CIFF 2011: King of Devil’s Island (Kongen av Bastøy, 2010)

Director: Marius Holst

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

They don’t make films like this anymore, and more’s the pity. King of Devil’s Island is old-fashioned—very well made, brilliantly shot with a real sense of place, a tip of the hat to the old Hollywood Production Code, and suspenseful without being sensational. In fact, the blurb in the festival program led me to believe I would need to prepare myself for a bloodbath at the climax of the film. Instead, I got a story of friendship and solidarity that Howard Hawks would have been proud to put his name on.

The setting is 1915 Norway. Two teenagers—stocky, brooding Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and slim, gentle-looking Ivar (Magnus Langlete)—are being transported to Bastøy Island, which hosts a detention center for boys. Erling, once a harpooner on a whaling vessel, recalls watching a whale 25 meters in length with three harpoons in it take a full day to die—we are treated to the sight of a whale rising in the water, its scarred flesh close to the camera. Erling himself sports several scars, including a fresh wound inflicted by the police. He and Ivar are moved into Barrack C and are given the new designations C19 and C5, respectively.

The governor of Bastøy (Stellan Skarsgård) meets with C19, whom he expects will be a problem, and tells him that if he follows the rules, he will become a better person and get a chance to return to the world. The governor puts Olav/C1 (Trond Nilssen), the leader of Barrack C whose release after six years is imminent, in charge of teaching C19 the rules. Erling’s only goal is to break out at his earliest opportunity.

Life on the island is harsh, with heavy labor, strict attention to the rules, and classwork the only activities the boys engage in. Infractions are punished with intense physical toil, half of their already-meager rations, floggings, and, at the worst, solitary confinement. Erling is told that one boy placed in solitary banged his head against the wall so incessantly that he lost the ability to speak. Nonetheless, Erling scopes out the boathouse in which the governor’s rowboat is kept and quickly finds a way to break in and escape. Even though he is soon captured, the boys have seen what they were told was impossible—an escape—and the embers of rebellion at their harsh treatment are fanned. Barrack C explodes after the suicide of a boy who was being raped by loathsome housefather Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner), and the final showdown of the rioting boys and a battalion of Norwegian troops summoned by the governor forms a frightening climax to a tense film of building outrages.

This film takes its time developing its story. We get the lay of the land, the primitive conditions of life, the cold and damp, the heavy manual labor used to build character. We don’t really get to know the characters, so some of their actions come more out of the machinations of the script than the performances, yet the faces of these boys, cast after a nationwide search for “1915 faces,” tell volumes. One small boy has no lines, but the camera goes back to his stern, serious face again and again. When he is the only boy who stands his ground against the troops—not killed, as we fear, but scooped up with one arm by a soldier as they capture the rebels—we are not surprised. Indeed, as we await this showdown, it comes as a huge surprise that not one boy is actually harmed by the troops.

In keeping with this view of the prisoners as boys, not enemies, Stellan Skarsgård offers us a very strict man whose desire to teach right conduct mixes punishment with some compassion. Unfortunately, he is compromised by his desire to keep his young wife Astrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) on the island by filching some of the funds meant for the boys’ welfare. It’s hard to condemn him outright because he does seem to have a mission and threatens Bråthen with prison for his disgusting crime; yet, he is also arrogant, telling Olav, who has turned against him for letting Bråthen go, that everything good in Olav came from him. It’s shocking to learn that Olav was sent to the island for stealing some money from a church collection box when he was 7. And what could poor, simple-minded Ivar have done to deserve this treatment?

Benjamin Helstad is a revelation, pulsing with contained energy, a survival instinct second to none, and street smarts in place of an ability to read. He’s the cocked hammer of a gun, ready to fire his fists at any outrage, but he’s not a complainer. Trond Nilssen’s turn from a composed leader to a twisted-faced shouter is abrupt and awkward, but the understanding that has grown up between the two boys does make them a fairly compatible team.

The film was shot in the cold of winter, and the cinematography makes excellent use of the snow, ice, and fog to measure out the bleakness of the prison. A shot we’ve seen in many films, but one I never get tired of, is of the massive naval vessel bearing troops appearing out of the fog, frightening Olav and Erling at the doom it foretells. This isn’t a heroic Custer’s last stand kind of story; we are still talking about boys who know they can’t fight back and do the only thing they can—run.

King of Devil’s Island will screen Friday, October 7, 5:45 p.m., and Friday, October 14, 5:00 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

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Inshallah, Football: One young man’s struggle to get a passport to play soccer in Brazil is the lens through which this documentary examines the Indian oppression of Muslims in the occupied region of Kashmir. (India)

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    5th/10/2011 to 9:24 pm

    “The film was shot in the cold of winter, and the cinematography makes excellent use of the snow, ice, and fog to measure out the bleakness of the prison.”

    This reminds me of the recently released Dutch “Winter in Wartime” set in Nazi-occupied terrain during a particularly harsh winter. Anyway, your enthusiastic assessment makes this most promising! I just hope it will receive a wide release some some of the others you are seeing at the festival. We know what Skarsgard can do, but it’s great to hear about the work of Helstad.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/10/2011 to 10:01 pm

    I don’t think I’ve seen Helstad before, Sam, and he really is quite mesmerizing. When he’s not on screen, you wait for him to return. Quite a young star in the making.

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