The King’s Choice: best seen as a character study of people having to make unenviable choices and decisions

Erik Poppe, “Kongens Nei / The King’s Choice” (2016)

As a straight history lesson or even as a conventional war-time drama, this film doesn’t succeed: audiences outside Norway will find the narrative very fragmented and be mystified as to what actually happens between the main body of the plot and its closing scene. One also senses that director Poppe couldn’t resist in indulging in some cheap propaganda pot-shots at Denmark, the former colonial master, in shoring up Norwegian insecurities about having sold out to the Germans through the fascist Vidkun Quisling government during World War II. The action scenes are superfluous to the main body of the film and the two people at the centre of them are no more than heroic feel-good stereotypes. “Kongens Nei” works best as a fictional character study centred on the figure of King Haakon VII who through circumstances not of his making is forced to make an unenviable choice as head of state: willingly agree to surrender to Germany and avoid continuing bloodshed, or refuse and share (however indirectly) the blame for war. If we take this narrow focus, then the film becomes a lesson about moral responsibility and how it shapes one’s legacy to one’s family (and nation), but perhaps at the cost of accepting the film’s initial portrayal of the king as somewhat spineless, giving in to compromise and following the herd when he should have done otherwise. The real king may have been no such figure.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, the film does a decent job detailing the immense pressure Norway and its government are under from the attacking Nazi German forces who are hell-bent on seizing the country’s iron ore resources to feed their eventual war against the Soviet union. Holding the story together are the central characters of the King himself (Jesper Christensen), the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who acts as the King’s conscience and the ill-fated German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) who arranges to meet with the King to persuade him to sign an act of surrender even as Berlin manoeuvres and pushes the envoy aside. The three actors are excellent in their roles: Christensen all but absorbs the viewer’s attention as a morally and physically frail and ageing monarch who might not have been a great father or even a very good leader in the past. How he rises – or maybe does not rise – to his nation’s greatest crisis is the crux of the film. Bräuer’s own personal journey to this point in the film parallels the King’s moral dilemma. Both men try to do the right thing by their own standards even as dark forces surround and encroach on them and their families: Bräuer insists on carrying out his duty as an envoy and the King tries to do what he believes is the right thing by the Norwegian people, to the extent of walking into what might be a potential trap. The irony is that what he and Bräuer end up doing actually makes very little difference to Norway’s eventual fate.

I feel that where the film really falls down is its failure to show how Norway’s resistance to German invasion and aggression was ultimately hopeless, and how the Norwegian royal family was forced to leave the country altogether in spite of the decisions the King and Crown Prince had made, however heroic or not these were.

Troll Hunter: comedy horror flick works in popular Norwegian stereotypes and fears of a police state

André Øvredal, “Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren” (2010)

Inspired perhaps by the example of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog” from the 1990s and “Cannibal Holocaust” from the 1970s, this Norwegian comedy horror flick takes the form of a documentary in process by a group of student film-makers Thomas, Johanna and Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Thomas Alf Larsen) who investigate a series of mysterious livestock and tourist killings by bears. They meet a man Hans (Otto Jespersen) who claims to be a troll hunter and that the deaths were caused by trolls. The youngsters spend the rest of the film following him as he hunts the killers. Before long, the three kids are up to their necks in more than troll stench and troll trouble: not only do they discover that trolls really do exist but that the Norwegian government has long denied their existence and has a vested interest in doing so, and will stop at nothing to ensure that the news media – and the students themselves – know their place and not publicise any information about the trolls.

The main glories of the film are in the subtle ways it works traditional Norwegian folk stories about trolls and contemporary Norwegian cultural stereotypes and hang-ups into its threadbare plot. The plot provides a framework to work various jokes and comedy sketches that enliven it. The sketch in which three sheep are placed on a bridge as bait for a giant troll is a reference to the children’s fairy story about the three billy goats. Another sketch in which Hans and the students encounter some Polish immigrants provides an opportunity to send up Norwegian fears and beliefs about immigrants generally and Polish immigrants in particular, the latter being a constant presence across western Europe after Poland joined the EU and its people got visa-free access so they could escape their country’s chronic unemployment problem. A running gag in the film is that every time Hans despatches a troll to troll Valhalla, the government sends in its agent Finn and his helpers to plant false bear tracks in the area and spread lies about mysterious killings of foreign tourists and others. While such issues might suggest the film will find a very limited audience outside Norway, I had no problem picking up some of the issues worked into the film and I daresay most non-Norwegian viewers will spot them as well and enjoy the film for what it is.

There are references also to the conflict between the Norwegian government and farmers whose livestock are attacked by bears and wolves, and the bureaucratic hoops that farmers must jump through to obtain licences to protect their animals without breaking wildlife regulations; and to the problems of setting up power-lines in wilderness areas.

