My favorite film at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. I was not prepared for this emotional, daring, and powerful film. Thankfully, it is on DVD and streaming on Netflix. I love this score, which you cannot get here in the US. One day I’ll go to Norway, buy this soundtrack, and be the happiest person in the world.
Based on the true story of an uprising at a Norwegian juvenile reform prison, “King of Devil’s Island” is a subtle, yet potent film about the irrepressible hunger for freedom against the abuses of power. Directed by Marius Hoist this film had me completely engaged; a few times I was perched on the edge of my seat with anxiety for the characters. After the film closed, I let the beautiful score by Johan Söderqvist wash over me and found myself weeping in the darkness. If there is any justice in the world, Norway will put this film up for Oscar contention and it will get the larger audience it deserves. Until then, I’ll sing it’s praises as loud and lovingly as I can.
The film takes place on Bastøy island holding a juvenile boys prison and manual labor camp. Under the strict and sanctimonious Governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgård) the boys do manual labor in the forests to pay for their crimes which range from skiving from church donation boxes to manslaughter. Bestyreren imposes a rigid structure over the island. Once new young men arrive, they are stripped literally and figuratively of their identities. Order, or at least the appearance of it, is shaken with the arrival of Erling or C-19 as he’s named by Governor Bestyreren. Guilty of manslaughter, Erling’s stubborn streak bucks against the Governor’s rules, earning harsh physical punishments and humiliations.
Bestyreren enlists the help of Olav, C-1, to keep watch over Erling. Looking forward to release after 6 years, Olav sees himself as captain and protector of his section. At first, Erling mocks Olav for his straight-laced ways, but the two become friends through an unexpected discovery. Erling has a letter from a loved one, but can not read it. Olav reads the letter and agrees to help Erling compose a response. However, their friendship grows tense as Erling plots to escape. Having tried and failed getting off the island himself, Olav cautions against it. When Erling manages to steal a boat and leave the island, the Governor tries to restore his hold on them by decreasing the rations of the entire camp. Hope for escape is cut short when Erling is brought back, beaten and dragged barefoot across the snow, Governor makes Olav deliver the punishment: lashes to the back until he draws blood.
Bastøy seems back under the Governor’s control, but something more sinister is about to be revealed. Olav and Erling begin to suspect Bråthen, one of the guards, is molesting Ivar, a meek and feeble inmate. We never know what really motivates Olav to report on his house-father, but with urging from Erling, Olav goes to Governor Bestyreren with his suspicions. Until now, we have seen the worst in Bestyreren: his tyranny over the boys, his demands for respect, and his petty spats with Erling to maintain control. Disgusted with Bråthen and intending to fire him, Bestyreren confronts the guard. When Bråthen threatens to blackmail him for skimming money from Bastøy, the Governor’s righteous anger dissipates. Ivar drowns himself for fear of more abuse from Bråthen and the Governor sends Bråthen away. The entire camp resounds in cheers, a short-lived relief from daily abuse.
Even with Bråthen gone, Ivar’s death weighs on Olav. Hoping to cover up the institution’s sins, Bestyreren publicly chastises Olav during his release hearing, blaming him for not being a more vigilant house capitan. Olav barely holds back his rage and disappointment, glowering at the Governor. As Olav, finally free, walks to the ferry with the other freed boys, a smug Bråthen waltzes back in. I pleaded inwardly for Olav to keep walking, grab his freedom and leave Bastøy. Yet, knowing Olav- his dignity, fierce protectiveness, and anger at Bråthen, his decision to turn around and attack the housemaster was what I truly desired. Olav starts a brawl with Bråthen and other guards with Erling quickly joining him. For this Bestyreren delivers his cruelest punishment yet, locking the boys in cages in the deserted, frigid cellar of the prison. For days, maybe weeks, Olav and Erling are imprisoned with little food and scarce blankets. Things look incredibly bleak and I was preparing myself for a devastating end.
With help of a sympathetic guard, Erling and Olav break out and attempt to escape Bastøy. When they run into guards, instead of running, hiding, or being captured; Olav and Erling fight back under the gaze of the entire institution. That spark explodes into a fire of resistance. All the young inmates turn on the adults, beating, chasing, and giving back everything they’ve gotten under their rule. The boys, led by Olav and Erling, take over Bastøy and force Governor Bestyreren to leave by ferry. Olav, sitting among the ruins of the Governor’s trashed office, looks relieved, but weary about what awaits the boys of Bastøy.
The Bastøy uprising is quickly met with armed force from the Norwegian Military. The sight of soldiers firing and chasing these children is frightening. Erling and Olav-limping with an injured leg- are trying to make their escape over the frozen fjord. Alone, Erling could have made the escape easily, but he carries Olav on his back over the ice and snow. When the boys reach a crack in the ice, Olav barely makes it over the frosty river that impedes their path to freedom. Erling falls in, encouraging his friend in his last breathes to go on.
My description of these events doesn’t do justice to the storytelling, cinematography and performances that make this rather grim and simple story so emotionally riveting. Director Marius Hoist brilliantly paces the film, peppering the film with several points of tension, that slowly build to the final confrontations. Young actors Benjamin Helstad and Trond Nilssen as Erling and Olav pack these smaller scenes with so much energy, anger, and compassion that you really come to know their characters. Nilssen in particular gives a beautiful performance. He is able, many times without words, to convey his sympathy for Ivar, disgust at Bestyreren and Bråthen, and then some wholly mysterious aspect to his character’s history that left me wondering about Olav after the film ended. I also like Helstad’s defiant Erling. Together, the actors carry us through the story.
Even though “King of Devil’s Island” is based on true events, it feels more like a fable than a history lesson. Hoist explores themes of evil, power, friendship, and bravery. He refrains from drawing easy heroes and villains. Instead he challenges us to see ourselves and our society in the day to day conflicts and glimpses of hope at Bastøy. Hoist reminds us that the punishment for some outweighs their crime, while the people who prey on the weak and hide their own sins by dominating over others almost never get what they deserve. “King of Devil’s Island” reminds us to look beyond the obvious crimes in our society to the more insidious instances of abusive power. Those crimes, while not always overt, steal the liberty and happiness of so many. The backlash, like at Bastøy, will always seem more violent, yet what precipitated it- tyranny and daily abuse- is the true injustice.