Paul Greengrass: multi-viewpoint

Review: 22 July, directed by Paul Greengrass

Out on general release and Netflix

On July 22 2011 in Oslo, a car bomb exploded outside the offices of Norway’s Labour prime minister, killing eight people; some time later, on the island of Utøya, 69 members of the Labour youth movement were shot dead by one gunman. The perpetrator of both actions was Anders Breivik, who was then arrested while still on the island.

Commentators on TV and radio were quick to condemn the massacre and, after establishing that he was not a Muslim, dismissed him as a lone fanatic. In the following week, among Europe’s far right, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen and the Dutch Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders dissociated themselves from the murders. As Le Pen said, this was the work of a “lone lunatic who must be ruthlessly punished”, while Wilders called him “a violent and sick character”. Breivik went on trial in 2012 and was convicted of mass murder, to serve the maximum prison sentence in Norway of 21 years. Before the killings, he had put online a 1,500-page European Declaration of Independence to justify his actions.

Paul Greengrass - who has made previous documentary-style thrillers like United 93 and Bloody Sunday - has now given us an account of those fatal hours and its aftermath: both Breivik’s trial and his victims’ recuperation.

That summer I wrote about Breivik’s Declaration:

Like his July 22 victims, however, his main targets aren’t individual Muslims or their organisations, but the ‘politically correct’ or what he dubs ‘cultural Marxists’, whom he sees as clearing the way for ‘Islamisation’. This view is not so distant from the analysis found elsewhere - that Muslims, by trading on liberal goodwill and religious tolerance, will change Europe’s politics and culture. Books such as Reflections on the revolution in Europe: immigration, Islam and the west (2010) are acclaimed on Amazon as “part of a growing literature on the threat presented to Christian or perhaps secular post-Christian Europe by post-war immigration from Islamic countries”.1

Greengrass’s film (based on Åsne Seierstad’s book, One of us: the story of a massacre in Norway - and its aftermath) is multi-viewpoint, with scenes alternating between Breivik, some of his victims, his defence lawyer and even the prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. Just like his work on the 9/11 planes and Derry’s Bloody Sunday, we may already know the broad outline of events - Breivik’s attack and the trial afterwards. Any suspense then as to what happened is muted; rather, we are shown how it happened. As in the plays of Bertolt Brecht, the writer trusts that we will have an interest in the way people do things, not just the tension around what might happen next (as in the recent BBC hit, the teasing Bodyguard).

The dialogue is spare, but pointed. There are no long speeches until the climax of the trial and a line can indicate a whole outlook or problem. For example, when he is first held in custody, Breivik declares that he is a “Knights Templar”, who aims to “take back control” of Europe from Islam.

Throughout his incarceration, Breivik changed his mind about what he called himself politically: at first a Christian knight (the first of many who would make “a coup d’état”), later he came out as a national socialist. His targets, however, were always the same: those he deemed to be on the left - specifically Norwegian social democrats; and Muslims. Breivik was at pains at first to deny he was a racist. He declared himself a Christian cultural conservative. Nazism, he wrote, was just another “hate ideology” along with communism and multiculturalism.

In the Declaration he lists the sort of ‘cultural conservatives’ he hoped to mobilise. They include “anti-Jihad”, those that are “anti-Islamisation” and those who are “pro-Israel”. Next are “racial conservatives - anti-gay, anti-Jewish ... So is he pro- or anti-Jewish - does it depend on how multiculturalist or pro-Israel they are?”2

Breivik’s father was a diplomat and his parents got divorced when he was one year old. His mother was a depressive and hit him. Anders responded to all this by lifting weights and, later, paramilitary training. He wanted to appear “big and strong”. He set up a computer programming business and made a million kroner - some of which he used to set up the attack in Oslo, assisted too by his nine credit cards. But the business was declared bankrupt and he was accused of breaking several laws.


In 22 July, his claim to be the first of many fighters is soon disproved. No other actions follow. Even his mother (Hilde Olausson) is unwilling to testify for him. A really striking moment is when a far-right leader says on the witness stand that he and his party are not about “individual acts of terrorism”. When Breivik hears, he is obviously thrown.

The state is not let off entirely, though we are constantly assured that anyone in Norway is guaranteed a fair trial and a lawyer. However, in a hearing before the trial, the PM is asked about the secret services. They did have information that someone called Breivik had purchased a large amount of fertiliser, which, of course, can be used as an explosive. Despite the growing fear of terrorism in Europe at that time, this was not followed up. The PM has no answer to the inquiry and the viewer is left to surmise whether that zealous customer was bypassed because he had never attended a mosque.

