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Chaos Theories: Jonas Åkerlund’s Black Metal Movie
Joel McIver , April 12th, 2019 10:10

A review of the blood-letting, devil-worshipping, geek-mocking black metal film Lords Of Chaos, plus an interview with its director Jonas Åkerlund

All images courtesy: Jonas Åkerlund

Can you separate art from artist? Or, more specifically, is it reasonable to enjoy music made by racist, murderous vandals? I imagine the answer varies according to the individual, but Lords Of Chaos, the recent film starring Rory 'Brother of Macaulay' Culkin as a doomed black metal musician, certainly offers food for thought.

Forgive this quick Satanism For Dummies 1.0 lesson if you're already familiar with Norwegian black metal. In brief, black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal in which the bands concerned celebrate anti-Christian or occult themes, play fast, shriek a lot and indulge in a lot of highly theatrical trappings such as black and white makeup ('corpsepaint'), inverted crosses, pigs' heads on stakes and so on.

It can look and sound a bit alarming, but most of the musicians concerned are harmless fantasy geeks who don't actually believe in the devil. A small number of them do, though, and occasionally there is someone who takes it too far, and violence results. Although black metal was formulated in the 80s, its second wave - which centred in Oslo on Norway - was its most conspicuous expression, thanks to a brief but shocking outbreak of murder and arson in the early 90s.

The plot of Lords Of Chaos follows two bands, Mayhem and Burzum, on their merry way. Three figures are central to the screenplay: Mayhem's guitarist Øystein Aarseth, whose stage name was Euronymous; his band's singer Pelle Ohlin, who adopted the name Dead; and Kristian Vikernes of the solo project Burzum, who changed his first name to Varg ('wolf').

Spooky nicknames, eh? Yes, well, that's what teenagers do when they're bored and looking for illicit thrills in a country like Norway, which – as director Jonas Åkerlund is at pains to show us – is safely conservative to the point of stagnation, as it was around 1990.

Don't read this and the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers. In the film, Euronymous (Culkin) and Dead (Jack Kilmer) form Mayhem and become popular in Oslo, where a bunch of their devotees find a home in Euronymous's record store, Helvete ('hell'). Dead kills himself after a bit. Vikernes (Emory Cohen) turns up, keen to learn the ways of evil from Euronymous, burns down some churches in an anti-Christian, anti-establishment protest and records music as Burzum, released by Euronymous's label.

Although both we and the director snicker in contempt at these silly teenage antics, the laughter stops abruptly when an associate, Faust (Valter Skarsgård), murders a bloke who tries to chat him up in a park. Now the police are interested in the Oslo black metal scene and by 1993 it's all starting to go badly wrong. Ultimately Vikernes murders Euronymous and gets a 21-year prison sentence. The film ends there, but in reality Mayhem later reformed and went on to significant success with a new line-up, while Vikernes was freed after 16 years and went on to a career as a poster boy for neo-Nazis and despiser of anyone who isn't white and non-Jewish.

Lords Of Chaos is by turns funny, violent, and sad, not a combination which often works. The most enduring impression is the bloodletting, which is convincing and unpleasant. For example, the lead-up to Dead's suicide is gauged perfectly. Åkerlund doesn't show him feeling a load of anguish, cursing the gods amid a hurricane of demonic voices or whatever. Instead, he's just in his bedroom, lying around bored, with nothing to do, like we all are sometimes. Unlike most of us, though, he choose to alleviate the boredom by cutting his wrists and throat with a carving knife and then blowing his head off with a shotgun.

The cinematography is merciless here: you watch, wincing, as the camera zooms into the point of the knife blade entering the flesh. Although you know it's just a well-done special effect, presumably involving latex and a load of red stage goop, it's horrible to see it in this detail. As for the gunshot, there is no dramatic musical buildup; just a loud noise in a silent room, just as it would be in real life. Grim stuff, but then it has to be, or what's the point?

There's pathos too. You recognise Euronymous, portrayed as a sensitive kid who comes (too late) to regret his earlier actions, as essentially the naive teenager that we all were. Dead might be a bit annoying but at the same time, it's explained that his mental issues were profound, if you hadn't picked that up already from his habit of killing cats. It’s a human, almost compassionate approach - the opposite style to previous black metal documentaries, which practically depicted the protagonists as superhuman.

A couple of elements aren't quite as successful. Vikernes' endless popularity with groupies once Burzum takes off is hard to believe, and Culkin's unfortunate resemblance to his better-known older brother makes Vikernes' homicidal invasion of his apartment a bit too much like a devilish Home Alone to take seriously. Then again, Åkerlund deliberately places a disclaimer at the start of the film which makes it clear that it's not intended to be true to life.

The title “Lords Of Chaos” is also that of a 1998 book detailing the events above. Written by Michael Moynihan, an American musician of right-wing political views, and published by Feral House, owned by the late Adam Parfrey – also thought to lean rightwards – the book is the default source material for any study of Norwegian black metal. The book, blessed with the cheesy but accurate subtitle ‘The Bloody Rise Of The Satanic Metal Underground’, was one of Åkerlund's sources for the film screenplay, along with Vikernes' explanations of what went on back in the early 90s, as well as those of others involved.