Although the film plays its themes for laughs, one can detect something quite serious in the way the trolls are portrayed as the last, pitiful members of a dying species and how among other things the Norwegian government is using them to expand its power over people’s lives and the country in which they live. Thus we have the paranoid bureaucratic obsession with hiding the reality of trolls from the public, to the extent of arresting and incarcerating the student film-makers, with only a few titles closing off the film by saying that the students have disappeared. (The interesting twist of course is that the trolls are not responsible for the students’ disappearance.) The news media obediently follows the official government line of never admitting the existence of trolls in spite of a short clip featuring the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg averring that they could exist.

Otto Jespersen puts in a very convincing performance as the troll hunter fed up with the way he has been treated by the Norwegian government who needs his services to keep the troll population in check and away from the public yet refuses to acknowledge his existence and pay him properly. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows him in close-up as he explains the different kinds of troll that exist in Norway, the trolls’ inability to metabolise Vitamin D (which explains their aversion to sunlight and the fact that they explode when exposed to UV light) and their ability to sniff out and kill anyone who is Christian. The actual trolls themselves are obviously computer-generated and much of the film does look very amateurish, what with the swinging cameras, but its ability to hold viewers in suspense despite the comedy and the outlandish premise is in no doubt.

True Norwegian Black Metal : a travel guide into the “world” of a black metal musician

Ivar Berglin and Peter Beste, “True Norwegian Black Metal” (Vice, 2007)

Despite the title, this short documentary is a brief travel guide into the world of Gaahl, the lead vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. Interviewer Ivar Berglin, photographer Peter Beste and one other guy are interested in why Gaahl, born Kristian Espedal in 1975, has such an extreme reputation for violence and apparent Satanism in Norway so they visit him at home in a remote mountain village. They initially find a very convivial man with a considerable wine collection who paints portraits in his spare time. Gaahl then takes the film crew through the forests and up a mountain to a wooden cabin, described as his “grandparents’ cabin; along the way, Beste films beautiful scenes of forest trees with boughs covered with snow.

The docmentary begins with a brief but quite effective survey of the history of black metal beginning with its origins in a British band called Venom in the early 1980s. Scandinavian bands such as Sweden’s Bathory and Denmark’s Hellhammer were inspired by Venom to develop a style based on what they considered to be truly dark aspects of human thought and behaviour and their example later inspired the black metal music sub-culture in Norway in the mid to late 1980s. Sensational crimes such as church-burning, attacking the elderly and immigrants, and Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist Euronymous in 1993 brought the scene much unwelcome attention from the Norwegian mainstream media and beyond. Into this milieu arrived Gorgoroth whose members also received intense attention from the media and the police for acts of outrage and violence. Gaahl himself was imprisoned for beating up people and other acts of violence and at the time of his interview with the Vice team, had only recently been released from jail.

Initially appearing very much a typical news report with a fast pace, sharp edits and cuts, and a near-breathless reporting style, once the documentary starts focussing on Gaahl’s life in his remote mountain home, it becomes more intimate with a slower pace. As he takes the Vice reporting team through the forests and up a mountain in miserable weather, the reporters voice their annoyance at his actions and moan how they really came “for the music” when all the while Gaahl is showing them the source of the inspiration for his and Gorgoroth’s work!

In these later scenes, Gaahl is portrayed as a lone wolf who draws inspiration from nature and whose personal philosophy is inaccessible from the Vice reporting team, let alone the rest of the world. We are encouraged to empathise with Gaahl and his outlook on life.

Since its making, the documentary has been criticised for misreporting aspects of Gaahl’s life, among them the fact that he actually lives in an apartment in Bergen and does indeed socialise a lot. I don’t know if this misreporting was accidental or intentional but if it had been the latter, I confess to having fallen hook, line and sinker for the deception: the actual “plot” is sketchy, the film crew and Gaahl play their parts, and my own imagination fills in the details.

Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden had now been suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.

Once upon a time in Norway: film misses a lesson about social conformism

Pål Aasdal, Martin Ledang “Once upon a time in Norway” (2007)

This one-hour film is a straightforward blow-by-blow chronological account of the early career of Mayhem, one of the pioneer bands of Norwegian black metal which since the late 1980s has exploded across the world and become Norway’s most significant cultural export and contribution to international youth music and culture. Mayhem itself continues on an on/off basis with bassist Necrobutcher and drummer Hellhammer at the helm since 1995. The documentary concentrates on the band’s history from its 1984 founding by guitarist Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous and Necrobutcher through its revolving-door personnel up to and just a little beyond Euronymous’s murder by Varg Vikernes in 1993. The film is good and very informative but I feel it could have lightened up on the information and gone for a more general overview of Mayhem’s history and the birth of black metal.

