Burning churches and corny chaos
Lords of Chaos mockumentary misses the mark yet leaves the viewer food for thought
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
Rolling Stone maintained that it “should be burned at the stake,” and the Seattle Weekly proclaimed it to be a “bloody mess.” Lords of Chaos (2018) is Jonas Åkerlund’s docudrama film based on the book with the same name, the story of the rise and fall of the group Mayhem and the emergence of black metal in Norway. I had to see it.
My first encounter with black metal was in Bergen three years ago at the USF, the old United Sardine Factory turned cultural center. As I sat in the café waiting to meet a photographer friend, it filled with black-clad young people full of body piercings, runic tattoos, tight black jeans, and t-shirts featuring unreadable names of bands I’d never heard of. I learned that metalheads had come from all over the world to a festival in Bergen, today the black metal capital of the world. My curiosity was sparked.
I learned that black metal came to Norway as an outgrowth of the heavy metal movement in the late 1980s and took off in the following decade. Born out of disgust for bourgeois society, there are defiantly screeching vocals, growling, demoniac blast beats, and satanic lyrics, often in praise of heathen gods. Black metal pushes the boundaries of conventional music to its limits. It’s been described as anti-music or senseless noise, yet it casts its spell on its followers, a strange demonic black magic of sorts.
In the movie, we are introduced to its lead protagonist, Øystein Aarseth, a middle-class Oslo teenager who still lives at home and gets together with his band in the basement. Played by Rory Culkin, Øystein is gifted guitarist who professes his loathing for the society of Christian Norway with its empathy and love of humankind. He takes on the name Euronymous, embraces devil-worship, and forms his band Mayhem. Once underway, the kids borrow his dad’s Volvo and set up a commune at a remote farm property.
Things take off when the odd and introverted Swedish vocalist Per Yngve “Dead” Ohlin (Jack Kilmer) joins the group—and troubled times soon set in. Dead is obsessed with death: he makes himself look like a corpse, kills cats, and sniffs dead birds; filled with self-loathing, he self-harms on stage. In a central scene, Euronymous follows Dead into the woods, where the chronically depressed Swede challenges him to shoot him, but in the end, he is unable to pull the trigger. A few days later, Dead commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. When Euronymous finds him, he callously rushes out to buy a disposable camera to take photos of the corpse to help promote the band. He even saves pieces of the corpse’s cranium to make necklaces for the other band members, a macabre and insensitive gesture.
The band loses its bass guitarist, but soon a new one comes their way from Bergen. Christian (Emory Cohen) approaches Euronymous meekly introducing himself as a fan and is rejected as a “poser,” but later returns as Varg Virkenes, his long mane of hair now dyed black. Christian has made the full conversion into a wolf, symbolized by the name change. He brings a tape to Euronymous’s alternative record shop “Helvete” (Hell) in Oslo, opened with money borrowed from his father. His talent takes Euronymous by surprise, and a new partnership—and rivalry—is formed. The band starts recording with money Varg has borrowed from his mother, and the popularity of Mayhem reaches new heights.
The “Black Circle” has now been formed and what follows is true mayhem: decadent bohemianism, gratuitous sex, a string of arsons, and wanton violence, including murder. Bard “Faust” Ethan (Valter Skarsgård) for no apparent reason violently stabs and kills a gay man in Lillehammer, feeling no remorse. And then there are the church burnings. Varg sets fire to the historic Fantoft stave church in Bergen to prove his inner commitment to heathenism and hatred for Christianity. For Euronymous, it is a sensational publicity stunt, and more church burnings follow. But when Varg is arrested (later released for lack of evidence), the danger of reality begins to set in.
While Varg plots to blow up Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral, Euronymous begins to experience disturbing flashbacks of Dead, an indication of his fear and remorse. There are even undertones of sexual attraction between the two in these scenes, although Åkerlund has given Euronymous a girlfriend (Sky Ferreira) in the film. Fearing an ongoing investigation, he begins to distance himself from the unraveling criminality; he symbolically has her cut his hair. He has broken with Varg, but it is too late to start a new life. A misunderstanding has unfolded between the two, and Varg returns to brutally murder him, and thus the story ends—much to our relief.
Writer and director Jonas Åkerlund was once a black-metal drummer—and at times one only wishes that he had stuck with that. His script, co-authored with fellow Swede Dennis Magnusson, is filled with mundane lines, complete with boastful references to “true Norwegian black metal.” As shocking as the story of Mayhem was in real life, the movie carries a sense of banality or even silliness throughout. There is no real character development, leaving the audience indifferent to the fates of its protagonists. When Varg kills Euronymous, we are somehow glad that the film is coming to close.
At times I found myself wondering if Åkerlund missed some nuances of the English language. The poor casting of the film did not serve him well either. While the footage was shot on location in Norway, one would almost believe that the story was unfolding somewhere in the Midwest. A corny tone prevails, with an un-Norwegian cliché-ridden atmosphere. The film might have been more believable had it been filmed with Norwegian instead of American actors—or just better actors, period.
What did work for me was the glimpse into Norwegian society that Lords of Chaos offers, as strangely muddled as it is. We see a society so indulgent that a group of rebellious kids feel they can more or less do whatever they want, as they borrow money, cars, and eat mom’s spaghetti Bolognese in the comfort of their loathed bourgeois homes. The metalheads of Lords of Chaos proclaim devotion to their misanthropic mission to question and disrupt a conventional society, but it comes across as little more than self-indulgence driven to its limits.
Varg lives in an antiseptically clean white-walled apartment in the one of the most fashionable sections of Bergen and conveniently carries a credit card, and all along, Euronymous uses his parents’ money to fund his folly. The family dynamics behind the scenes are not touched on to give us any insight into what was an enormous tragedy, which left devastating consequences for all involved. Lords of Chaos remains superficial from beginning to end.
But some films are so bad that they are almost good, and for me, Lords of Chaos just about makes the grade. As the credits rolled, my husband and I turned to each other and laughed, and these days, that’s worth a lot. And then we got to thinking about a period of time in the Norwegian musical scene, when oil-rich Norway was evolving into a different society. And if you are curious, you can hear a bit of black metal music too.
In the end, the film offered some food for thought, albeit a difficult pill to swallow as a piece of cinematic art. Lords of Chaos is indeed a “bloody mess,” but if you are able to look beyond its flaws, it may inadvertently offer some insight into a curious and decidedly dark outgrowth of Norwegian society, and there is without a doubt something to be learned.
Lords of Chaos premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and was released in February 2019 in U.S. theaters. For more information, visit the film’s official website, www.gunpowdersky.com/portfolios/lords-of-chaos, or Facebook page, www.facebook.com/LordsOfChaosMovie.
This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBEor call us at (206) 784-4617.