Various Artists
Until the Light Takes Us (documentary)

Documentary by Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell

This 2009 feature documentary covers the lurid beginnings of the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 90s: the murders, the church burnings, and the media panic that accompanied them. Many of us are familiar with these stories, but this is the first time I’ve heard these accounts directly from those who were there. The film features extensive interviews with a host of black metal luminaries – Faust (Emperor), Frost (Satyricon), Garm (Ulver), and Hellhammer (Mayhem) all make appearances, though the majority of the movie follows Fenriz from Darkthrone, and Varg Vikernes, who needs no introduction.

Any illusions or mystique you have of Fenriz – in particular the screaming banshee from Transylvanian Hunger – are wiped away as we follow Gylve Nagell, Fenriz’ everyday identity, through the rainy streets of Oslo. We get to see his apartment! And his kitchen! Nagell is a fairly cheery guy – far less forbidding or hilariously watchable than Gaahl in that classic VBS documentary (find it on YouTube). Nagell also isn’t a very interesting focus for the film, as he’s always chosen to distance himself from the events of the early 90s and thus offers little commentary on them. During one phone interview, he offers some insight by saying that his early lyrics weren’t really shocking or controversial, because they never got out to an audience who weren’t already looking for that content. Fair enough, but he then says that his newer lyrics are truly disturbing, because they focus on death and depression and “this fucking suicidal world of hell” that he’s trapped in. Except that you don’t believe him or his manic tone, especially as he’s perched on a chair in the sunlit office of Moonfog Records.

Varg Vikernes makes for a much more fascinating subject, not least because of what he did and his role at the center of the firestorm. We’ve all seen the pictures of him in Pippi Longstocking braids at his trial, or from prison with his SS suspenders and sideswept Hitler hairdo. Throughout the film, he’s interviewed from his cheery prison cell, sporting a bright blue shirt and a fluffy goatee and looking more like a friendly Nordic cruise line attendant than a murderer and arsonist. He speaks plainly about invasive religious and cultural forces – everything from the Church to McDonalds – which have transformed Norwegian culture over the last millenium. However, the film never gives us any insight as to what wrinkles in his character would make him act on that anger on the first place – it never sheds any light on that initial decision to start burning down churches to get his message across.

Varg expresses frustration that he was never able to follow through on the political component of his arson spree – motivations that would have made it a terrorist act rather than occult hooliganism. Euronymous reported him to the police – partially out of fear, and partially out of jealousy, Varg contends – and by the time Varg was able to speak for himself, the media had turned it into a sensationalized Satanist shitstorm. He claims to have never been interested in or affiliated with Satanism in the first place, but the filmmakers don’t adequately pursue this. Nor do they delve into his involvement with skinheads as a teen, or his affinity for supremacist and NS philosophy during his time in prison. In a film that largely seeks to remain detached and objective, these investigations should have been included.

The murder itself receives better focus – and a thankfully matter-of-fact treatment. Nothing sensational, no re-enactments. Varg describes the conflict in great detail, starting with the jealousy and infighting that split their group. Then came the paranoia that Euronymous was planning to kidnap, torture and kill him. Varg says that he met the threat head-on, and calmly describes the entire fight at Euronymous’ house – although the actual stabbing is waved away as simply “finishing him off.” I couldn’t tell if it was dismissive bravado or just a sheepish reluctance to discuss it in more detail.

I found Hellhammer more chilling. Earlier in the film, he discusses Faust’s murder of “that fucking faggot” in Lillehammer. It reminds us that these men, while at times seeming kind of benign and idealistic, actually do embody the darkness they profess to embrace. The filmmakers seem to shy away from this, though – too afraid to delve deeper into their subjects’ misanthropy. It’s ironic, because for a film that seeks to shine a light on the origins of Norwegian black metal, the filmmakers sometimes don’t shine it brightly enough.

