On 22 July 2011, Norway was irrevocably scarred. Anders Behring Breivik, a far right neo-nazi, enacted a combined bomb and gun lone wolf terrorist plot against a government building in Oslo and a youth Labour Party summer camp on the isle of Utøya. By day’s end 77 people were dead, including some 60 children on Utøya. When acclaimed director Paul Greengrass chose to create a cinematic adaption of this tragedy, to many it seemed an ambitious decision. If you could choose anyone to direct such a project however, you would want it to be Greengrass. It is on such real life “docu-dramas” that Greengrass not only cut his teeth (United 93, Omagh, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence) but also gained his highest accolades (Captain Phillips). In many ways, his unique vérité style, that some critics have called “the junction of film and journalism”, is suited perfectly to trying to create realistic portrayals of a serious subject matter. Greengrass differs here from his “docu-dramas” however. This film not only focuses focusing on Breivik’s attack, but for the second half it looks at his trial and the long road to recovery for the survivors.
The attack itself is presented in a typical dark, realistic style. Shots of happy children entering the isle of Utøya, emblazoned with a welcome sign, are contrasted with a silent, lonesome figure in the midst of a grim, even banal, attack preparation. When it all begins, the fear, confusion and violence of the events are central, whilst never being offensively gratuitous or tokenistic. In the aftermath, we watch the recovery, both physical and psychological, for one of Breivik’s victims – Viljar Hansen, and his family, whilst also watching the court case play out, from the view of both Viljar, and Geir Lippestad the begrudging public defender assigned to Breivik. Through a mixture of plot, cinematography and dialogue, Breivik is depicted as diametrically opposite from his victims as is possible. What struck me most about it all was the sense of reality that came through. Greengrass made sure to extensively consult with many of the Utøya victims and their families whilst writing the film. The films characters and events themselves, even the most bizarre and horrifying, are all based on the actual reports and accounts of what happened during and after the attack. It’s rare to see a film so extensively researched, though given the subject matter it was undoubtedly a necessity.
The movie certainly still has its critics. Guardian writer Simran Hans gave it two stars saying it “was offering little context and few fresh insights”, in a “review” shorter than most twitter threads. Others criticised its lack of focus on Breivik’s sexism, whilst others still said it did not give the immense terror of the attack the cinema time it deserved given it only makes up some 20 minutes of the movie. I think it’s worth remembering the limits of the format here though as well. In dedicating either more time to the attack or more time to Breivik’s trial and the victim’s recovery, the careful balance between act and aftermath that makes up this film would have been broken. Also, films focusing exclusively on the attack itself already exist, like Erik Poppe’s Utøya: July 22, a unique single take real time portrayal of Breivik’s attack. Greengrass wanted to do something different. He seemed intent on making sure as many people as possible viewed this film, citing this as his reason for releasing it on Netflix. He was certainly trying to convey some different message – but what?
In early November 2017, French group CDPPF (short for the “Defence Commando for the French People and Fatherland”) rampaged across the university of Dijon, attacked five people, targeting particularly those in hijabs. On July 24 2016 teenager Ali Sonboly went on a shooting spree in a Munich shopping centre, killing nine including four teenagers. Less than a month earlier, back in Britain, MP Jo Cox was murdered by far-right nationalist Thomas Alexander Mair, who declared in court “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. What do these terrorist attacks all have in common? All were committed by far-right extremists directly inspired by Breivik. In Sonboly’s case it was perpetrated close to the fifth anniversary of the Breivik attacks. We as a country, as a continent and even as a species, are all living in the shadow of Breivik. These directly inspired attacks however are the tip of the iceberg. Far right terrorism is on the rise across Europe and America, with the number incarcerated in Britain alone tripling in the last year.
Throughout the film, from his initial ramblings, to his final statements, Breivik talks of a future attack. When first arrested he attests the attacks have not finished. He repeatedly says he is merely one soldier in an army fighting a war against “Liberals”, “Marxists” and other enemies of the right, claiming repeatedly there will be a third attack. He keeps insisting throughout that he is a member of an army. A new Knights Templar. Reformed from the ashes to enact a new purging “crusade”. A frightening concept – though one that investigators at the time found no concrete evidence of. He even goes on to say his court case is that threatened third attack.
If the trial is his third attack, then the death of Jo Cox and so many others are the next attacks. Whether Breivik’s army of Knights Templar was real or imagined when he first spoke of them, they certainly exist now, in Thomas Mair, the EDL, Jobbik and so many more on the far and alt right. All see Europe as some homogenous mythologised block being ruinously “changed” by these supposedly alien immigrants. Thanks to the likes of Trump, Orban and Salvini, such views have – as Greengrass himself puts it – “migrated closer to the mainstream”. This is the shadow that Breivik has helped cast. A dark spectre of fear and pain that has scarred not only Norway, but all of Europe.
As the film comes to a close, Lippestad confronts Breivik now his life sentence is assured – “You didn’t win Anders. You failed”. Breivik’s simple response: “Others will finish what I started”. When Lippestad responds that him and his decedents will continue the fight, Breivik still flatly replies “you can’t even see us”.
It’s no coincidence Greengrass has this exchange as the film’s last. In many ways, Lippestad’s inner dilemma about how to legally represent Breivik, a man that disgusts him, parallels Greengrass’ dilemma of how to artistically represent him. This exchange then, is the artist entering his work. In many ways it carries the film’s real aim – we must try to recognise and “see” such extremists for what they are, and we must combat this surging far right. Yet how to do this is unclear – a quandary that has undoubtedly plagued Greengrass in making this film. Whilst this is the film’s last verbal exchange, it is telling that it is not its last shot. As the film ends with Viljar standing tall, a stark figure against the white, desert landscape of Svalbard, Greengrass’ own question is answered.
It is in the morals, resolve and actions of his victims that we can find the tonic to the sickness brought by men like Breivik. That is why before, during and after these attacks in the film, Greengrass goes far to highlight the magnitude of difference between this attacker and his victims. Put simply: to fight violent extremists in a world living in the shadow of Breivik, we must first recognise that shadow he casts. It is through telling and emulating the stories of people like Viljar Hansen however, that we can do that.
Andrew Kersley is Politics and Economics coeditor, Staff Writer at The Boar and a third year History student. He can be found on Twitter @AndrewKersley