Young Norwegian actress Andrea Berntzen won a standing ovation at the Berlin Film Festival on Monday for her performance in a new film about a right-wing terrorist’s attack on the island of Utøya in 2011. The film itself was said to be so powerful that it was met by stunned silence, some booing but also applause after its international debut that stirred up plenty of debate.
Critic Jonathan Romney called the film Utøya 22 July “a shattering experience,” especially when viewed just a few days after another lone gunman shot and killed teenagers at a high school in Florida. That’s set off more debate in the US once again over the availability of firearms. Romney wrote on social media that the Utøya film (also called U-July 22 in English) “deserves to be most seriously debated” at this year’s festival in Berlin.
Another critic, David Ehrlich, wrote that “movies have not desensitized us to violence,” but violence itself has: “Watching Utøya 22 July, I couldn’t help but think how movies now have the power to re-sensitize us to violence again.” Others called the film “incredibly intense, dramatic and uncomfortable.”
Norwegian director Erik Poppe, whose Utøya film was selected among the 19 being shown in Berlin, has already faced debate at home in Norway over whether it was either correct or appropriate to make a film about the massacre on Utøya so soon after it occurred. He felt it was necessary, and that he made it with the survivors of the attack in mind. It was receiving rave reviews on Monday in Norway, for being “just as intense, brutal and emotional as it had to be.”
Trailers from the film aren’t being released, but it starts with its main character Kaja, played by Berntzen, staring into the camera and stating how the attack that killed 69 mostly young people at a Labour Party summer camp can never be understood. The film itself aims to describe what it was like on Utøya that day, when an otherwise idyllic political summer camp turns into a terrifying bloodbath.
More than 500 youth were on the island outside Oslo when it was attacked by a young Norwegian right-wing extremist who had bombed Norway’s government complex earlier that afternoon. The government was led by the Labour Party at the time, and the extremist blamed Labour for allowing too many immigrants into Norway.
Fictionalized accounts of all-too-real events
Early scenes in the movie depict young campers, shocked by the bombing in Oslo, speaking on mobiles phones to family and friends and assuring them that they could hardly be in a safer place than on the island. Suddenly the safe atmosphere is shattered when shots are heard, and the film follows Kaja as she tries to survive, faced with having to make impossible choices amidst all the shock, fear and panic.
The Norwegian Film Institute noted that the film’s script was written based on testimony from those on Utøya that day, along with “close dialogue with several survivors.” The film’s characters and individual experiences are fictitious, according to the institute, out of respect for the victims and their relatives.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) called the film “nothing less than a masterpiece” that left its own culture editor, Agnes Moxnes, stunned and speechless. “It’s just so strong,” Moxnes said on an NRK national radio broadcast on Monday afternoon, “that most people watching need some quiet moments to themselves when it’s over.”
One of her colleagues, Birger Vestmo, wrote that Poppe and script writers Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen, “had found a way to tell this story in a way that feels deeply respectful and not speculative, at the same time as the full thrust of the terror hits hard.” The film, he added, “can say more about the terror than thousands of words.”
An ‘endurance contest’
Other critics at the festival in Berlin disagreed, and there was some uncustomary booing among those attending its first public screening on Monday. NRK reported that one critic from Canada suggested Poppe was subjecting viewers to “an endurance contest,” while another found it speculative indeed. Poppe claimed the film “had to be terrible,” just like the attack was. He wanted to tell what happened through the youth under attack, not the attacker (who’s now serving what’s likely to become a life sentence in a Norwegian jail.) Poppe also thinks his film can be part of the healing process in Norway after July 22, 2011.
It’s in the running for the festival’s top prize and the critics seemed to agree on one thing, that Berntzen was brilliant in her main role. Poppe chose only unknown actors to play the teenagers uner attack. When Berntzen was introduced, she received a rare standing ovation from all those at the press conference. Poppe claimed he’d never worked with “a greater talent than Andrea.”
He didn’t want to respond to comparisons to the recent shootings in Florida: “Every terrorist attack is a tragedy.” The film will open to the public in Norway on March 9.