Erik Poppe’s Berlin Competition entry, U – July 22, recreates a horrifying event with stunning exactitude, but also raises questions

Posted on March 6, 2018


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Utøya 22.juli (U – July 22), directed by Erik Poppe, depicts a terrible chapter in Norway’s history. On the day the film is named after, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik set off bombs in the government offices in Oslo, then travelled to Utøya island, the location of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth league summer camp, and opened indiscriminate fire. He killed 69 people and injured 200. Poppe wants to immerse us in these events. He recreates them with a you-are-there frisson, something familiar to us from films like United 93¸ which was about the events on the plane targeted at the White House on 9/11. (Indeed, the director of that nerve-shredding thriller, Paul Greengrass, is making his own movie about Breivik.

Poppe’s film is part-homage, part-gimmick. Of the 90-minute running time, he uses the first twelve minutes to set up the characters. When we first see 19-year-old Kaja (Andrea Berntzen), she seems to be breaking the fourth wall, talking to us as she utters these words: “We are on Utøya island. It’s the safest place on earth.” She’s actually talking into her headset, reassuring her mother, who has heard about the bombings. Kaja’s Muslim friend, a boy named Issa, says, “I hope it wasn’t a Muslim group.” The kids talk about Afghanistan, al Qaeda — they are engaged, interested in more than just the latest movie or pop song. These are kids that may end up changing the world. That makes the ensuing tragedy hurt even more.

It begins with what sounds like fireworks. These are really gunshots, and the remaining 72 minutes of the film — the exact duration for which Breivik’s massacre unfolded, in the exact location (Utøya island), featuring the exact number of shots fired by Breivik — are filmed in a single, agonising take. It’s hard to argue against the effectiveness, the necessity, or the importance of the movie, especially in light of the recent Florida-school shooting. We are gripped by the awful sense of what it’s like when an unseen madman is targeting you and those around you. To stay in the woods surrounding the camp, or try to swim away, in 10-degree water? To save just your skin, or try saving others less strong, more numbed by the happenings? These are choices no one should have to face, not least children who have their whole lives ahead of them.

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