Originally posted on Criterion Cast April 1st, 2012
There are a considerable number of films featuring adolescents driven to the far reaches of suffering in reform schools, correctional facilities, institutional homes or rigid private schools. At this point, many stock characters have been established; the newcomer who shakes things up, the stern and unwavering headmaster, the martyr and of course the ultra-evil authority figure. All of these and more can be found in King of Devil’s Island, director Marius Holst’s bleak as bleak can be tale of what happens when power goes awry.
Like several others in a similar vein (such as The Magdalene Sisters to name a more recent one), King of Devil’s Island is based on a true story. It depicts Bastøy Island in 1915 Norway, a reformatory secluded from the rest of the world where it housed wayward boys from the ages of eleven to eighteen. The environment is hopelessly desolate and frigid. One can feel the sharp stinging chill of the air while watching. There is no escape. It is frighteningly simple to get shipped to Bastøy; one character is sent for stealing out of a church donation box. Once there, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain release, taking many years. The workload is dire and labor-intensive and they are underfed. The punishment and abuse are dealt out at a moment’s notice and retain the status quo of cruelty expected in films of its kind.
In short, you would not want to find yourself here. But inmate newcomers Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) sadly do. Erling, a harpooner who is rumored to have killed, immediately starts plotting an escape plan. Ivar, who is much younger, experiences the worst possible form of welcome by unwittingly attracting the attention of house father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner). The admission procedures strip them of their clothes and name. They emerge naked in front of their fellow students, part of the nomenclature with their new identities C-16 and C-5.
Bestyreren (Stellen Skarsgard), the school’s governor, is far too resolute in his misguided sense of reform to consider how damaging his methods are. Finally, there is student leader Olav (Trond Nilssen), who emerges as the heart of the film. He is inches away from being released after six arduous years. But as tensions rise, he must question whether or not securing his release is more important than standing up for the injustice he witnesses.
Stories of justified adolescent uprisings are always going to be engaging, to me at least. Marius Holst’s paint-by-numbers film is entirely predictable yet still manages to be a justly moving experience. Holst moves beyond the empathy implicit in the basic storyline, emphasizing the stark environment and the human elements buried deep within the struggle. Almost every frame is entrenched in hollow blues and grays. This may seem an obvious aesthetic choice but, again, Holst moves beyond the obvious with his execution. It is a rich film to look at, but the environment is never glamorized. This is a truly miserable place, and the visuals all support this.
Unfortunately, there is not much room for the actors to wiggle around in their archetypes. Unsurprisingly, Skarsgard manages quite a bit with a character that is so deeply mired in stern self-denial, that the film does not allow him even an honest moment with himself.
It is the child actors though who come through strongest. The governor says early on that at Bastøy “the past and future don’t exist. There is only present”. The film follows this proclamation relatively closely, focusing on the youths roles in the here and now of their predicament. Even without learning much about him, Helstad always makes sure we see Erling’s motivations come from immediate and tacitly sensed injustice.
Trond Nilssen’s Olav lends the film its most humanistic element. He has spent six years adapting to life at Bastøy. He has obeyed and proven a faithful inmate. There is a sort of reliance he has on the way things work at the school. Sure it is brutal and harsh, but if something were truly aghast, appropriate action would be taken; right? Surely he can expect his word, after six loyal years, to be worth something. From the moment we set our sights on Olav, we know where his arc is headed. Nilssen cancels out any negative effects of our awareness; the arc is all in his eyes and he is heartbreaking in the film’s successful through-line.
The strength of Helstad and Nilssen also force the friendship between Olav and Erling into the forefront of the film’s memorable aspects. The final ten minutes are inescapably emotional.
Filled with somber strings and heavy-handed and repetitious symbolism to drive home this grim tale of rebellion, King of Devil’s Island never feels substantial but is never less than entirely involving. When the uprising arrives it is shown as desperate and humanized rage. These kids do not turn into monsters and Holst smartly never allows that to come across. Holst is less interested in what happens when the breaking point is reached and more interested in the journey to that moment. The King of Devil’s Island is about unmonitored hierarchies of power and the disturbing results that can yield from a sharp schism between those in control and the unlucky defenseless.