Lords of Chaos (2019) by Jonas Åkerlund
A conversation between Andrew Swafford and Mike Thorn
ANDREW: I watched Lords of Chaos as a relative outsider to the world of Black Metal, and I imagine that insider/outsider perspectives are going to be pretty pertinent to this discussion.
So – cards on the table – here was the extent of my knowledge before watching the film:
When I used to peruse online music forums, I had heard the name Burzum thrown around a lot, but I only listened for long enough (a matter of minutes) to have the knee-jerk reaction that it was too abrasive for me to enjoy. I do listen to a few bands that I’ve seen referred to as black metal or black metal-inspired (Ulver and Deafheaven), but I get the sense that they’re on the tamer end of the spectrum.
I had somehow, through cultural osmosis, learned that some of the people involved in the black metal movement were guilty of burning down churches.
I knew that using V’s as U’s (e.g. “Trve Norwegian Black Metal”) is, like, a whole meme.
So, that’s where I was going into Lord of Chaos, a film that is primarily interested in doing a historical excavation of the early black metal scene, holding its foundational figures (particularly Dead, Euronymous, and Varg a.k.a. Burzum) up to the light and inspecting them for...Toxicity? Authenticity? Humanity? Intelligence? I’m not really sure what its angle is or whether or not it works, which is why I was eager to make this review into a dialogue piece with someone who has more of an insider perspective.
This thing was directed by a former Black Metal drummer, and I watched it in an audience full of leather-clad dudes who shouted a lot during the trailers (and sometimes during the movie). It seems like most people who have reviewed the film on Letterboxd have some sort of passionate stance about black metal, which, in almost every case, has elicited anger: people either being mad that these musicians were/are geniuses and this movie portrays them as idiotic, inauthentic edgelords, or people being mad that these musicians were/are hyper-problematic (one is a literal murderer and has a white supremacist YouTube channel) and this movie portrays them as sympathetic. In interviews, the director has positioned himself as somewhere in the middle, reminding us that these musicians/criminals were “basically children...young boys playing around with symbols.”
So, as a work that, again, seems primarily interested in the project of framing these guys (and I definitely want to get into the way the movie uses formal qualities to do that), I’m honestly baffled as to how much of a success or failure it is. Is it a success because, as Lydia said in her Tomb Raider review, it’s pissing off the right people (in this case: metalheads who glorify these guys)? Or is it a failure because it’s not actually moving the needle in how they’re perceived?
Mike, I know you’re much more of a metalhead than me and probably know the fact and fiction of this movie better than I do (the tagline is that it’s “based on truth...and lies,” whatever that means), so I’m curious: what do you think this movie is doing in terms of character framing, and how do you feel about the way that it does it?
MIKE: One of the first things that strikes me about Lords of Chaos is its complex approach. It absolutely embraces its fictional format’s liberties. There are legions of black metal scholars and devotees out there who could nitpick the minutia out of this film, and I don’t pretend to be one of them. However, I do love the music and throughout the years I’ve seen many documentaries and interviews featuring the people involved--from what I know, there are obvious and pointed differences between what seems to be the “reality” and director Jonas Åkerlund’s cinematic interpretation. Most notably, the character of Ann-Marit (Sky Ferraira) seems to be completely manufactured, and the film depicts Euronymous (Rory Culkin) as extremely innocent and naive, whereas everything I’ve seen/read/heard suggests someone more genuinely misanthropic and angry. It’s also worth noting that Varg Vikernes and some of Mayhem’s remaining members are opposed to the film’s depiction of events.
In a strange way, these disjuncts between actuality and representation enrich the film’s commentary (which focuses largely on the limits of the “authentic” via performative persona and “insider” versus “outsider” perspectives). While director Jonas Åkerlund played drums briefly for Swedish black metal band Bathory, he was never directly in touch with the goings-on of the Norwegian black metal scene; in fact, he left Bathory early to pursue a career in filmmaking, going on to direct many music videos and the hyper-stylized crime-drama Spun (2002) (which, incidentally, features a cameo by Judas Priest’s Rob Halford). I suspect Åkerlund’s background contributes to the film’s wonderful aesthetic duality, which slides between bright, music video bombast and some moments of genuinely unflinching brutality.
And this speaks to the director’s confident, assertive directorial approach: the style of Lords of Chaos seems inspired to some degree by Martin Scorsese’s work, especially GoodFellas (1990) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). I’ll be the first to say that a lot (if not most) of Scorsese-derivative films can be agonizing to sit through, but Åkerlund effectively applies certain formal tics (e.g. the rib-nudging and sardonic protagonist voice-over) conscientiously while also paying heed to the underlying ideological mechanics of Scorsese’s films. Like GoodFellas and Wolf, Lords of Chaos locks the audience into its protagonist’s subject experience and concerns itself largely with the particular codes of masculinity and ethics within its subcultural world. I think this choice helps clarify the film’s ideological “ambivalence” you’ve described, Andrew. That is, Åkerlund interprets these characters as angry adolescents caught up in the momentum of their situation. He definitely doesn’t depict them as ideologically self-reflective in any way, going so far as to suggest they are “young boys playing around with symbols,” as you’ve quoted above. This is a rather bold exercise in demythologizing, which to me, ends up raising enough interest to overshadow many of the problems.
