If being interested in the circumstances around and the people involved in human-made atrocities used to be frowned upon as vulgar or even disrespectful, few still hold that opinion. TV series and podcasts about serial killers and true crime have never been more popular, for reasons that are difficult to pin down—precisely because we might be living those reasons right now. The acute sense of instability and imminent danger we all feel in 2018 might be what is making us look for stories about pure, unambiguous evil; or perhaps the "democratization of knowledge" brought about by the Internet is simply giving us the tools to fully give in to our own morbidly curious impulses.
Whichever the reason for this phenomenon, it places cinema’s habit of adapting real-life stories to the big screen in an awkward position: Hollywood’s tendency to slip away from the truth when narratively convenient cannot sit well with viewers’ hunger for facts. Yet at the same time, no one is asking for films that feel like reading Wikipedia articles.
Premiering to great furore at the Berlin International Film Festival, Erik Poppe’s U – July 22 felt like a slap in the faces of curious viewers: as it has been pointed out again and again in reviews—and as was surely intended by the rather heavy-handed film—U – July 22 opens on one of the soon-to-be-targets of Anders Breivik on the island of Utøya turning to the camera to tell the audience, “You’ll never understand.” It’s a tacit comment on (what the film perceives as) viewers’ crass belief that they could ever comprehend the events of that day.
This moment also ties in with the film’s unusual format: shot in one take and in real time, and focused exclusively on the horrific experience of the victims on the island, the film brings us uncomfortably close to the horror that fascinates us—as if to make us pay for our disgraceful curiosity.
But this interpretation of viewers’ intentions and interests feels both simplistic and insulting: to say that the people who want to read about these horrific events do not care about the victims, or that they glorify the murderer responsible, simply isn’t true. Being fascinated by horrible things does not equal endorsing them, and does not make criminals of us all.
Perhaps another theory to explain the popularity of true crime podcasts and TV shows is our desire not to understand true horror, but to grapple with it via an intermediary platform that allows us to take a step back and reflect—something that cannot be done when one is enduring horror directly; I don’t believe anyone has ever wanted to experience the events of Utøya themselves. Perhaps we’re just trying to prepare for the worst, and could we really be blamed for that in 2018?
That U – July 22 would attack its audience is one thing; that it would try to get at them by using its characters is on another level of distastefulness. Though they are fictionalized, these characters represent real people, yet the film does not shy away from narrativizing their personal experience of the events to give it a polish of emotional manipulation. U – July 22 fabricates moments of tension (also rooted in a disturbing fatalism), such as a child perishing just before his mother returns his call, or the teenager with the brightest future dying while the less impressively smart survives. One would have thought the event was horrific enough without added artificial pathos.
It is interesting then that 22 July avoids those pitfalls, even though director Paul Greengrass has much more of a Hollywood pedigree than his Norwegian colleague. This film, however, still opts for a conventional Hollywood approach to this peculiar genre. As is the case with Peter Berg’s Patriots Day and David Gordon Green’s Stronger, Greengrass's film isn’t so much interested in a totally faithful recreation of the events, in unveiling their "cause" or the terrorist’s "motive," nor even in punishing the viewer for their perverse interest in that story. Rather, these films focus on the (more or less direct) aftermath of the attack, and the way survivors reacted to and dealt with the event. As such, they satisfy our desire to find ways to handle unimaginable situations and suffering.
Throughout 22 July, we follow Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), a teenager who was severely injured in the attack but survived, and has a lot of work of rehabilitation to do. But his biggest challenge in that process is the psychological trauma of the attack: his exposure to inhuman violence and the loss of many of his friends has shaken all his beliefs in the future, in justice, and in the power of hope. Only at the end, when Viljar faces Breivik at the trial, does he show that he will hold on to the values that Breivik’s hatred had tried to destroy: he will hang on to love, family and community. Breivik, the film tells us, hasn’t won.
This is a very similar message to the one articulated in Stronger, which follows the rehabilitation of a man who lost his legs in the Boston bombing. But Patriots Day, which focuses on the immediate efforts of rescue teams and government agencies in response to the same attack, enacts this message with the strength and the authority of fact: as we see people from various organizations work with one another despite an attempt to break their community, the film demonstrates a way to deal with such situations on both a practical and a symbolic level—as a community holding on together, and as an individual holding on to family and loved ones.
This approach also avoids lingering on the suffering and confusion of victims: in both 22 July and Stronger, such moments often feel voyeuristic and even misguided—how could we ever understand the pain these people suffered? How could the actors playing them, and how could the film? In the context of commercial American films that come close to adopting a Hollywood aesthetic, this structure also flattens out the personal experiences of survivors and their families: in 22 July, although the Norwegian accents of the cast speaking English do bring a level of authenticity, the characters still feel paper-thin despite being based on real people.
If we were to find a virtue in Poppe’s U – July 22, perhaps it would be the way it brings our attention to the ethics of films about real life tragedies. By contrast, Greengrass’ film uses the same approach that has plagued American cinema for decades, one which closes the significant gap between real people’s specific experience of tragedy, and the inevitably simplistic way in which this experience is perceived by empathetic outsiders. Cinema can—and even should—keep showing us how people overcome horror and build themselves up again when faced with hatred and violence, but it should not confuse this project with an ability to ever understand their suffering.