Reenactments of a Massacre: Norway's 2011 Terrorist Attacks in the Cinema Screen

Feb 10, 2020
Dimitris Passas

The terrorist attacks committed by Anders Behring Breivik on 22 July 2011 constitute one of the most horrific atrocities ever taken place in European soil after the end of the Second World War. The first attack occurred in the executive government quarter in Oslo, near the office of the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg while the second took place in the little island of Utøya where several youngsters, mostly teenagers, members of the Workers' Youth League (AUF) were summer camping. The camping was organized by the ruling Labour Party. Breivik arrived at the island disguised as a police officer who was there to calm down the campers who had just heard of the Oslo bombing attack. The moment he set foot on Utøya, Breivik began shooting indiscriminately at the crowds of the youngsters and then started chasing those who managed to escape his first gunfires. The results were terrifying: 8 dead in the Oslo bombing and 69 young people executed in the Utøya massacre. Furthermore, more than 200 people were injured. After his surrender to the Norwegian police, Breivik claimed that he was the leader of an unknown far-right extremist group called "Knight's Templar". During his trial, the existence of such an organization was severely challenged by the prosecutors and it seems that Breivik was the only member of this group. The reasons that he gave for his killing spree were vague as well as obnoxious. He stated that he is a soldier in an undeclared war, targetting the immigrants who are inhabiting Oslo and promoting a Nazi-like white-supremacist ideology. His team of lawyers, with Geir Lippestad being the lead attorney, struggled to introduce Breivik as an unhinged, mentally ill man who couldn't be held accountable for his actions. Breivik underwent a psychiatric evaluation while being in custody and the diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. Even though initially Breivik seemed to accept the psychiatrists' ruling, later on, he claimed that he was not insane and that he would like to change his plea to guilty and face a long prison sentence. The reason was that Breivik wanted the chance to express his despicable worldview to an open court facing several of his victims and their families who attended the proceedings. Before he began his apology, he proceeded to a Nazi salute and then explained to the judge and the prosecutors his reasoning using mainly slogans and gobbets in a never-ending rambling monologue. The final verdict was that he was guilty on all charges, he could be held accountable for his actions and he was sentenced in indefinite solitary confinement. The Norwegian prime minister was one of the witnesses in the court where he admitted that the authorities made a lot of mistakes mainly regarding the prevention aspect. Breivik's actions the last few months before July 22, 2011, should raise an alarm to the police and security service.

Still photo from "22 July" (Netflix/2018)

It took seven years for two skilled directors to make the bold attempt to reenact the massacre on the silver screen. Paul Greengrass is the creator of the 22 July and Erik Poppe directed Utøya – July 22 (original title: Utøya 22. Juli). Both movies were shot in 2018 and were released in the same month, thus they were labeled as "twin films", thus movies with a similar theme or storyline released in the same year. Nevertheless, they were different in terms of both narrative style and main intention. Greengrass is well-known to the world cinema audiences for his well-shot and absorbing docu-dramas (United 93, Bloody Sunday, Captain Philips) and in this film, he adopts a multi-layered narrative approach as we watch the events of the plot unfolding through the perspectives of several individuals. Breivik is certainly the protagonist on 22 July, nevertheless, we are also witnessing the fate of a young man named Viljar who was severely injured in Utøya and even today he has fragments of a bullet in his frontal lobe. Moreover, we follow the story of Breivik's attorney, Geir Lippestad from the moment he took the case all the way to the final verdict. The victim's perspective is of major importance as the director wanted the film's main theme to be not the tragedy, but recovery. He stated that "it’s the inspiring story – the universal story – of how Norway responded", thus pointing in the aftermath of the attacks and Norway's healing process that still lingers today. Viljar's rehabilitation process which we witness in the second half of the movie becomes a metaphor for the healing process of the nation. Even though the movie is in English, the actors are all Norwegian with Anders Danielsen Lie (Nobel, Personal Shopper) stealing the thunder with his visceral portrayal of Breivik. Jon Øigarden (Mammon, Wisting) plays Geir Lippestad, the lawyer who received many threats as a result of representing one of the most abhorred criminals in Norway. It should also be noted that Lippestad was himself a member of the governing labor party, a fact that should make him hated by Breivik who called a traitor everyone who didn't share his immature, moronic ideology. Nevertheless, Breivik asked specifically for Lippestad when he was arrested as he already knew him from defending a friend of his a few years before. Øigarden's performance is refined and measured, conveying a natural feel to the character. The film covers a wide time span beginning in the day of the attacks and ending with the court's final verdict.

