I recently watched 22 July, a Netflix original directed by Paul Greengrass and now on Netflix in the UK. It recounts the events of summer 2011 when right-wing extremist, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then made his way to Utøya island, where a youth camp was under way. There, he massacred a further 69 people, mostly teenagers.
The film doesn’t shrink from the unpleasant details of what happened but, even having seen the trailer, it’s still shocking to witness. Due to problems getting emergency response teams out to Utøya quickly, Breivik got a full 90 minutes to roam about, shouting at “the Marxist elite” and picking off whomever he encountered.
In addition to those killed, Breivik also injured over 200 people in Oslo and another 110 on Utøya. It was the deadliest act of aggression on Norwegian soil since World War II.
When interrogated, Breivik claimed to be a member of the Knights Templar and that his “operation” was the first stage in a military coup d’état, intended to rid Norway and Europe of Islam and multiculturalism. The morning of his attacks, he had published a rambling 1500-page manifesto online, detailing his vision for transforming Europe, presumably in his own image.
When he was eventually confronted by police, Breivik calmly laid down his weapons and surrendered. Anders Danielsen Lie plays Breivik. Although Lie may not physically resemble the real-life murderer, he does infuse his depiction with a chilling air of narcissism and quiet superiority. In preparing for the role, Lie said he listened to quite a large volume of the interrogation tapes with Breivik. “Alarmingly normal” was how Lie described him.
Once the emergency services arrive and begin sorting through the carnage, the film picks up the simultaneous threads of Breivik, as he is detained, questioned and indicted and Viljar Hanssen, a 17-year-old high school student who survived multiple gunshot wounds on the island that day.
Viljar’s long road to physical and mental recovery forms a core part of the story. Narrowly surviving five bullets, he eventually appears in court to testify against Breivik. The role of Viljar gets a convincing and intense performance by actor Jonas Strand Gravli; when Viljar does eventually face Breivik in court, you’re almost living it with him.
Another plot thread examines the role of Breivik’s lawyer in the whole affair. Bound by the principle that even the vilest of offenders deserves a proper defence, advocate Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden) decides that he will represent Breivik. It’s a costly move, affecting him and his family very deeply. We’re party to the soul-searching behind Lippestad’s decision, but also his tacit disgust at his client.
Paul Greengrass shot his film in English but wisely chose an almost entirely Norwegian cast and authentic locations. The movie thus gets its mainstream audience but retains a feel of stark reality. Just a few minor changes were made to the facts to keep the narrative flowing smoothly. The principal cast is excellent, but there really isn’t a wrong note from any of the supporting actors either. 22 July is extremely well put-together. It’s not light entertainment but tells a harrowing story in immersive fashion.
Greengrass is no stranger to this kind of filmmaking. His filmography includes The Bourne Ultimatum and United 93 (the story of the one aircraft on 9/11 that didn’t hit its intended target because the passengers assaulted the terrorists). Peril and how people react to it is clearly a subject Greengrass handles exceedingly well.
I was particularly interested to see this film because I’ve a strong personal connection with Norway. I worked over there briefly and then went back again later as a student of Scandinavian languages. During that time, I lived in Telemark, coincidentally the same county in which Anders Behring Breivik is now incarcerated. It’s been some years since I last visited Norway, but I was pleased to find I could still understand some of the background Norwegian chatter in 22 July.
22 July shows us plenty of Norway, but without calling attention to the fact. Perhaps the most striking vista of all is on Svalbard where Viljar contemplates the future opening up before him, even as his assailant gets banged up in a prison cell. It’s a most effective piece of symbolism for what happened to Norway. A beautiful country that suffered something awful and yet managed to work through it, move on and look to the future without knee-jerking, blamestorming or politicising.
I sincerely hope nothing like the events of 22nd July 2011 ever visits Norway again, but I admire the way the country dealt with it. They didn’t over-regulate law-abiding citizens to try and make people feel safer. They took what practical steps they could but recognised that you can’t legislate for the kind of lunatic who stole 77 lives for his warped notion of freedom.
Personally, I’d have seen Breivik strung up, but that’s just me. The Norwegians are much more measured. They took the long view and were determined to learn from their tragedy and get past it. What’s more, this way, Breivik gets to preach his rubbish to the same four walls for the rest of his days, secure in the knowledge that nobody’s listening.