Prison camp movies are a distinct genre, with many minor masterpieces – from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to Stalag 17, to Cool Hand Luke. It’s not easy to say why we find these films so compelling. Perhaps it’s because the prison environment is so mysterious and frightening to the average citizen. If we took all our preconceptions of prison from the cinema it would seem a rather exciting place. Although I can’t speak from experience I’m sure the opposite applies. The punishment aspect of prison lies in the crushing boredom and monotony. The art of the film-maker is to capture the impression of one day following the next in bleak succession, while not inducing a similar ennui in the viewer. The same might be said of the average war movie which has to portray the drama and action without dwelling on long stretches of inactivity.
The King of Devil’s Island, by Norwegian director, Marius Holst, is an outstanding addition to the ranks of prison films. It has the added cachet of being based on a true story, although the “Devil’s Island” tag is sheer poetic licence. The island in question is Bastoy, a piece of windswept rock and shubbery off the coast of Norway. From 1900-1950 it was a prison colony for juvenile delinquents, who suffered the most severe discipline and privation.
It tells us much about Norway that Bastoy is still a prison colony today, but the most open and progressive in Europe. It is often compared to a holiday resort, and not merely facetiously.
It was a different proposition in 1915 when this film begins. We arrive on the island with two new inmates, Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a tough young sailor; and Ivar (Magnus Langlete), frail and willowy – the archetypal victim.
Their first encounter is with Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), the ‘housefather’ of their block, who plays God to the boys under his jurisdiction. “I see everything, I hear everything,” he intones. Brathen is answerable only to the Governor, played by Stellan Skarsgard, who – following his roles in Melancholia and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – is starting to look like a career bastard. Perhaps he should play an Australian banker in his next big film.
The other significant character is Olav (Trond Nilssen), a baby-faced blonde who has already served six years on Bastoy, and is now on the verge of release.
It is obvious that Erling is not going to obey the rules and meekly serve out his sentence. He is determined to escape, even though no-one has ever managed this feat. In a prison movie the escape attempt is often the device that moves the plot forward, but it plays a relatively small part in this story. The strength of this film lies in the characterisation, which is subtle and powerful, completely lacking in melodrama. The same could be said for an understated, atmospheric musical score by Icelandic group, Sigur Ros.
The relationships between characters develop incrementally, as befits an environment where secrecy and resilience are the necessary ingredients for survival.
In a lesser film the Governor would be a sinister, pious tyrant, while Brathen would be a sneering villain. In King of Devil’s Island, they are weaklings who hide their insecurities behind a mask of authority. Rather than face the darkness within, it is easier to project it onto the inmates over whom one has absolute power. The only way off the island, we are told, is through the Governor’s signature. This creates the conditions for an elaborate psychological game of carrot and stick.
As we know from Lord of the Flies, a group of boys herded together on an island can be dangerous and brutal, but Holst never overplays this aspect. There is a strong sense of solidarity among the inmates, a shared anxiety over the rules, the work routines, the rations and the punishments.
For six years Olav has internalised the school regimen. He is committed to following the rules, and has a saintly desire to help others down that path. Erling has no such scruples. He sees the Governor and housefather for what they are – weak-willed hypocrites and sadists. Even worse, he confronts Olav with the unspoken truth that Barthen is a sexual predator.
Although Erling is the self-styled ‘King of Devil’s Island’, it is Olav who brings about the final crisis. Erling is the same unflinching, taciturn character from start to finish, but Olav undergoes an extraordinary transformation. At the start of the film he is an exemplary inmate, by the end a revolutionary. Erling is the catalyst, but Olav the spark that precipitates an explosion.
Holst makes this metamorphosis seem entirely credible. We feel the tension steadily build, as Olav succumbs to an overwhelming sense of anger and betrayal. Against the backdrop of a Scandinavian winter we witness the confrontation between the institutionalised power of the law, and the force of justice, where moral certainty is on the side of the inmates. Just don’t expect a Hollywood ending.
King of Devil’s Island, Norway, rated M, 120 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 05, 2012