Erik Poppe's "Utøya: 22 July"

22 July is a film that is rich in information and details regarding this horrifying crime and the complex, multiple perspective narrative adds to the tension. The movie begins as we watch Breivik making the last preparations for the imminent attacks, connecting the explosive devices, trying a variety of guns, etc. Then, there is a twenty-minute sequence depicting the Utøya bloodbath with the director focusing mainly on Breivik and Viljar's actions. Breivik howls: "You'll die today- Marxists, liberals, members of the elite". The representation of the carnage is accurate though distanced and this is a part in which Utøya: 22 July outmatches Greengrass' film. Of course, Erik Poppe's movie has a much more limited timeline, as its total runtime is devoted on the day of the attack on the Norwegian little island, thus it makes sense that the portrayal of the killings is even more terrifying and hard-to-watch. Poppe chooses to adopt a different narrative approach to the subject and he focuses exclusively to a teenage girl, Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), who is frantically trying to escape Breivik's gunfire and at the same time find her little sister Emilia whom she lost due to the panic caused by the attack. In contrast to Greengrass's version, the terrorist himself is off-screen throughout the movie's runtime and the only thing that the audience can hear is the relentless sound of gunfire that declares Breivik's presence. This film was shot in one-take and Poppe "had five days to try to get the perfect take and could not attempt more than one take a day. The take from the fourth day has been used for the final movie" (IMDB TRIVIA). The producers of the film wanted to portray the attack as realistically as possible and for that reason, the director and his team met and discussed with several real survivors of the Utøya massacre. Due to the nature of the movie's shooting process that excluded cuts, the audience may feel that some scenes are drawn out and tedious, but you should keep in mind that Utøya: 22 July is a picture that is solely focused on the victims' perspective and that the horror you witness on screen is a true historical event. That makes everything more disturbing and painful and the viewer cannot escape the feelings of panic and despair of Kaja and her friends. The final scene leaves the audience feeling sympathy for the victims and contemplating the concept of evil as it was presented in the movie. I believe that Poppe's version is more emotionally touching, displaying a realistic, almost naturalistic, depiction of the events in Utøya while on the other hand, Greengrass's film is much more descriptive and explanatory, offering a better grasp of the attacks and their aftermath. If you are interested in true crime movies, I think it is worth your time to watch both movies, but be warned: those are films representing and recreating one of the most shocking atrocities in Europe in the last decades, so don't expect a light, easy-to-watch viewing experience.

Åsne Seierstad's book, One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is the perfect companion reading for those who want to learn more about Breivik and the terrorist attacks that shook Norway to its core. It is a monumental piece of journalism and one has to acknowledge Åsne Seierstad's research in Anders Breivik's life, as this is a book that covers nearly 35 years, from the early childhood of the Norwegian slaughterer till his conviction from the Norwegian court in 2013, after ten weeks of judicial proceedings. Seierstad is an excellent writer and he manages to put the reader in little Ander's mental status, when, as a teenager, tried desperately to leave his special mark through several activities (such as graffiti or bullying weaker classmates), while at the same time describing the contemporary status of immigration policies in the capital city of Oslo, where -especially in the Eastern part of the town- more and more immigrants are residing today. The book consists of three parts, the first describing Breivik's life until his arrest, the second covering his trial and conviction, while the last part is dedicated to the victims of this brutal crime, it's an attempt of articulating voice for the tragic protagonists of this drama. This book will enrich your knowledge with excruciating details resulting from an ardent investigation on the subject by Seierstad.

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