The film’s structure is dominated by interviews with various members and ex-members of Mayhem including Necrobutcher himself, Kjetil Manheim and Billy Nordheim, and various friends and associates including Darkthrone guitarist Nocturno Culto, musician Anders Odden and ex-Emperor man Tchort. Almost immediately the major focus of the interviews is Euronymous, in particular his attempt to dominate and control the music’s development and direction, and his eccentric character and bizarre sense of humour: these factors led directly or indirectly to his death. There is some discussion of Mayhem’s musical and philosophical inspirations and of the band members’ desire to create fast, aggressive and extreme music with the intent to shock. The musicians admit to flirting with Satanic beliefs, Nietzschean philosophy in a rather superficial way, nihilism and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy: anything that legitimised and support their desire to shock and rebel against perceived traditional authorities in Norwegian society. There is little investigation in the film of the philosophical underpinnings of black metal apart from the musicians’ own observations otherwise.

As the film progresses, slowly but surely – there is a lot of talk and the detail about what Euronymous got up to, his political beliefs and his attempt to run a record shop and label is immense – viewers get an inexorable sense of progress towards the moment when Euronymous is killed so when the murder does happen, it comes as an emotionless, matter-of-fact anti-climax. Perhaps the film-makers’ approach to making the documentary is just too calm and measured for the subject matter. Even the discussion of various church burnings that took place around Norway, including the destruction of the historic Fantoft stave church (it was rebuilt by 1997), in the early 1990s by fanatical black metal fans and hangers-on appears relatively unemotional, at least to my Australian senses. Norwegians are such cool, calm and collected characters!

As would be expected, excerpts of early Mayhem songs are played here and there though in my opinion there is just not enough music to carry the film. The overall tone can be very dry, even intellectual. The passage dealing with Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, his psychological problems (he was possibly borderline schizophrenic), a near-death experience as a child and his gunshot suicide comes across as very clinical. With a film like this, there needs to be a fair amount of music throughout the proceedings to convey a sense of urgency and passion; to help viewers understand the power of black metal and how it inspired a small group of socially alienated individuals; and ultimately to inspire viewers themselves to find out more about the early Norwegian black metal scene and check out classic works like Mayhem’s first album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” and Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”.

Maybe the documentary could have concentrated less on the details of Mayhem’s history and a little more on issues such as the cultural policing of the extent and boundaries of black metal vis-a-vis death metal and other forms of heavy metal, an obsession beloved of heavy metal magazines and websites; the rivalry between Norwegian black metal bands and Swedish death metal bands which reflects past historical resentments; when talking about doing something itself becomes dangerous if it inspires others to carry out the act spoken of; and burning churches as a way of gaining acceptance into a social network and later gaining power over it.  There’s an interesting diversion when interviewees talk about why Euronymous took photographs of Dead’s death scene: was Euronymous really that twisted or did he take the photos as a way of “proving” to himself and to others that Dead really was dead? Many people find accepting a piece of news difficult until they have seen it for themselves on the TV news or in the newspapers.

The narrow focus of the documentary also means an elephant in the room is completely missed: just what social conditions prevailed in Norway in the 1980s that a group of young men, well brought up, highly intelligent and very likeable, should feel alienated from society enough that they find relief in playing extreme music and through that end up involved in extreme behaviours such as beating up homosexuals and elderly people, burning churches and killing people? People outside Scandinavia imagine the region as a social democratic welfare-state utopia where everyone is equal and laws provide for equal and easy access to necessary resources. Crime rates are low and social problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently by government agencies. At the same time the egalitarian values of Scandinavian societies, laudable though they are, may mask a suffocating, mean-spirited conformism known as the Jante Law in Scandinavia and the Tall Poppy syndrome in Anglophone countries. This is an unwritten set of conventions which restrict, criticise or even punish individual achievement and elevate the collective above the individual. Could it be then that the Jante Law restricted young people then and restricts young people now from finding their place in Norwegian society as is? Does Norwegian society (or any other advanced Western society for that matter) provide adequate creative outlets for youth so that when they do things that threaten to get out of control, there is an agency or a code of etiquette or conventions that can provide them with advice and guidance so they can rein in their impulses themselves? A lesson that could be learned from this documentary is missed.

