The unfolding trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo this month brings an eerie discomfort to the viewing of King of Devil’s Island. While the real-life courtroom drama is unrelated to this story, a tangible parallel is felt between the tragedy that befell Breivik’s ill-fated victims—isolated, vulnerable and helpless on a remote Norewegian island—and the miscreants in Marius Holst’s haunting film.
Based on a true story, King of Devil’s Island gives voice to a shameful secret in Norway’s history. In 1915, wayward boys charged with minor criminal offences were sent to Bastøy—a forsaken island south of Oslo—as an alternative to prison. Conditions in this bleak, wintry outpost were considerably harsh, with the boys enduring a bitterly cold climate with no heating, little food, and the expectation to perform arduous manual labour.
Rebellion against such conditions is inevitable, and it comes in the form of Erling (Benjamin Helstad), a stocky lad who refuses to accept his inescapable destiny. When an unjust situation is suppressed by the authorities, the boys finally crack, and an uprising ensues. This uprising leads to the attempted destruction of Bastøy Boys Home, forcing the authorities to call in the big guns, and leaving an open wound left to blemish Norway’s past.
King of Devil’s Island makes excellent viewing in spite of its weighty subject-matter. Frosty bluish visuals carry the film’s messages of hope, isolation, and survival with a realistic chill, while intricate period detailing lends authenticity to the historical accuracy. Several of the performances, notably from Stellan Skarsgård as troubled Governor Bestyreren, and prefect Trond Nilssen (Olav) are unforgettable.
At 1 hour 55 minutes the film is a little long, but the pace only wavers briefly. King of Devil’s Island is an outstanding example of Norwegian film-making, with plenty to unpack in terms of social injustice and behaviour. It will give you goosebumps—take a warm jacket to protect you from the cold.
Starring: Benjamin Helstad, Stellan Skarsgård, Trond Nilssen