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Movie Review: Until The Light Takes Us

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It’s a good year for documentary films about sincere and dedicated heavy metal musicians from the frozen north, doggedly dedicated to their craft after decades of toil, despite a lack of commercial success. But unlike the surprise hit Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, the newly released Until The Light Takes Us, directed by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell, is no heartwarmer. It’s more horror movie than documentary, and the realization that these guys are still following their dreams may prompt some viewers to wonder what can be done to stop them.

For one thing, this is no bro-mance. Lips and Robb from Anvil are partners for life, which is what that movie is really about. These Black Metal guys from Norway are staunchly independent operators. None of them talk about brotherhood or unity, instead expressing a desire to be left alone. And while Anvil wants nothing more than to get their music out to the people, the Norwegians actively despise the audience they do have. “Whoever is responsible for turning this into a trend thing,” says Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell from Darkthrone, spitting out the word “trend” with complete disgust, “it’s not us.” One suspects that if this film ended with a triumphant performance for thousands of screaming fans, the musicians would be offended by the sight of so many fake, trendy, mainstream people getting into their tunes and giving them money.

That lack of brotherhood is nowhere more evident during the scene in which Varg Vikernes, founder of the band Burzum and leader of the arson squad that burned several Norwegian churches to the ground between 1992 and 1993, enthusiastically describes how he stabbed his one-time mentor and employer Euronymous (nee Oystein Aarseth) to death in the summer of 1993.

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At the time, Aarseth was king of the scene: lead guitarist in Mayhem, Norway’s oldest and hottest Black Metal band, owner of both the record label Deathlike Silence, which released many of the seminal Black Metal albums, and the record shop Helvete, a gathering point for nihilistic youth which at one time employed Vikernes and Nagell as countermen. His violent demise appears to be the result of a twisted game of evil one-upmanship that escalated after Vikernes bragged to newspapers of the group’s involvement with the church burnings.

For his part in the crime, Vikernes claims self-defense, that he was attacked out of the blue with no provocation. The story, obviously one he’s rehearsed and retold countless times, doesn’t entirely ring true, and has the chest-puffing quality of a teenager bragging to his friends about how he spray-painted the word “Fuck” all over the school walls. But if his own description of the events is shocking, the reaction from his colleagues is grimmer still. For some local perspective, imagine if Greg Ginn, founder of Black Flag and SST Records, got snuffed by one of the guys in Husker Du or the Minutemen, and the killing was either supported or shrugged off as no big deal by all the other people on the label.

At least they’re consistent about the unity thing. It reminds me of Bill Hicks’ People Who Hate People Party… it makes it really hard to get a band practice together.

Although painted as Satanic devil worshippers, the group bristles at the suggestion. Vikernes seems righteously angry as he insists “We were NOT SATANISTS! I tried to tell everybody!” (Although a cursory look at Google turns up aninterviewfrom just months before the murder in which Euronymous states “Just because we don’t sing ‘Satan come eat dinner with us’ after every song, it will always be a Satanic concept behind it,” so it may be more accurate to say that the movement’s view of its identity has evolved over time.) Certainly none of them are talking about Satan now.

They rather seem to view Christianity as a fairy tale, Satan as just another character in a story they don’t believe. They identify with the old gods, like Thor and Loki, and a pagan history that predates Christianity. Several of the participants explain that the church burnings were intended to restore the land to its original purpose and get rid of the foreign invaders, building churches on their sacred sites in order to eradicate their true heritage. “It’s hard to know what to do to oppose something,”muses Vikernes, “because dissident voices are not tolerated in this society.”

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The filmmakers make no attempt to question or seriously delve further into any of this, nor Vikernes’ hateful remarks toward the Jews, nor Emperor drummer Bard “Faust” Eithun’s murder of a gay man, nor some of these groups’ connection to racist organizations like the Heathen Front. They’ve said it was a conscious choice to present these people on their own terms, without commentary. (However, presenting only a fleeting glimpse of the interviews’ most deplorable moments is also a kind of commentary.)

The only voices heard in the film are those of the actual scene participants and, briefly, some visual artists who have created exhibits inspired by Black Metal. Norwegian artist Bjarne Mehlgaard speaks about his attempt to discover the Norwegian voice, something uniquely their own, and mostly finding mediocre imitations of other European art. He’s interested in the connection between Edvard Munch and the howling, unchained aggression of Black Metal, the extremism of emotional expression being the uniquely Norwegian trait he’s been searching for. American screenwriter Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo), giggles like a fanboy about his fascination with the music at a Los Angeles gallery show of his own. “It’s the most uncommercial music ever! I went to Norway where all the guys burn the churches down and murder each other, and are like, in prison making music! I, like, visited Euronymous’ grave…” He then does a funny little tap-dance in corpsepaint, in front of a bunch of photos of Norwegian musicians. One has to wonder what Vikernes himself would make of such a tribute, would he find it compelling, stab Korine on the spot, or dismiss it with a wave of his hand, as he does the “brain-dead heavy metal guys” that had the temerity to speak to him while buying records at Helvete?

Fenriz, talking about his appreciation for modern art, notes that he likes “the wealthy and troubled art… it comes from the exhaustion of easy life,” probably because he can relate. No one in this film appears to be particularly suffering or struggling for their muse in the traditional sense. (Also unlike Anvil, many of these bands have been able to tour and sell records successfully, including the “one original member” version of Mayhem that’s still around.) Even Vikernes, serving out the last years of his prison sentence for murder and arson, describes himself as “ambivalent” about his condition. “I have the opportunity to read books and focus on more important things… I consider it like a stay in a monastery.” He’s released multiple writings and recordings from prison. The exhaustion of easy life, indeed.

Freed from the need to fight for survival, all that turmoil they believe to be coursing through their Viking blood seems to have become completely internalized, existential angst playing out as rebellion against whatever you got. Vikernes explains the low-fi recording quality on his own albums as a “rebellion against good production”, gleefully recounting how he demanded the studio owner give him “the worst mic you’ve got” when it came time to do the vocals, finally screaming into a set of headphones. Why is the music so weird? It was “a rebellion against traditional song structure.” Presumably the decision to take his corn flakes crispy was a rebellion against the softness of society, while Fenriz may have felt his decision to take them soft was a rebellion against freshness, preferring a state of partal decomposition.

With so many unanswered questions, it’s sometimes frustrating that Aites and Ewell spend a good deal of the film just following Fenriz through the streets of Oslo, checking out the cassettes at a street market, watching a parade, or just knocking around, not saying much. Those looking for a thoroughly detailed history that encompasses the entirety of the scene, from either a musical or true-crime perspective, may find it wanting. Admittedly, it’s a lot of ground to cover, and the filmmakers have said that it was a deliberate decision to focus the editing on the small handful of subjects that made it in, to narrow the scope enough to tell one particular story in appropriate detail.

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While Until The Light Takes Us is the most comprehensive film yet produced on the topic, it still barely scratches the blackened surface. (Perhaps a sequel is in store: Vikernes was released from Norwegian prison earlier this year.) But they catch the drift of this crazy thing, and present it to us in a film that still feels tightly wound despite its occasional loose spots. As they slowly unpeel the onion, these intelligent, likeable guys start to say these incredible things, until you wonder how far into the depths of the soul it’s possible to sink. Despite the arguments over what should have been included that are sure to rage on metal message boards upon its release, it’s undoubtedly going to become a cult classic, one of the must-see movies for people fascinated by extremism in any form.

Until The Light Takes Us screens at the Laemmle Sunset 5daily through December 24.