With 22 July, Paul Greengrass has answered the question of how to convert tragedy into film. In handling the harrowing 2011 Norway attacks that left 77 people dead and a nation in shock, Greengrass has created a film that begins as a thriller before shifting into a tale of national recovery.
Though the attacks have been present in the collective European consciousness for years now, knowing the outcome does not make the unravelling chaos less terrifying to bear witness to on screen. Greengrass takes the viewer through every painful minute of anguish, despair, and finally hope.
The film centres on the attacker, Anders Behring Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie), a right-wing extremist who pathologically perceives himself as a crusader in a war against multiculturalism, and a single victim, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who survives the attack with severe wounds.
Lie plays Breivik with an unnerving dispassion for the atrocity he has committed in planting a bomb and shooting to death tens of adolescents at a summer camp. He oscillates between professionalism, stalking around in a mock-police outfit (which is in itself one
of the more quietly horrible aspects of the film), and the bloodthirstiness of a huntsman prowling the forest.
Gravli holds his own against Lie’s disquieting presence, portraying with enormous pathos the ruination of his youth as he grapples with living with both a bullet and the memories of the day still in his brain. Viljar’s entire self is swallowed up by trauma; simply looking at his own face in the mirror is enough to trigger the sound of gunshots and screaming in his mind.
It is an intelligent choice on the part of Greengrass to distil the reverberations of trauma into the paths of two characters. The film’s narrative is divided between the attacker and victim, with two opposite yet converging tales of aftermath.
The film follows the outpouring of collateral damage that follows the attacks. Viljar is aged by trauma, his body contorted and diminished as he sweats through physiotherapy. Viljar’s younger brother Torje, who suffered no physical harm, becomes insular and withdrawn in his attempt to cope with his psychological scarring. Nobody is safe from the unravelling aftershocks of the event; even Breivik’s lawyer receives death threats and is encouraged to withdraw his children from school in light of the hate levelled against Breivik and, by extension, himself.
It is as if the massacre becomes the centre of a cobweb that splinters out in horrible,
variegated directions to form one dreadful tapestry of atrocity – one in which everyone
is a victim.
It is to Greengrass’ credit that he eschews experimentation in this film. He could have
shoehorned in dream sequences to express Viljar’s PTSD, or employ some fragmented,
vignette structure to convey a society that has been fractured and wounded to its core.
But instead he takes a more journalistic stance, portraying the shooting with an almost documentary-style verisimilitude to the actuality of events. It is perhaps the only way that such a recent horror – one that Norway is still reeling from today – could be given screen time; to do so in any other way would be to flounder from the truth, to get lost in the aesthetic over the brutality of the content.
Atrocity is, by nature, chaotic and beyond the exacting powers of rationale. It seems
that Greengrass is trying to give structure to something so chaotic, to build narrative
out of senseless atrocity.
He is sublimating personal and national pandemonium into celluloid catharsis.
It is through this interweaving of the personal and the political where the film is most successful. Greengrass overlaps voiceovers of political conversations onto scenes of Viljar’s corporeal breakdown and recovery.
The technique reminds us how terrible events motivated by political extremity are enacted upon the localised site of the civilian’s body.
And Greengrass does not shy away from any of it – not from the horrifying somatic realities of bloodshed, nor the strange, almost sci-fi-like medical aftermath of defibrillation, blood-bags and surgical drilling. It is part of his journalistic method to show it all in exacting, naturalistic detail. The latter part of the film shifts from focusing on the power of the gun to the power of narrative, as Breivik tries to attribute extreme right-wing triumph onto his act in court and the victims attempt to establish solidarity in their shared grief.
The film ultimately leads up to a confrontation in court between Breivik and Viljar, and though the depiction of the attacks themselves is distressingly effective, the film is at its most poignant in this exploration of recovery and a potential movement towards catharsis. In this way, Greengrass has achieved something very important; from an event of horror, he has cultivated a narrative of hope.