Dead Snow: a mishmash of previous zombie movie plot twist and character stereotypes

Tommy Wirkola, “Dead Snow” (2009)

For laughs, gore and stunning mountain scenery you can’t go past zombie comedy flick “Dead Snow” but there isn’t much else to sustain the movie. The plot revolves around a group of university students going to a remote mountain cabin in northern Norway for skiing, snowboarding and sexy-time fun during the Easter holiday break. The place is so remote they have to leave their cars at the bottom of the mountain and walk with their luggage to the cabin while one of their number, Vegard (Lasse Valdal), leads the way on a snowmobile. The cabin happens to belong to his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) who’s making her own way there via cross-country skiing. On their first night in the cabin the kids are visited by a local ranger (Bjørn Sundquist) who lectures them on the area’s recent history: during World War II, a paramilitary death squad of several hundred Nazi German soldiers stationed in the mountains to intercept Russian-British trade and communications treated locals so badly that the Norwegians rose up against the occupiers and massacred as many as they could; the remaining soldiers fled into remote parts and were never seen again. The ranger then goes on his way and the youngsters never see him again. After that night, strange things start happening: Sara never turns up so Vegard goes off to search for her and one of the students, Chris (Jenny Skavlan), disappears after using the out-house the following evening. Next thing you know, the students hear groaning and grunting noises outside the cabin, windows are smashed inwards and the youngsters realise they’re besieged by … undead Nazi German soldiers!

At least the mountain locations and forests are beautiful and the cinematography captures the sharp look of the bright blue skies and jaw-dropping cliffs and rocky outcrops where most of the action occurs in the second half of the film. The actors look the part of a stereotyped cast: blonde bubble-headed babe Liv (Evi Kasseth Røsten), brainy brunette Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) with her hair in dreadlocks, Erlend (Jeppe Laursen) the chubby film buff, nerdy Martin (Vegar Hoel) who wears glasses, the physically attractive and natural leader of the group Vegard and another fellow, Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen); they act like stereotypes as well so Liv plays damsel in distress and Hanna tries to get help for herself and the others. Vegard singlehandedly fights off several zombies with ingenuity and his snowmobile and he even does his own running repairs, Terminator-style, with sewing needle, thread and duct tape – just don’t ask which part of himself he stitches up. Martin and Roy form a comedy duo who accidentally burn down the cabin with Molotov cocktails but then redeem themselves with a chainsaw and hammer against an army of zombies. For their part the zombies act like typical zombies of their post-“28 Days Later” generation: they run fast, they bite hard, they don’t think deeply and they do as they’re ordered by head zombie and former Einsatzgruppen leader Herzog.

The plot falls to pieces even before the zombies gatecrash the kids’ party:  why or how the German soldiers became zombies in the first place and their reverence for the gold and silver treasures the students find hidden in their cabin that they’d chase the youngsters for them, are never explained in the film. You’d think the script-writers might draw on Norwegian lore about the treasures having some kind of evil Lord-of-the-Ring or Nibelungenlied radioactive influence on the soldiers, turning their human cells and metabolism into undead zombie cells and metabolism. There would then be a lesson, however crude it be, we mortals could learn about the dangers of greed and stealing occult jewels of non-human manufacture whose powers are dangerous and not to be underestimated. Perhaps there’d even be a backstory about how Hitler ordered the Nazis to come to this remote mountain territory precisely to find this forbidden treasure that could bestow unbelievable power on the German armed forces and enable them to conquer and control Europe. The power would be real enough but the consequences of messing with it for selfish material interest would be severe. Possibly with the release of the sequel “Dead Snow 2”, we’ll learn more about Standartenführer Herzog and his soldiers and how they were transformed into the undead.

Though this is a low-budget slapstick horror film that milks previous zombie horror films for character and plot twist stereotypes, there are some artistic moments here, the major highlight being a scene in which the zombies are eviscerating one of the students through a blocked and blurred camera lens that takes the victim’s point of view. The special effects look well done and though the body count is high the killing and hacking aren’t exaggerated. The zombies look menacing and horrific with grey corpse faces.

Shame then that such a good-looking film with an interesting premise and stunning mountain landscape backgrounds doesn’t exploit its source material to make the plot more credible and the monsters more fearsome. Local Norwegian legends about dwarves making and hiding hoards of gold and precious jewels in the mountains combined with Nazi Germany’s obsession with the occult and mastering its secrets to obtain power and territory could have provided much creative stimulation for a story in which zombified Nazi soldiers become a strikeforce for unknown malevolent forces to threaten the world. Of course a small budget can cramp the creative ambitions and scope of the script but in the case of “Dead Snow”, all that’s needed is a more credible explanation for how the soldiers came to be what they are. The movie could have broken with the usual horror movie conventions about what zombies can and can’t do and allowed them to speak and remember their history. The significance of the treasure the students find in their cabin becomes an important part of the plot. Now that would be a lecture worth listening to.