Lords of Chaos: a review

In the documentary ‘Until the Light Takes Us’, Fenriz asked himself ‘like…how the hell did it happen?’ Dunno mate. But maybe going over the same events yet again will help.

***

Finally, black metal’s creation myth gets the big budget treatment. Forged in fire and blood, it’s a story that is retold to each new generation of fans. We have read about it. Watched countless interviews. Obsessively debated it. And now, we have a polished feature film dramatizing this tragedy of Greek proportions.

If you want to know the plot google it. I’m just gonna go ahead and dive in. Spoilers and that. The film does a good job of portraying Oystein Aarseth as stuck between two worlds. One is a fun loving and bright kid, from a happy well-off family, witty and self-assured. The other is obsessed with creating a unique and new brand of Norwegian metal that would walk the evil walk as well as talk the evil talk. Eventually these two identities collide, as the world he has created completely slips from his control, and a last ditch attempt to escape it and live what could have been a normal life is thwarted by Varg Vikernes.

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As for Varg himself, he is portrayed as the antagonist, which in many ways he was. He is narcissistic, petty, jealous, arrogant and ambitious. He also had an unmatched instinct for Norwegian black metal on a musical level; the film acknowledges this. But as a person he does not come off well at all. No doubt the real Varg is rectifying this by cataloguing the inaccuracies on his youtube channel. At this very moment he’s probably pointing out that he actually drank chocolate milk through a straw while murdering Oystein, rather than straight from the glass as seen in the film.

For the sake of the narrative I can see why Varg was portrayed as a baddy through and through. But when watching ‘Until the Light Takes Us’ one sees a very different side to him. Intelligent, witty, charming, and thoughtful. These traits have died a death in the paranoid old racist he is today, but the film seems intent on making him a one dimensional villain to the point where it’s not quite believable. He comes across as a comedy mafia boss at times, strutting around in a dressing gown, treating women as sex objects, obsessed with money, jealous and bullying. I don’t want to labour the point too much because there is a lot of truth in this reading of Varg. And making him a more complex character would have stalled the plot somewhat in an already dense film. It is also not helped by a less than average performance from Emory Cohen.

The other key relationship the film explores is between Oystein and Pelle, aka Dead. It does a good job of showing how the members of Mayhem took advantage of a deeply troubled young man to further the extreme image of Mayhem. It also shows how Oystein may have regretted the way he treated Dead after his suicide. At first it would make the band infamous, but as Oystein matures he realises how he exploited him, how he felt in part responsible for his death, and that he ultimately missed him as a friend.

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Another strong plus is how graphically violent the film is. One advantage of retelling these events on the big screen is that it really brings to life the brutal events that occurred within this scene. It makes apparent in a way no interview or account could what some of these people did. Fantasy clashes with reality. Whether it’s the aftermath of Dead slashing his wrists on stage, or the brutality of the murder sequences, it makes the point once and for all that these events were real. Things got out of control. It wasn’t funny.

Lastly, before I move on to criticisms, is comedy. One of the things that continues to make black metal so compelling is humour. Youth cultures are silly. Young people are silly. They have silly holistic theories about the world and they get upset when the world turns out to be infinitely more complicated. Black metal in many ways was just a more extreme (and therefore sillier) incarnation of punk, or grunge, or flower power. The older we get the more embarrassed we become about this period, and we become embarrassed for the kids currently living through it. The catch is the turbulent late teens have a habit of producing mind-blowing music with an appeal that endures well beyond the age of those who created it.

So onto some misgivings. The first is tonal. The film starts like a coming of age comedy, almost ‘Human Traffic’esque, ‘this is me, this is my band, these are my mates, we have a good time’. Oystein is narrating the story to the audience. A story that would end in his death. The problem with this is that for a significant chunk of the film he is an antagonist. Or at the least a deeply flawed protagonist. He eggs Dead on to self-harm and eventually suicide, he exploits his friends, he bullies and belittles people, he insights crime. I would have been more compelled by this character if we weren’t constantly given an insight into his thoughts through this narration. Distancing the audience just slightly from his mind would have captivated us just a little more. It would also have eased the transition from teen drama to true crime as the film progresses.

Some might argue that the film is going for black comedy. The problem with this reading is that the best black comedies make people laugh at the darkest most violent points in the plot. In ‘Lords of Chaos’ the darkest most violent scenes are anything but funny. It either needed to be a dark coming of age story, with Oystein portrayed as a charismatic young man with many flaws, egged on by an equally complex Varg Vikernes. Or go all out teen comedy, and portray the violent aspects in a more light-hearted fashion. Instead we have Varg as simultaneously villain and comedy relief, and Oystein as the sympathetic character who at times switches to villain. The tonal shift is thrown into sharp relief by the end of the film, with sombre music and shots of Oystein’s friends and family mourning his death. Then suddenly he tells us not to feel sad, because it’s black metal party time. Are we meant to laugh at these people, or cry?

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Despite that, this film gets a strong pass from me. I don’t think it casts these characters in a new pathetic light. A lot of memes doing the rounds seem to imply that black metal fans are upset by ‘Lords of Chaos’ because it makes black metal look so pathetic. I don’t see it that way. I think it’s a slick, stylised retelling of a story we know very well, and it humanises many of aspects of it. Despite overegging the Varg-as-comedy-villain rather than dealing with him as a complex individual like Oystein, the film does a good job of portraying their lives as fun, dangerous, exhilarating, and silly all at once. All the compost that great art grows from.

One final point, the film begins with a  brief introduction to Norway; happy and rich, bland and docile. It ends by reminding us that this is essentially the story of how Norwegian black metal became a thing. And while I’m sure many Norwegians are not best pleased about it, this is ultimately a story that put Norway on the musical map. And whatever tales are told about how this music was made, their posterity as uniquely Norwegian artefacts will outlast the characters behind it. This is black metal, well and truly made in Norway.

For those new to the story who would like to know more about some of the real people involved, the documentary ‘Once Upon a Time in Norway’ comes highly recommended.

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