Other times, the light just distorts the musicians into cartoonish shadows. Frost comes off as a truly peculiar character, with his aquiline nose, bee-stung lips and soft demeanor. A scene of him calmly sitting on an airplane in his black leather jacket – with a little boy as his befuddled seatmate – is both odd and amusing, and earlier, listening to him repeatedly describe the “darkness” within him is more emo than eerie. Later in the film, he gets all corpsepainted up for a feverish performance-art show, where he breathes flame, eviscerates a helpless sofa, and then turns the knife on himself. His audience is a crowd of casually-dressed curiosity seekers, and so the scene is more sardonic and sad than disturbing. Abbath and Demonaz (Immortal) also make a few appearances, and if you thought their Black Metal Pro Wrestler shtick was funny, wait until you see them in their Russian Mafia Hit Men costumes. Someone give these guys a talk show.

Ultimately, I did enjoy watching Until the Light Takes Us, simply because the story and the events are still fascinating to me. Yet despite all the access to these musicians and the coverage of black metal’s bloody beginnings, I can’t call this an excellent documentary, for several reasons.

First, it’s an unstructured mess. The first twenty minutes are aimless and slow, as the filmmakers try to set up a dichotomy between Varg and Fenriz that never quite takes hold. When the story of the church burnings and murders finally gets going, the film is much more engrossing, but even then a narrator or stronger focus would have helped immensely.

Second, the filmmakers don’t craft any kind of strong voice for themselves, either as observers or critics. An objective take is fine, but I thought they missed out on some opportunities for wry commentary. For instance, Varg complains that the original political intent of the church arson was then polluted by copycat hordes of firebrand fans who left Satanic graffiti at the sites they torched. The filmmakers could have easily paralleled that with the eventual commercialization and worldwide popularity of black metal. Fenriz says earlier that black metal was always supposed to remain in obscurity – what the filmmakers could have pointed out is that in the microcosm of underground music, the genre is now as popular as the big American brands that Varg and Fenriz were railing against in their youth.

However, the film’s biggest sin is that the lure or appeal of black metal is never firmly established; the music is barely allowed to screech for itself. While there are snippets of songs played here and there throughout the film, there are almost none in the first fifteen minutes, where an introduction was most crucial. If you were new to the genre, you wouldn’t get a clear sense of why those early albums were so unique and why they still remain so captivating. Instead, we frequently get haunting shots of the Norwegian landscape with skittery, ambient electronica (Boards of Canada) on the soundtrack. Perhaps this is to establish a contrast with the black metal that should come blasting in afterwards, but sadly, it never really does. There’s barely even any band or performance footage. The filmmakers simply fail to present black metal in all its fuzzy, venomous, epic and alien majesty, which is a pretty bad way to explain the events that surrounded its bizarre and violent birth.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
May 13th, 2010

Comments

  1. Commented by: Stiffy

    Great review, Jordan. I have this coming. Unfortunately any doc that comes out on this subject is going to get criticized to the max. I feel I can sit back and enjoy it though with out feeling that I knew more than the doc did.


  2. Commented by: seaofcartilage
  3. Commented by: Jordan Itkowitz

    thanks, I enjoyed yours a lot too.


  4. Commented by: Facial La Fleur

    Excellent read, Jordan. Sounds like you should have been an associate director on this project and it would have met it’s full potential and point.


  5. Commented by: mccumberv

    Very good review, I envy your writing, you enlightened me and made me laugh out loud, I love Immortal one of my all time favorite bands, but Abbath is freakin’ hilarious, the corpsepaint is an easy target of course, but if you ever seen him talk or do his guitar instructionals, holyshit he is funny, so I think I will try to get my hands on this DVD just to see him in those Russian mafia outfits, haha, that was great.


  6. Commented by: Jordan Itkowitz

    Are those on YouTube? I’d like to see those. And anything with Horgh, because as they say “When a man has grown tired of Horgh’s nipples, that man has grown tired of life.”


  7. Commented by: Biff_Tannen

    Yeah, Abbath’s guitar instructional vids are on youtube. They are pretty sad, actually. He can’t even play his own songs …..


