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3 October 2018

Living in the shadow of Breivik: why 22 July could be the anti-fascist movie of our times

In Paul Greengrass’s new film, the Anders Breivik trial becomes a metaphor for how the far right today is using and undermining the rule of law.

By Paul Mason

On 22 July 2011 the fascist activist Anders Breivik shot to death 69 members of the Norwegian Labour Party’s youth division, at a summer camp on the island of Utøya. Hours earlier, he had devastated the government quarter in Oslo with a car bomb, killing eight people.

Because their perpetrator was white and Christian, the attacks did not feed into a wider paranoia at the time. As a result, few of us have a vivid mental image of what happened on that day. After 22 July, a sombre masterpiece by British director Paul Greengrass, that will change forever.

Greengrass, who has produced three of the Jason Bourne blockbusters, as well as political thrillers such as Captain Phillips and United 93, depicts the massacre with an edgy, hand-held visual realism. Though there is very little blood and gore, the fear and panic depicted in the first quarter of the film are intense.

But, says Greengrass, “the film is not about the attack. It’s about how Norway, which is an exemplary democratic society, faces this typhoon of political violence – and how do they fight it?”

The aftermath of the atrocity occupies the back half, focusing on the family of one badly injured survivor and their determination to defend the values Breivik was trying to destroy. The more you understand Breivik’s motivation, the more the film becomes a metaphor for what’s happening now – from Trump’s America, to Orbán’s Hungary and the rise of the far-right Sweden Democrats.

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“The ‘eureka’ moment was when I read Breivik’s court testimony,” says Greengrass. “The hairs went up on the back of my neck. Those arguments – that globalisation is creating a world of enforced multiculturalism, that democracy is a sham and the elites are betraying us – that whole world view, which in 2012 was considered extreme, is mainstream now. We’re living in the shadow of Breivik.”

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Greengrass punctuates the action with subtle but chilling references to current alt-right vocabulary. As Breivik shoots one group of students he tells them they are “Marxists, liberals, the elite”. From his cell, he declares his intention to “take back control” against the “Islamisation” of Europe. Breivik’s war is against political correctness, which – in common with the alt-right marchers in Charlottesville, and one-time Trump adviser Rich Higgins – he identifies as “cultural Marxism”.

“The extreme right are very sophisticated in their understanding of power,” says Greengrass. “It’s about attacking democratic leadership; they are revolutionaries. So if you look at Utøya in its granular detail, you see so much of today in that story.”

In the movie, Greengrass also shows the then prime minister Jens Stoltenberg struggling to deal with, and to comprehend, the massacre. In one chilling moment, as the newly detained Breivik threatens a third attack, Stoltenberg instructs interrogators to tell him “I am listening.” “The Norwegians fought back with wise, compassionate and articulate leadership. Stoltenberg found the words, the accountability and the empathy – and made himself accountable. And they used the rule of law.”

The film depicts the excruciating fairness with which the Norwegian legal system tried Breivik, overturning an initial decision to classify him insane after his own defence team uncovered the right-wing networks that had inspired him.

“Finding clearly that he really was a political actor, that there is such a thing as the extreme right, with an articulate world view, well connected with deep roots… they had to dig that out and look at it – and part of that was letting him speak,” says Greengrass.

It is through the story of Breivik’s trial that we discover how the far right can simultaneously utilise and undermine the rule of law. If the first two attacks were the bomb and the shooting, Breivik tells his lawyer calmly, “the trial is the third attack”. But, I ask Greengrass, given the proliferation of alt-right ideology since then, did
it succeed?

“No, I believe it did not,” he says. “In the movie, I only depict two of the survivors who testified at the trial, but in the end it fell to two to three dozen young people. They had to go into court, sit for hours at a time and fight for a different way: ideologically, personally, morally. The collective experience of confronting him and his ideology is what the film is about.”

Greengrass, whose work is eagerly sought by major studios, told me he chose to make this film for Netflix in order to get its message to the widest and youngest possible audience, on many different platforms at once. Its release coincides with that of a Norwegian-produced movie, entitled U – July 22, which takes a more documentary approach, focusing wholly on the attack itself. Comparing the two films, I was struck by Greengrass’s determination to convey, in the simplest terms and with the broadest possible reach, the threat posed by the far right.

“Young people must of course discuss the big ideas that are going to get us through this,” he says. “But I want them to be expressed within the context of support for the fundamental concept of liberal democracy. Breivik’s soldiers are in the business of tearing it all up.”

I watched Greengrass work at close range when I was a consultant on the 2016 film Jason Bourne. The social unrest in Greece, which I had covered, forms the backdrop to the story. He clusters cameras around the action and hovers over the playback screens, almost beat by beat, looking for one thing: authenticity. To get the balance between authenticity and restraint right for 22 July, he consulted the families and survivors extensively. “They want two things – they do not want you to sanitise it; on the other hand they don’t want it to be exploitative, or cause needless distress.” So there is very little blood in the movie, and very few “moment of death” scenes. The distress the film generates is political.

Greengrass, who made a campaign broadcast for Ed Miliband, remains critically engaged with the turbulent politics of Labour and the left. He tells me that, in thinking about the lessons of Breivik’s attack, he was inspired by Clement Attlee who, during the 1930s, led Labour from its pacifist position towards support for the war and participation in Churchill’s government.

“I am very struck by Attlee’s wisdom,” says Greengrass. “You’ve got to decide, ultimately. Attlee, in his mind came to understand that, yes, there had to be profound change, but you had to decide you were on the side of democracy and not against it.”

Towards the end of the movie Breivik tells his lawyer that there will be “others who will finish what I have started”. In the light of that, says Greengrass, the left’s focus should not be on the “dark forces of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown” but on fighting Breivik’s successors. “We have to be in favour of liberal democracy against the revolutionary typhoon that’s coming. For the next 25 years, until me and you are pushing up the daisies, that is the fight.”

Bleak, understated and unflinching, 22 July is about the struggle to maintain empathy in the face of evil. After watching it you may feel a profound sadness and, once that wears off, a strong desire to smash fascism. Both emotions are rational. 

 22 July will debut globally on 10 October in selected cinemas and on Netflix

This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right