Review: UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US (2008)

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In anticipation of the release of LORDS OF CHAOS in February, I thought I’d offer up my own perspective about UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US, a documentary about Norwegian Black Metal that I originally saw in 2010 on Netflix. A documentary that presents its ideas in waves, it is a cleverly crafted film that doesn’t appear to ask much of its audience, at first glance. UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US takes a novel approach to film making.

You only once or twice hear the filmmakers’ voices ask questions, and in the film, you never see the two filmmakers, Audrey Ewell, and Aaron Aites. One would think that would make for a bland film, but as it turns out, the film’s subjects have plenty to say for themselves, eager to put themselves on record perhaps to make black metal a less misunderstood music genre. Ewell and Aites likely understood this, and as such, do not have an agenda to push. The audience is allowed to absorb and reflect before moving on to the next topic, at least initially, and allowed to draw their own conclusions about the veracity of the statements presented by those in the film.

In Scandinavia in the late 1980s, an extreme brand of metal known as “black metal” started. Some of the bands that characterized this music’s first movement included, but were not limited to, Bathory, Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor, and Darkthrone. The three major players in this documentary are Varg Vikernes (BURZUM), Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell (DARKTHRONE), and Kjetil “Frost” Haraldstad.

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We also briefly hear from Bard “Faust” Eithun (EMPEROR), a convicted murderer who also did time, giving his thoughts about the church burnings, the murder he was convicted for, and the “Black Circle” group of youths who made up the black metal scene at the time.

Together, these men provide an account of the production and production quality of black metal music. They also provide a description of characters‘ in the early black metal scene attitudes toward themselves and each other. There are also descriptions of the scene itself, the record labels these men worked with for their early albums, and the shop that they opened called Helvete where they sold black metal merchandise and records out of. There is also an interlude in which a Swedish visual artist, Bjarne Melgaard, works with Frost to create “performance art”, and offers Fenriz a painful gaze into the past at his gallery where dozens of pictures from Fenriz’s youth haunt him.

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Being familiar with British punk from high school, during my initial watching of UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US, I was strongly reminded of The Sex Pistols, and the shop called Sex (like the shop Helvete), and the extreme music scene that sprang up around these individuals during the music’s time, so much so that I almost didn’t even question it. Like punk musicians, Norwegian black metal musicians created a “lo-fi” sound for their music, and among many, but not all, an “extreme” attitude toward Christianity and politics emerged, with undercurrents of Neo-Nazism.

What struck me the most about the Norwegian black metal scene was this: I was learning about a bunch of young men who were all top-notch musicians, in some form or another. Another thing noticed was they were all largely from middle-class families, and enjoyed (to quote Varg at one point), “an idyllic society” of Norway’s religious, low-crime, low-poverty, strong democratic system taking care of the people and making the existence of these young men soul-crushingly boring. So boring, in fact, that these men decided to take aim at religion, capitalism and commercialism and rebel against it in their own way.

Fenriz offers many of his thoughts and experiences about black metal and his other compatriots in the scene, namely Varg, from the road on his way to meet artist Melgaard.  He also does at home in his tiny, cramped apartment filled with black metal records and IKEA furniture. Frost is the most chilling and at the same time most endearing, the figure that we get to know the least, and we see him on the road as well, to meet Melgaard in Italy where a tiny child seated on the plane next to him stares at him with rapt interest.

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Frost taking himself seriously, indeed, opens the opportunity for satirists like Harmony Korine to create their own interpretation of the subject matter, during one of the “waves” in which we experience the art that Norwegian black metal inspires for various mediums. However, Frost, with his haunting, violent performance art, encapsulates the feel of live black metal in what feels like a searing tribute to Dead from Mayhem, where he destroys his stage, his props, and mutilates himself on stage to the shock of a close-pressed, mesmerized Italian crowd. The visual artist interlude by Melgaard slows down the pacing of the film, but Fenriz talking about Frida Kahlo is interesting, “It’s this perfect disease of being repressed, you want everything to be shiny. I prefer the wealthy and troubled art, that comes from the exhaustion of easy life,” he says. Perhaps he realizes-or not-that this is a perfect comparison to how black metal culture arose. Ewell and Aites are of course mysteriously silent in making this perfect point.

Varg gives his diatribes about religion, politics, and the black metal scene from his perspective from prison, as he was finishing serving the last of his sentence at the time that Ewell and Aites solicited his opinions for the documentary before 2009. Varg appears contemplative, but unrepentant for his choices; unfortunate, too, because often prison can be a time capsule for an inmate to study their choices. Indeed, Varg seems eager to offer his ideas, but when he implicates fellow musician Euronymous in Mayhem, his recount of his murder of Euronymous is nothing short of a head trip.

Without Ewell or Aites offering anything themselves, he manages to definitely convince me that he is unhinged. While remaining neutral, Ewell and Aites also show us footage of the unburnt churches, with one of the titles being “FANTOFT STAVE CHURCH….” with the next title appearing several seconds later “…BUILT 1150 AD”. A few sequences later, it is shown burning to the ground. Varg mentions at one point that “in order to build the new, you have to destroy the old”, and he’s obviously referencing Christianity.

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As Tom Mes, film critic and co-founder of Midnight Eye, and author of Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike, is quoted (in DVD’s insert): “Vikernes decries the annihilation of indigenous Norwegian culture by Christianity and Americanization but advocates the exact same thing when he motivates his beliefs with the motto ‘If you wanna build something new, you have to destroy the old first.’ Not to mention his briefly glimpsed (suggested?) period as a Nazi sympathizer: few powers were ever as unabashed about their desire to destroy cultures and impose their own dubious values than the founders of the Third Reich.” Seems like a fitting quote, when you consider that it was Varg who burned down dozens of churches in Norway. Whether that was at the goading of Euronymous (of Mayhem) or not, Ewell and Aites leave up to the audience to decide.

Together, Varg, Fenriz, and Frost make up the mind, heart, and body, respectively, of black metal, with all the peripheral accounts keeping the perspective fresh and its characters colorful. This movie is a slow burn, but well worth the payoff if you keep your thinking cap on and keep reminding yourself of the disclaimer that “Opinions expressed by the subjects in this film are not necessarily those of the filmmakers or anyone else”. UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US will, amusingly, serve to expose the worst of intelligent, bright, but oh-so-psychotic Varg, who gamed the Norwegian penal system and probably well-disposed to have more time in jail than he received, serving only 15 years of his 21-year sentence. It also shows just how much talented and prolific musicians like Fenriz, Frost and the remaining members of Mayhem love music and atmosphere.  With Fenriz in particular, he approaches the black metal sound and atmosphere academically, even when he is being genuinely funny.

If ‘Nick Pinkerton of The Village Voice wrote, “The filmmakers seem cowed into obeisance by their subjects… [the film] arrives a decade too late to add much’, in 2009, then my review in 2019 certainly is not relevant. I don’t believe for a second that Ewell and Aites are “cowed into obedience”, but are always being vigilant, putting together a film that shows, not tells, its audience what events transpired in Norway in the early 1990s, and gives the audience a chance to form their own conclusions from some of the very strong opinions held in this story. UNTIL THE LIGHT TAKES US strives to serve as a definitive account of the events that occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Norway, and Ewell and Aites take no prisoners.

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