Lonely spaces, interior and exterior

A conversation with Erik Skjoldbjærg, director of the quietly unsettling film Pyromaniac

A man walking up to a burning house.

Photo courtesy of NFI.no
Trond Nilssen plays a firefighter/arsonist in a film that explores the dark sides of both individuals and communities.

Andrew Penn Romine
Seattle, Wash.

The opening scene of Erik Skjold­bjærg’s 2016 film Pyromaniac (Pyromanen), screened at the Seattle International Film Festival this summer, elicits an immediate sense of isolation, a deep disconnect from the world. In dim headlights, a lonely stretch of road unfurls across the gray, forested hills of southern Norway. It’s a scene that evokes the desolate highways of David Lynch, complete with dissonant soundtrack and building tension. The driver is the camera, a restless point-of-view character on a mission of destruction anchored in a profound sense of alienation.

That character is Dag (Trond Nilssen), a troubled young man returned to his village after a stint in the military. His father is fire chief Ingemann (Per Frisch), a respected community leader ready to retire and have Dag take over. Dag’s a firefighter, too, rushing to the scene of the latest fires with his father. Of course, unbeknownst to the elder Ingemann, Dag is also a pyromaniac, secretly responsible for setting the very fires they fight.

Dag’s mother, Alma (Liv Bernhoft Osa), hopes her son will settle down. And yet Dag’s inability to make friends, his awkward, proto-romantic interactions with the wife of another firefighter, and a listless enthusiasm for his mail carrier job all point to signs that Dag is not well. His parents refuse to acknowledge this until it is far too late.

Based on a true story and largely inspired by the book Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, Pyromaniac chronicles Dag’s pyromaniac compulsions as the villagers’ suspicions about him grow. He is eventually caught, but it’s not a film about a manhunt; it’s about one young man’s alienation from his community.

For all that, Dag’s motivations for setting the fires are barely examined. There’s no why in Pyromaniac, only how. It was always director Skjoldbjærg’s intent to keep us distanced from Dag’s inner turmoil, an approach he appreciated in Heivoll’s book. Skjoldbjærg reflects instead on Dag’s actions through his world, his community, and his family.

Director Erik Skjoldbjærg.

Photo courtesy of NFI.no
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg.

“I felt like the character and the whole landscape were linked,” he says. The bleak countryside is a character in itself. “We shot the film where the actual events took place. I wanted to capture the strong sensation of its physicality—Dag’s world was very important to his story.

“We filmed at dawn and dusk, which is demanding because you only have two windows in which to work each day. We wanted that magic light, though, for Dag to lurk about. He’d set fire to something and then he’d try to get home in time to be the first one to get out and fight the fire. It was some kind of sport for him.”

In conjunction with the physical geography, Skjoldbjærg felt the contours of Dag’s rural community captured another facet of his character.
“When you grow up in a small community, sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in. No one’s particularly nasty to you; it’s just this sense of being excluded. I could identify with that a little bit, because I came from a small, rural area in Norway, too.”

Skjoldbjærg believes that in some ways his village enables Dag’s pyromania. “It’s strange that no one actually realized what he was doing—or at least no one was willing to say it. There’s a moral code in the village with a lot of positive values about taking care of each other. To put the finger of blame on one of your own is taboo.”

Indeed, the village casts outward suspicions on strangers, from drifters to the occasional innocent motorist. The desire to blame outsiders is so strong that even in the face of mounting evidence, they refuse to see Dag as the source of the fires.

“I interviewed the locals,” Skjoldbjærg continues, “the police said they really did suspect him, but they didn’t know how to get a handle on it because everyone in the community kept saying he was such a great kid. In many ways, we went through this on a national level with the mass shooting in Norway in July 2011 [by Anders Breivik]. Everyone thought it must be someone from a different country or culture. When it turned out it was someone [from Norway], it was very hard to come to terms with that.

“I felt like I wanted to comment on that; even though it’s nowhere near the same sense of violence in the movie, there are some of the same social mechanisms at play.”

Ultimately though, the film provides the most intimate sense of Dag’s slide into mania through his parents’ eyes. His mother frowns at his late hours. The elder Ingemann can’t help but take notice of the forensic evidence that no one else but Dag could leave behind. Confronted by another firefighter, Ingemann has to face the truth. He falls into depression and an almost terminal malaise. It’s easier to lie abed than confront reality. Until the final scenes of the film, neither parent is willing—or able—to see this terrible truth.

“They go through various stages of denial,” Skjoldbjærg explains. “There’s a Norwegian expression, ‘you’re the best lawyer of your kids.’ His parents give him the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly, they’ve taken too many steps too far in defending Dag no matter what.”

How does Skjoldbjærg think the community reinforces their denial?

“I think they get too much time to reflect upon their loss. ‘What if it’s true?’ They only have one kid, and that makes them more vulnerable. They live in a small community, and Dag’s father is the respected fire chief. You’re very dependent on social status in these little villages.”

The real-life “Dag” was eventually acquitted on psychological grounds. He lived the rest of his life in the same village. While the film doesn’t portray that, it informed Skjold­bjærg about Dag’s journey.

“It didn’t work out very well, I’m afraid,” Skjoldbjærg says. “Dag remained chained to that outsider role which he’d carved out for himself. I think deep down, he was reaching out for people, but the fire became his best friend. It cemented his fate. From then on, he had to embrace that outsider status just to survive.”

That’s as much insight into Dag as Skjold­bjærg is willing to give. “You leave the theater feeling unsettled, which is great,” he says, “and that sort of mystery deepens the film. I’m very pleased with [Trond Nilssen’s] portrayal of Dag. He’s not from a traditional acting background but brings a strong sense of presence and sensuality to the character. Playing both the pyromaniac and the fireman is tricky.”

Pyromaniac, ultimately, leaves the audience to ponder the inner shapes of Dag’s obsession by contemplating his swirling fires, the bleak yet beautiful landscapes of his country, and the actions of his community. It’s a geography worth reflecting on.

Pyromaniac has not received a wider release in the United States at the time of this writing. The book, Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, is widely available. A review from the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American can be read at www.norwegianamerican.com/arts/before-i-burn-blends-fiction-with-memoir/. Skjoldbjærg’s current project, Occupied, a near-future series about a soft-occupation of Norway by Russia is streaming on Netflix.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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