps this conundrum.
‘U – July 22’ starts mundanely. Teenagers are having a picnic on an island just outside of Oslo, eating the Norwegian staples of hot dogs and waffles. This is a setting more or less familiar to most Icelanders, familiar enough to the present reviewer that his sister knows some of the people there at the time.
This is the age of mobile phones, and the phone is one of the central images of the film. The phone can give away your position. An unanswered phone denotes death. Early on though, the kids are calling their parents in the capital, asking if they are alright after the bombing that has just taken place downtown. This is as tragic as anything for we, unlike them, know what happens next.
No explanations are given. Instead we are made to live through the horror. “The police are shooting people,” someone says. As if what actually happened wasn’t apocalyptic enough, reports of a bombing in Oslo followed by man in uniform arriving to murder everyone highlights the sheer confusion. Breivik dressing as a police officer makes the event even more fiendish, and no one knows how many of them there are.
The film avoids easy heroics. In real life, everyone fends for themselves. People are pushed out of hiding places that get too full. And in fact, Breivik did find hideouts when overcrowding gave them away. It may be easy for some to imagine what they would have done in a similar situation, but when it comes down to it, no one really knows. Run, hide, swim? All can be equally deadly, or bring salvation.
Director Erik Poppe’s last film was ‘Kongen’s Nei,’ about another pivotal event in Norwegian history, the German invasion of 1940. There, the King was firmly enshrined in the Great Man Theory of History, doing what needed to be done in tumultuous times. Here, there are no heroes, only survivors. But perhaps holding someone’s hand as their life ebbs out is as heroic as anything.
First person narrative
Poppe takes a leaf from Paul Greengrass’ book, who has made a similarly haunting rendition of the events of 9/11 as well as the Troubles in Ireland. But where Greengrass shows us multiple perspectives (Poppe has actually excelled at this in previous films), here we stick firmly to the first-person narrative. It would have been interesting to see other perspectives, the parents at home, the police trying belatedly to mount a rescue, the killer himself. But it might not have been half as powerful.
The wonderful RIFF film festival is entering its second weekend now and finishes on Sunday. But despair ye not—Bíó Paradís will continue to screen great films throughout the year. ‘U – July 22nd’ will be back on October 8th, and while it may not be pleasant viewing, it is certainly worthwhile.
‘U – July 22’ is showing at Bíó Paradís from October 8-19th. Get tickets at tix.is.