I haven’t really touched on the film’s formal/visual approach in detail, although I did find it confident and well-handled on that level. How do you think the film’s choices in framing/editing lined up with its content?
ANDREW: I’m glad you’ve circled us back to the film’s formal qualities, as they’re inseparable from the film’s relationship to its own characters, and certainly more important than any historical quibbles that the devotees might want to nitpick, as you said. For science, I watched a couple of Varg’s YouTube videos in which he responds to the film, and he unsurprisingly dismisses the whole thing as “fake news” but he’s fixated on tiny things, like whether or not Euronymous cut his hair before he was killed, or whether or not Euronymous had a girlfriend. I’m less interested in the invention of the girlfriend (Ann-Marrit) and more interested in how the film frames her.
There’s one scene in particular that really stuck out to me formally – and not really in a good way? I’m referring to the scene in which Euronymous is visited by Ann-Marrit, who offers to hold a photoshoot for him in his corpse paint. All of a sudden, they begin kissing, and the film launches into this fairly long montage love scene. It’s shot in a dreamy, passionate soft focus and close-up shots that focus on the characters’ faces rather than their bodies (Euronymous is still in his corpse paint, which is just kind of objectively funny), with the calm blue walls creating this heavenly aura around them – and it’s all set to ethereal music by none other than Sigur Rós (there is actually an amazing amount of Sigur Rós in this black metal biopic, which is a choice I’m curious as to how you feel about more generally).
The scene is formally very different from every other instance of sex in the film, which I believe are exclusively rapid-fire flashes of Varg having forceful sex with numerous nameless women while metal music blasts in the background – the camera is usually looking down from above at an odd angle, as well, which keeps us distanced from this sex that we’re clearly meant to see as vulgar indulgence. The formal qualities of Euronymous’s sex scene, however, which comes at a major turning point in the narrative, seems to function exclusively to romanticize the emotional catharsis of Euronymous. He has distanced himself from the problematic dudes he founded Mayhem with, and now he’s being rewarded with and/or saved by this goddesslike female figure who I later learned was wholly invented for the film.
As with many things about Lords of Chaos, I’m actually not sure how to feel about this scene, as it is firing off lot of synapses at once: it uses cinematic language to suggest that escaping the black metal community is healthy for Euronymous, while awkwardly including his corpse paint in the scene to remind us that he’s very much still a member at heart; it also uses what is essentially the formalism of softcore pornography to grant this catharsis, which might be fine if this female character had any development or function in the narrative at all other than to offer Eyronymous symbolic fulfillment through sexual pleasure – she doesn’t. If the movie is really interested in exploring and exposing the immaturity of dudes caught in a self-created whirlpool of hypermasculinity – and I agree that it is – I think it might have been more effective by granting more humanity to the women on the fringes of that whirlpool.
This is an approach that I wish the movie would apply more generally as well: pulling back just a little bit further to show the audience what’s happening outside of the bubble of these characters. Norway is obviously not the hellscape that these kids say it is. Their moms are paying for their record deals and making their favorite dinners – I would have loved more of that context to be included, as I think that it is still fairly easy to forget about and get caught up in the insular, hermetically sealed culture of “The Black Circle,” as they call it. This is what you call being “locked in” to the characters’ insular world, and there’s a lot of formalism to work through these scenes too: the way the film frames the church burnings, the metal show, and the early party scene, especially. All of these sequences I think run the risk of seeming too “awesome” and “badass” to allow for critical thought that the movie inspires elsewhere. (Related: There was a great Letterboxd review of Bone Tomahawk recently by nathaxnne wilhelmina that explored way in which “badass aesthetics” always sort of point towards fascism whether they mean to or not, which I find especially interesting here, in light of Varg playing with Nazi symbolism without a real ideological intent.)
I think that it’s apt for you to bring up Scorsese, as I’ve internally struggled with his films in recent years – especially The Wolf of Wall Street – just as I have with Lords of Chaos. I think there’s absolutely a critical reading of that film, but, as my good friend Michael O’Malley has said in conversation about the movie, it is also put together in such a way that can validate any worldview that you walk into the movie with. If you think the hedonistic life of a high-power stockbroker is exploitative, the movie will (and is likely intended to) validate that, but if you think the hedonistic life of a high-power stockbroker is cool, the movie will (unintentionally) validate that too. So I agree with you that Lords of Chaos seems to exist somewhere in Scorseseland in terms of its relationship to its characters and their behavior, but it’s interesting that rather than validating all viewpoints, it seems to be frustrating all of them.
I’m starting to write in a circle here, so I’ll throw it back to you and rephrase a few of my questions here: Do you think the film’s “locked in” approach to the world of the Black Circle is as effective a more context-rich alternative might be? How do you feel about the ostensibly badass aesthetics of how that world is framed? And what’s with all that Sigur Rós?
