On 22 July 2011, A right-wing neo-Nazi terrorist carried out two sequential atrocities, planting a bomb in central Oslo before travelling to a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya with the intention of killing as many young people as possible. Paul Greengrass’s latest film depicts the events and aftermath of the 22 of July 2011 attacks on Norway. In total 77 people were murdered, the majority being teenagers, some as young as fourteen. Using a docudrama style, this film follows the directors earlier detailed dramatisations of harrowing tragedies such as Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips and The Murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Like his previous films, Greengrass uses hand-held cameras to confront the viewer with the raw horror of the initial events. The bulk of the film then deals with the aftermath, where Norwegian society struggles to come to terms with what has happened. The narrative is told from multiple perspectives, and this allows the film to confront diverse issues, such as: whether of free speech should be extended to extremists; the problems of using courts to determine criminal responsibility and sanity; and how social democracies should respond to monstrous events.
The depiction of the attacks, in the first section of the film, makes for extremely difficult viewing, but, ultimately, the film is not really about the attacks. Rather it is about how a civilised society responds to and deals with an extremely un-civilised atrocity. The account concentrates on five main characters: the terrorist himself, Anders Brevik; Viljar Hanssen, a youngster shot five times who was rescued from the site; the reluctant socialist defence lawyer, Geir Lippestad, who visibly loathes his client; and the Labour Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who insisted that “we must fight this terror with the rule of law, not the barrel of a gun”.
A major section of the story concerns the challenges faced by the defence team. It was clear that Brevik carried out these heinous offences – he freely admitted doing so. The initial defence strategy was to claim that Brevik was psychotic and thus not responsible for his crimes due to insanity. However, this course of action was of course, fraught with difficulties. It caused outrage amongst the victims, their families and wider Norwegian society that, rather than punishment, Brevik might be deserving of pity. Also, Brevik, after initially agreeing with this defence, later objected because it might restrict, or taint, his desire to address the court. He described his wish to address the court as something that would be his ‘third attack’. Moreover, the prospect of the author of such crimes being able to speak publicly and to offer his own justification for his actions caused understandable distress amongst survivors and their families.
Acting on their client’s instructions, the defence sought to overturn the court’s initial acceptance that Brevik was psychotic by calling additional experts to contradict the court-appointed psychiatrists. More controversially they also called other right-wing extremists to show that Brevik’s views, if not his methods, were becoming commonplace and thus, while abhorrent, given their relative ubiquity, they were not evidence of psychosis. Here the film successfully depicts the difficulties of trying to weigh the intricacies of a mental health diagnosis with the narrower and more strict definitions demanded by a legal framework.
The Norwegian court finally agrees that Brevik was not psychotic and the film’s director, Greengrass, openly depicts this as the right political decision to make. That this would allow Brevik to address the court at length, is controversially shown as part of Norwegian society’s desire to ensure that even a mass murderer would receive a fair trial. Greengrass has commented:
Was he psychotic? And they weighed all those issues, and in the end, they had to confront the unpalatable truth…. For all the enigma of why he did it, the central truth that had to be confronted in the court, which I think is highly relevant today, was that he was what he said he was. He was a dedicated neo-Nazi terrorist, part of a wide undergrowth of fellow adherents and that undergrowth now is stronger by far across Europe, than it ever was then.
The beliefs expressed by Brevik have indeed now become more commonplace, mainstream and normalised. From Charlottesville to Hungary there is a populist right-wing narrative that sees: elites as betraying ‘the will of the people’; democracy as a hollow ‘sham’; multiculturalism as a mistake; and that all immigration must end. All views that Brevik expressed in his testimony. This film asks us to acknowledge that these opinions are now shared by millions in Europe and beyond. And that the reality of a neo-Nazi revival can only be challenged if we first listen to these views, however repulsive and detestable we may find them. It is no longer adequate to pretend these views are not there or attempt to silence them, as both these strategies only increase the power of the populist right. If a process of societal healing is to take place we need to hear these views, talk about them and then confront them.
22 July, despite some very distressing moments, in the end, feels optimistic. Partly this is because of the prominent space given to the voices of survivors, who speak of the type of society they wish to live in, and the depiction of young victims who died believing that a more progressive form of politics offered a brighter future for all of us. But also, the use of multiple perspectives depicts how Norway responded politically, culturally and legally to its darkest period in recent history. It shows how the values the mass murderer tried to destroy, have in fact survived and triumphed in spite of his actions, and for this, it sends a reaffirming positive message.
22 July is available on Netflix and in selected cinemas.