Alongside the prison and court scenes we mainly spend time with two of the victims - Lara (Seda Witt) and Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli). Both were on Utøya when Breivik started shooting. We see the severely wounded Viljar, his loving family and his recuperation. The contrast with the rectitude of Breivik and the court could not be starker. Lara, on the other hand, was psychologically rather than physically affected. Her full name is Lara Rashid and, though this is not emphasised - no headscarf, for example - she is a Norwegian Muslim whom you need not automatically fear.

Is all this a subplot about people as pathetic victims? No, they are more than that - even more than the people shot by Paras in Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday. We witness these young people struggling with their fears - fear of their trauma, of other people and of their assassin. We see them amongst the wide, snowy landscapes of Norway - a setting that can imply both the cold intransigence of their new situation and the free, open space, in which to work out one’s life. With this film Greengrass’s camera - observing, but pertinent - has found a more positive story to tell than, for example, the sterile conflict of United 92, where jihadist violence and counter-violence produce no good outcome.

Jon Øigarden, who plays Breivik’s lawyer, Geir, brings a calm commitment to providing the defence the accused is entitled to. His attitude sustains him through threats, disapproval and the expectations of his client that his public defender also respects him. Breivik is offered a legal plea of insanity, but he finally rejects it, wanting to be held up (whatever the sentence) as the first fighter in Norway’s war against his enemies. To Breivik, these amount to Europe’s million or so Muslims - who are so undeserving of religious tolerance - the left-of-centre government and those “cultural Marxists”. By the latter he means the Frankfurt School, echoing the speeches of US conservative William S Lind.

The Frankfurts were those mainly Jewish émigrés who fled Germany to teach in the US. But both Breivik and Lind failed to understand that those they saw as foreign reds subverting American life had already ditched not only any working class allegiance, but also political revolution as such. They favoured instead a sort of general ‘negativity’ towards bureaucracy and consumerism, while focusing on art works, such as Schoenberg’s 12-tone music and the plays of Samuel Beckett. In the case of the Freudian Herbert Marcuse, it meant advocating sex outdoors rather than in a car. No, I never understood what all this has to do with Marxism either.

But about Breivik I wrote:

[He] may be a psychopath, but he is not a Martian. His politics are quite recognisably a product of the move to the right that has occurred since the 1960s.

The fear and resentment created during ‘globalisation’ - capitalist priorities for migrant labour (and firms migrating to the cheapest labour), as well as disruption of social life in this short-term profit economy - brought forth a grassroots reaction drawing on xenophobia and nationalism: ideologies which have by no means been disregarded by nation-states themselves (eg, “British jobs for British workers,” proclaimed Gordon Brown).3

The film does not go into this context, but at one moment Breivik’s mother complains that “it’s not like it was” - meaning the society she sees around her. It is a brief line, but a telling one.

Capitalism depends on uneven development: inequality and difference not only between national working classes, but within each nation. In Marx’s day, the split was between a “reserve army of labour” - the unemployed - and labourers in productive and “unproductive” sectors.4 Now we have more divisions, such as well-paid ‘third world’ ‘trainees’ and those on benefit (who are often in work as well). The task of uniting the disparate has always been a problem: the difficulty is not only due to the slogans of identity politics.

As Breivik, Anders Danielsen Lie is a thin and cool performer, with a monkish chin beard - suggesting someone more obviously intense than the almost-cuddly Norwegian of the actual trial photos. The film progressively isolates him from others. No-one supports him. He sees himself as the first of many, but he is always the lone killer. Unlike the rogue Islamic State supporters that he in effect copied, he is not spoken of here, or in general, as an example of something larger. The film raises his profile, only to dismiss it - which is fine if you think that acting like one Oslo shooter is the problem. However, when someone tells Breivik, “We’ll beat you”, he replies: “You can’t even see us.”

In the US and no doubt in Europe, the alt-right is talking online about how to go beyond individual acts of terror: that is, how to build a mass movement in the conducive climate of Trump, the anti-immigrant street groups and the populist parties in Hungary, Greece, Holland, France and Germany. They are mainly opposed by the left and that ‘Generation Snowflake’, at which the media sneers - the young who are fed up with loose accommodations to racism, sexism and partial history (‘heritage’): they are, rather, ‘Generation Judgement’. However, the knights who wish to ‘take back’ what was never theirs in the first place might not indeed be big enough yet to enact power - but they are still part of a politics that continues to exert influence.

Mike Belbin


1. New Interventions Vol 13, No4, summer 2011.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. See Capital Vol 1, chapter 25, section 4.