MIKE: I think a more context-rich approach would result in a totally different film. It’s difficult to say whether or not such a thing would be “better” (although I suspect not). From what I gather, the source material concerns itself with the social, political and historical tensions between Christendom and pagan belief systems, but Åkerlund commits fully to the view that these characters behave without any real understanding of ideological ramifications.
I want to push up against the idea that any form of “badass aesthetics” gestures inevitably to fascism. I find this notion intensely problematic at best, and at worst... well… hideously fascist. I have no idea how one would go about defining the parameters of a “badass aesthetic,” but for the purposes of this review, let’s assume we’re discussing some of the aesthetic traditions surrounding metal music. Does Judas Priest point to fascism simply because leftist, pro-LGBTQ+ frontman Rob Halford wears leather clothing and plays heavy music? What do we do with the aggressively anti-fascist industrial metal band Ministry? I could name countless other counterexamples, of course (including punk anarchism and the actual antifa movement), but I’ll just leave it with these two high-profile metal bands for now. In the case of Varg Vikernes, we’re looking at someone who does in fact currently harbor fascist views, but Åkerlund believes that Vikernes has retroactively applied such beliefs to lend political heft to his senseless past actions. Whether or not that’s true, it’s the interpretation that drives this film, and it aligns with the director’s view of “young boys playing with symbols.”
The first act’s general high energy and excitement serves as a counterpoint for the second and third acts’ tragedies. I think it would make for ineffective dramaturgy and authorial perspective to cast judgment on these characters from beginning to end – I prefer art that submerges itself in the contexts of its subjects and worlds. By depicting these people as shit-disturbing adolescents rather than demonic forces of destruction, Lords of Chaos already provides a fascinatingly subversive and novel point-of-view. If the film raises tensions, then that is to its benefit.
As for Sigur Rós: they certainly wouldn’t be my first pick for this soundtrack if I were the one calling all the shots, but the music didn’t impede my experience.
ANDREW: I think your point about not casting judgement from beginning to end being effective dramaturgy is a convincing one. I’m still sympathetic to the perspective of nathaxnne about aesthetics and fascism, but ultimately it is more of an audience problem and less of an artist problem: when an audience member is engaging with a piece of art on a very shallow surface level, I feel as though they can very easily come away with the wrong idea – say, a right-leaning Ministry fan who feels as though the aesthetic of the music validates some sense of hypermasculine dominance, without ever digging deep enough into the artistry to engage with the frontman’s own anti-fascist views. Again, I’m not a metalhead so I may be projecting my own anxieties onto a subject I don’t know enough about, but I often wrestle with the question of how clearly and apparently an artist’s intentions should be stated when it comes to issues like this. How responsible should an artist be for the viewpoints they may be unintentionally validating? On the one hand, I as a film critic never want to condemn complexity and ambiguity outright, but on the other hand there are actual Nazis now whose whole modus operandi is exploiting plausible deniability and ironic distance to grow their numbers, so I’m squeamish about art with aesthetics that bump up against that stuff. I encourage people to go check out nathaxnne’s piece in full to consider the question for themselves.
On a somewhat related note, I guess my final question is a pretty simple one: why do you think Lords of Chaos has been so divisive among black metal fans and non-fans alike? Also: you wrote on Letterboxd that the film was “light years away from perfect, but still good” – so where is it do you personally feel the film fell short, if not in the areas I’ve touched on?
MIKE: First off, I’d like to express my admiration and respect for nathaxnne’s work – I think their voice is vital, distinct and consistently interesting. I always love reading what they have to say.
As for the divisive reactions to Lords of Chaos (and my own ambivalent response) – it’s complicated. For true devotees, black metal signifies much more than a mode of aesthetic expression. Historically, this was a very insular and ideologically committed counterculture, and I suspect that a lot of purists are probably horrified by the upsurge in surface-level popular appropriation (at least to some extent, Pitchfork and Vice culture are absolutely to blame, with the latter being involved in Lords of Chaos). Granted, this story’s broad details have made their way into popular consciousness over time. For many non-fans, there’s probably a degree of wariness surrounding this fictionalized representation because, to some extent, they might be aware that the actual events are steeped in fascism, violence and self-harm.
My own ambivalence stems primarily from Åkerlund’s depiction of Euronymous--I think the film probably goes too far in its attempts to render Euronymous “sympathetic,” when a more morally complex representation would’ve aligned more closely with its overall approach and affect. I also agree with your objections regarding Ann-Marit, specifically the way her character is reduced to the position of catalyst for Euronymous’s “transformation.” However, I think the film is worthwhile both as an aesthetic object and as a vehicle for interesting questions surrounding extreme music, persona and identity, masculinity and countercultural signification.
Thanks so much for inviting me to discuss Lords of Chaos, Andrew. It was fascinating to hear your thoughts.
ANDREW: Absolutely, Mike – thanks for your perspective. This is definitely a movie that necessitates dialogue, and I appreciate your willingness to do that here.