Programme Note: King of Devil's Island
For filmmakers a prison’s walls fulfil a fundamental job. They confine characters both physically and emotionally, forming a breeding ground for drama and tension. Director Marius Holst exposes us to just such an arena alongside the harsh Scandinavian elements in King of Devil’s Island. Here his enclosed constructed reality is the Bastøy Boys’ Home, sitting off the coast of Norway. Its walls are not brick and mortar but a freezing expanse of water. Initially the institute runs smoothly with the inmates docile and compliant; but as is cinema’s way the status quo is smashed, the catalyst being Erling, now dehumanised as inmate C-19.
He is our classic outsider, silent and brooding as he arrives on the island to be stripped of his clothes and identity. Rumours abound of his crime and sentence and the Governor’s pretty wife lives in fear of his presence. In other words he has the mark of the beast, he is different. This difference does not always take a shadowy form. Tahar Rahim became a prophet of sorts in Jacques Audiard’s prison film of the same name; Cool Hand Luke (Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967) lay finally crucified, he did the Jesus thing and gave his life for his fellow inmates. So, what form will Erling take? He certainly has everything to rebel against. Bastøy is run by Bestyreren, ably played by Stellan Skarsgård, last seen menacing Daniel Craig in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher, 2011). He is a cold Calvinistic overseer offering God’s salvation to his company of damaged youths. His twisted belief is that pain and suffering will cleanse their souls. In his introduction to Erling he states that he wishes ‘To find an honourable, humble, useful Christian boy and polish him, shape him.’ Instead of sublimation through pain he forges a monster. As we have seen on Britain’s streets last year when people are brutalised then they become brutal. Bestyreren must eventually face angry hordes to equal Tottenham and Clapham’s. If the Governor misguidedly feels he is purifying these inmates he is in fact breaking them; instead of constructing their future he destroys it. As the Soviet prisoner Lev Razgon said of the children of the Gulag ‘There was nothing human left in these children and it was impossible to imagine that they might return to the normal world and become ordinary human beings again.’  It is similarly difficult to believe that the boys of Bastøy will ever become a moral or psychological whole again. But has our attitude to punishment changed with the turning of the years? As we imprison young men for riot inciting Facebook pages are we moulding them morally or simply fostering criminality and hatred?
The claustrophobia of most standard prison films is inverted here. Holst creates an almost agoraphobic vastness of hostile space. As in The Ditch (Dir. Wang Bing, 2010) or the pages of Charriere’s Papillion (another Devil’s Island) the torture derives from an imagined freedom. These young men are ground between the twin millstones of brutal authoritarian oppression and nature’s chilling indifference. This creates a type of purgatory for them to wander through, eventually to move on as decent respectable men they hope. The natural world here is beautifully filmed by John Andreas Anderson (much in Estonia). It is alien and desolate, deadly and unforgiving. In one scene however it provides the tools for escape as Erling and another inmate use forest plants to poison themselves, feigning sickness.
It is a cold reality we are shown and also an interpretation of a true actuality. Bastøy Boys Home did exist. It did have an uprising in 1915 and the Norwegian military did open fire upon the sons of their nation. But for all its worthiness this is still no documentary and does not watch or feel as such. We have a classic narrative of equilibrium – disruption – resolution. This may be a reflection of truth but it is also a tale, scored and cut to entertain. It is said that ‘At the heart of documentary is less a story and its imaginary world than an argument about the historical world.’  King of Devil’s Island may be in some ways an interpretation of the real but remains a constructed fiction. All the better for it as such a story requires emotional investment which must very much be tweaked through directorial technique. This is provided by dark mise-en-scene and a harrowingly beautiful score. We are shown dreams or memories of a battle-scarred whale breaking the waves. Of course the whale is Erling, a force of nature slowly bled of life. It’s a nice piece of metaphorical bookending for his taciturn character. For further emotional manipulation the line between good and evil is clearly drawn in this film and we have a child molesting villain to cultivate our anger. And what does an audience need for such anger? Catharsis of course.
When we endure along with a character, feel as they feel, then we demand their vengeance. Many a revenge film forces a grinding torture upon us for over half the running time, just to provide that essential release of vented anger during the final reel. What does it say about us, the audience, that we are happy to tolerate a little pain purely for the satisfaction of dealing it out with dividends afterwards? In 1998 Michael Haneke said of Funny Games (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997) 'Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anyone who stays does!'  Perhaps it was not his extreme (mostly presumed and rarely shown) violence which insulted the audience. Perhaps it was the rewound scene of long awaited vengeance, denying us our guilty thirst for blood. We were taken a step further in Irreversible (Dir. Gaspar Noé, 2002), playing his full film in reverse. We were fed a horrific and unsatisfactory slice of vengeance before being dragged backwards to watch the unbearably vile act which perpetuated it. Never before have we questioned in this fashion whether catharsis can be achieved through bloodshed. King of Devil’s Island plays far more traditionally but still we are pushed to consider the achievements of brutality. Violence breeds violence and the Bastøy boys eventually feel the full brunt of state aggression. Their purgatory becomes a road to perdition.
King of Devil’s Island is an early 20th century Scandinavian Scum (Dir. Alan Clarke, 1979), one which reflects history rather than Alan Clarke’s searing contemporary take. Yet it still questions timeless and universal themes of revenge and punishment; the way we treat our youth and how we can expect them to behave in response. Of course these issues have reared their ugly heads of late so we can only wonder whether the next 100 years will show any difference. The film can also be viewed simply as a well acted and filmed piece of fiction, an arresting narrative. We the audience must choose for ourselves.
 Applebaum, A., 2003 Gulag: A History. London: Penguin
 Nichols, B., 1991 Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
 Kermode, M., 2012 Scare Us, Repulse Us, Just Don’t Lecture Us http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/mar/30/features.horror [accessed 25 July 2012]