Berlinale 2018: “U - July 22” is a mass shooting movie that’s as horrifying as it has to be

In exploring the visceral register, director Erik Poppe has fashioned a new genre, “true horror,” or docu-horror

Published February 20, 2018 6:59PM (EST)

"U – July 22" (Berlin International Film Festival/Agnete Brun)
"U – July 22" (Berlin International Film Festival/Agnete Brun)

Norwegian director Erik Poppe’s new film about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo begins with a nifty trick of identification. Following an brief prologue depicting white nationalist terrorist Anders Breivik (never named, and only barely depicted, on-screen), “U - July 22” cuts to the island of Utøya, where Breivik killed 69 people (many of them teens and young adults) taking part in a Labor Party camping retreat. 

Poppe’s camera hangs static in the woods, peering through the trees at the tiny village of pop-up tents, watching as young people pass by. It’s a maneuver straight out of the horror film toolbox, in which the viewer is locked into first-person identification with some heavy-breathing, stalking-and-chopping killer (think Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas,” John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” or the movie-within-a-movie that opens Brian DePalma’s “Blow Out”).

Then something happens. A teenage girl named Kaja (Andrea Berntzen) steps into the frame, looking straight down the barrel of the camera, and says, plainly, “You don’t understand.” It’s soon revealed that she’s bickering with her mother on the phone (her plug-in ear piece becomes visible only when she turns away from the camera). But the third-wall-busting gesture sets the stakes for “U - July 22”: this is a film about understanding; about extreme affect and radical empathy. 

That Poppe’s fictionalized account of the Utøya massacre indulges, and explores, certain tropes of horror cinema (the presumed-killer POV establishing shot, the very scenario of teenagers being hunted down at a summer camp) is likely to rankle. Indeed, the film’s press premiere at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival was met with scattered boos and jeers amongst the requisite post-screening applause. It may strike some as tasteless and manipulative, exploiting the real historical tragedy and the memory of the dead. While it would be wholly disingenuous of me to argue that the film is not manipulative (or even a bit exploitative), I maintain that its crassness and cruelty can be productively regarded as virtues — and ones which distinguish the film as one of the most effectual (and, yes, topical) condemnations of gun violence ever put across on screen. 

In its structure, “U - July 22” is a kind of inside-out horror movie. Imagine “Friday the 13th,” except instead of gazing through machete-wielding killer Jason’s eyes as he lumbers through Camp Crystal Lake, where caught looking through the eyes of his victims. For the bulk of its running time, Poppe’s movie unfolds in a single, unbroken (save some hidden cuts, tricky to spot) long take, which effectively situates the camera (and so, the viewer) as a would-be fatality ducking and hiding and scrambling for survival as a mass shooter stalks through a vacation resort, killing indiscriminately. Where a recent film like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” elevated the tropes and cliches of horror cinema to the level of socio-historical allegory, “U - July 22” does the opposite. It mires the real material of history in the tropes and cliches of horror cinema. Far from constituting a “problem,” this decision elevates the facts and figures of the Breivik attacks into the realm of pure terror.

There’s a genuine verve and daring here. Breivik, after all, was a prototype for subsequent mass shooters, and for the uptick in white nationalist ideologies that decry the boogeymen of Islam, immigration and “cultural Marxism.” Before Dylann Roof, before Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz (who was reported to have a keen interest in issues of race and ethnonationalism, even if explicit white nationalist ties were subsequently debunked), there was Anders Breivik. Instead of affording Breivik the dignity of a pathology — or, again, of even being named at all — this film concerns itself exclusively with the experience of the victims (culled from first-hand testimonies) and with the real threat of violence. As Poppe’s camera weaves through the woods, peeking over bows and branches, and hunkering into the mud, one gets a keyed-up, highly affective sense of the horror of attempting to survive such an attack. The film is unbearably tense and scary without ever being “exciting” in any conventional regard. To watch it is to experience it, and to experience it is an ordeal.

The pathologies and motivations of killers like Breivik, who are motivated by extremist racist ideology, are no doubt important in understanding them, and in the prevention of subsequent massacres. Yet there’s also something of a double-standard in such depictions, which tend to depict white, male murderers as either psychologically complex or psychologically broken, while other extremist groups (such as Muslim terrorists) are rendered as mindless appendages of a corrupt ideology, unthinking and de-individuated. “U - July 22” offers something different, and equally valuable. Instead of another “true crime,” portrait of a serial killer-styled docudrama (yawn), it depicts something like “true horror,” or docu-horror. 

It’s a film that gets close to what must be the incredible panic of running for one’s life, of clutching the bodies of dead friends close by, of being submerged into the lived, material, blood and guts and gunk horror of gun violence. Each of the film’s countless gunshots is forceful and terrifying. Each run-and-gun camera movement from one hiding place to the next is defined by a heart-in-the-guts horror. It is experiential, not intellectual; a film that abides to the regime of the body instead of the mind. And horror films, the scholar Linda Williams has noted, have been historically marginalized as aesthetically and morally unserious precisely because they rely on such affective, excessive, ostensibly low-brow bodily reactions. Poppe’s film is audacious precisely because it is unashamed to explore this visceral register, to stir fear as a way of encouraging feeling.

“U - July 22” cuts through so much of the contemporary cant around gun violence, around white nationalism, around xenophobia, around the politicization of historical tragedy. It doesn’t engage with the ideological particulars of Breivik or like-minded killers because it doesn’t need to. Depicted plainly, and with requisite terror, the effects of such callous extremism will always make the case against extremism itself.

By John Semley

John Semley lives and works in Toronto. He is a books columnist at the Globe & Mail newspaper and the author of "This Is A Book About The Kids In The Hall" (ECW Press).

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