  8. Commented by: PF

    I met the doc filmmakers at a Peter BEste exhibition in Tokyo. I was quite disappointed since they seemed to be hipster-esque with no deep love for the genre. I guess I feel childishly protective of it since I’ve been a big BM fan since the early ’90s and want to keep it “mine” – dumb, I know. Glad to hear the docco isn’t a clusterfuck and that it’s actually a good faith attempt to explore the genre in depth. Looking forward to watching it.


  9. Commented by: gabaghoul

    PF – that kind of makes sense now that the filmmakers didn’t already have an innate love for the genre before doing this – see my last paragraph.

    Sam Dunn, on the other hand, obviously loves black metal – check out the 30-minute mini doc on disc 2 of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey.


  10. Commented by: Cynicgods

    To be fair, Abbath looks completely wasted in that youtube vid. He’s hilarious, though. Always knew he would be funny in person. All of those Immortal videos, covers and pics OBVIOUSLY come from someone with a wicked sense of humor.

    I saw some parts of this documentary. Mainly the interviews with Fenriz and Varg. I found them utterly insipid and boring. Also, including Black Dice and Boards Of Canada (as much as I like Boards) among other indie/electronica bands in a black metal documentary’s soundtrack is just wrong. You just lost a customer, ya hipster pricks! ;)


  11. Commented by: Cynicgods

    I forgot to mention, your review is excellent(as usual), Jordan. You’re a pretty cool writer, man. You should try your hand at some fiction, methinks.


  12. Commented by: gabaghoul

    thanks Cynny; only fiction I’ve written lately (besides stuff for the games I work on) is that Sanctus Nex review :(


  13. Commented by: Stiffy

    I think you should write a book about Uncle Cynny and The Stiff. Oh the wacky adventures.


  14. Commented by: gabaghoul

    Will do. It’ll be called “Who Put Sour Cream in My Mother’s Taco?”


  15. Commented by: Cynicgods

    Mmmmmm… tasty. Now I’m hungry. :P


  16. Commented by: Omens

    I heard this dvd sucked and had horrible camera work. KillKoreKids-


  17. Commented by: gabaghoul

    camerawork was ok, mostly handheld, nothing out of the ordinary. didn’t really notice, as I said, there were other more significant issues.


  18. Commented by: Mrityu

    I’m sure you remember the part where Varg described how he used to spend time in Helvete sitting in the dark corner with Gylve talking about Corn flakes,”do you like them crispy or do you like them soft?” ..and then he described how they dissed “heavy metal guys” because they had no interest in them “and then these heavy metal guys came in with nails all over their jackets because they had the impression -you have to have nails- you know?”:- Varg Vikernes.

    The reviewer sounds like one of those heavy metal guys who has the impression that all the role playing Black Metal games are reality and want to ignore the fact that these musicians (Gylve,Varg etc) are actually bunch of elites who live a simple life. They are not fire throwing demons , dragon riders or dark lords in real world I’m sure the reviewer even take false kingdom “blashyrkh” serious. I loved the movie because the makers focused on the reality of Black Metal and Black Metal musician’s lives. Soundtrack was awesome I’m GLAD they didnt use too many “brootal” songs.
    The movie was great i enjoyed it and if you are one those heavy metal people who lives in an alternate reality than this movie is not for you.


  19. Commented by: capapple

    i love the part where fenriz actually says “one of my least favourite artists is from…. his voice fades to being unsure of his facts….arggh central America”. “it is the women who paints women with very strong eyebrows she’s way political”. He says he much prefers exhaustion of life art and troubled art..
    Frida kahlo is the artist he is talking about and the political views she expresses are the same as his. She’s actually Mexican and she paints with two main expressions one is her country being overtaken by America and western traditions….THE SAME AS HIS VIEWS……two is she was in a bus accident and had a pole tear through her vagina and out her neck. Leaving her disabled and lives a very troubling life in hospital…. He is an utter idiot and is talking complete rubbish. Apart from the him the documentary is cleaver no narrator leaves the documented to sculpt the documentary with rawness.


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