Norwegian winter, early 20th century. On the boys home Bastoy, a new inmate leads the boys to a violent uprising against a brutal regime. How far is he willing to go to attain freedom?
Hopping about through the Film Movement website, and I came across this Norwegian gem – The King of Devils Island. My experience with Norwegian movies has been a wholly positive one; Headhunters, Trollhunter and O’Horten to name a few, have all delivered on another level. Combine that with my appetite for the true story prison type of films, and I was sold.
The King of Devils Island tells the story of the horrible mistreatment of the kids sent to the Bastøy Reform School specifically over the period of May 1915. This ‘prison’ was on an isolated island, surrounded by freezing waters on the Oslo fjord south of Horten. The primary aim of this island, was to take what were essentially young offenders and mold them into contributing, good, Christian members of society. As you come to expect, this idea sounds OK in theory for 1915, but naturally questions are immediately raised considering these are kids; what crimes did they commit, and how do they plan to reform them?
The Governor of this island, played by the excellent Stellan Skarsgård (Nymphomaniac, In Order of Disappearance) runs a tough ship, but one that he believes is fair. Emotionless, meticulous and stern, he welcomes newcomer Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a tough-acting sailor-boy responsible for a crime they cannot talk about, as he becomes our catalyst for change on the monotonous life on Bastøy. Alongside Olav (Trond Nilssen), another boy on the path to reform and the longtime overseer of the boys halls, their ideological and behavioral clashes form the basis for varying degrees of punishments dished out by the higher-ups. None more so than the reprehensible actions of Dorm Master Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), whose sinister and calculated appearance, coupled with the implied actions he is undertaking, sends the same stomach turning feeling you get when viewing Kevin Bacon in Sleepers.
This environment they are thrown into without any real measurable hope of reprieve, is as harsh as the treatment they endure, and as cold as the island they occupy. Pointless tasks, hard manual labour, violence and corruption run rife on the Bastoy Island – this movie is as bleak as they come. The unforgiving setting makes for uncomfortable viewing, for this depressing tone is set very early on, and maintained solidly for the entire duration. Much like the prison they are trapped on, we are trapped in viewing this gut-wrenching cycle of aggressive reformation, allowed only to witness brief glimmers of hope, but to have them quashed almost immediately. Adopting the expected Scandinavian styling, the film appears as a dull combination of grays and blues providing the aesthetics needed to darken the tone even further. It is a completely draining, yet captivating experience.
The movie didn’t delve too much into typical prison clichés, but kept the elements you come to expect when viewing this type of film. There was the hard-man, the weak one, the guy on the fence, the gaffer and the evil guards. Much like the Australian Prison Drama ‘Stir‘, or the classic ‘Cool Hand Luke‘, it is a tried and tested formula that if carried out successfully can achieve a depth and a realism to it. The acting is consistently solid, benchmarked by Stellan Skarsgård’s performance, and the direction enabled the film to surpass the norm of prison dramas that have largely become predictable and tiresome.
Like a Norwegian version of Sleepers, the facts are most likely enhanced for our entertainment, but as with most Scandinavian cinema that I have seen, you can use the term ‘entertainment’ lightly for this bleak and forbidding piece of work. If you are looking for an unexpected, hard-hitting movie that is sure to test you, you won’t go far wrong with this one – highly recommended.
Available on Netflix US, Film Movement Website, Amazon DVD, or iTunes.