Any critical relationship with the Lords Of Chaos book is difficult. The three politically dodgy geezers most connected to it, Moynihan, Parfrey, and Vikernes, hardly make you feel good about enjoying it. At the same time, it's a comprehensively-executed bit of research: Moynihan and his co-writer Didrik Søderlind dig deeply into the roots, outcomes and corollary effects of the black metal murders, unearthing some fairly terrible people – and at the same time, some amazing music – along the way.

Talking to Jonas Åkerlund, he makes it very clear that the politics of the book are neither shared by him nor relevant to the film, as the musicians back then had yet to come out with views of any kind (other than the importance of being super-evil). He's an interesting chap, having played drums in his teens with the Swedish black metal band Bathory and then embarking on a film career that has led him to work with Madonna, Taylor Swift and Metallica (the latter's promo video, 'ManUNKind', included scenes from Lords Of Chaos). He also made Polar, a recent Netflix film, all of which feels like a a long, long way away from some kids pretending to be Viking warriors in a record store in 1991.

Are you pleased with the way the film turned out?

I am. Obviously there were a million different ways of making this movie, but I had a vision at the beginning when I started to write it. I fine-tuned it all the way into the edit. I know that there's so many things left out. To be honest, it could have been a TV series. Maybe it should have been a TV series, where you have more time to go deep into the other characters, more about the music, the parents, the upbringing, the police investigation. There are so many interesting side stories that we couldn't fit in. But I'm very pleased with it. Somewhere along the way I realised that my movie was about the relationship between these three boys, Dead, Euronymous and Varg, and that became my focus. I was very pleased with that.

Did the process start by you turning the Lords Of Chaos book into a screenplay?

The book was just one piece of source material for me. Looking at it now, it feels like the book really had nothing to do with it, because there are so many documents to read online, as well as documentaries and other books, and there were meetings with people, there were police investigations, all of that.

Had the deal with the various production companies been signed before that point?

I'm not sure I have a deal, still! Independent movies happen when a lot of people say at the same time that they're going to happen. It doesn't necessarily mean that anything is going to happen in the correct order. We had the script, so I started to cast, and before I knew it I was location scouting. I got a little money here and there, but for a moment the whole production was on my credit card. Then the next bit of money came in, and somebody else helped out, and you know, the end result has 22 producer credits or something. Nobody did nothing and everybody did everything, if you know what I mean. My crew and of course the support of the actors was really what makes it happen.

Sounds like a lot of work.

If any movie, let alone an independent one, gets made it's a miracle, especially a dark story like this. I have to say, it's been a 10-year uphill journey. It was not easy. I had a lot of meetings where they all said 'Oh yes, we know this story, and we love it! But we're not going to pay for it, goodbye.'

Did Mayhem support the film?

They were on board from day one. The truth is that I could not have made this movie without them, because I couldn’t have made the movie without their music - that would have been impossible. As the movie progresses, you see them become better and better at their instruments. The last time you see them play, they're a super-tight band. That was a big part of the film. The rights to the music were with some of the original members of Mayhem and also with Euronymous's parents, so I needed their support from day one, which I had. There was never any doubt, they were always backing me and backing the film. I know there's been a lot of rumours online about it, but most of it is actually just made up. It doesn't really matter, because the film speaks for itself; the music is in there.

Did the family of the guy who Faust murdered get involved?

No, and that's pretty sad, actually. I was trying to reach his family, but I couldn't. I wanted to let them know that the movie was coming and prepare them for it, but we just couldn't find them.

Have you had any feedback from Michael Moynihan?

No, I have not. It was really weird, because we had an early screening in New York, where me and Rory did a Q&A afterwards, and when we were standing around talking, he came up to us and said hello. That was the one time I spoke to him.

Was the film licensed from his book?

We made a deal with his book publisher, Adam Parfrey, who died in 2018 and never got to see the film. He was very supportive and really wanted to see the movie made. The reason why we did it was to clear the name of the book. For a long time we thought about changing the title, because the title 'Lords Of Chaos' felt infected by the book. Not that I have anything against the book - I think it’s just another portrait, like so many others - but it felt like so many people had a lot of opinions about the book. But then we kind of fell in love with the title, and it made a cool logo, so we kept it.

The book is great, but the problem is Moynihan and his politics.

Yeah. Exactly. Of course, we don't support those views at all.

The film avoids Vikernes' racist and anti-Semitic views completely. Was this because the subject is too difficult to portray?

No, it's because those things weren't there at that time. That was something that developed later. We touch upon it and we mention it; you see where it's going. But they were still young at that point. I don't think they had those views back then.

Why did you want to make the film so badly?

It's a good question. Like so many other people, this story stuck with me. There's a lot of people who think they own this story, and it's more important to them than it is to anybody else, and you can't touch this story. I was one of those people for a while, you know; I also felt like I was closer to this story than anybody else. I met people who weren't even born when this story happened, but who had the same feelings for it. I was trying to figure out why, and I don't think I've figured it out yet, but I wanted to make a film where I had full integrity, and I became determined that I would not do anything else until I had done this movie.

You focus clearly on the human weaknesses of the characters.

That is because all the other documentaries that exist have one thing in common, which is that they portray the boys as monsters and demons. Whenever you hear anything about them, it's always a dark voice with some inserts of fire, and they are said to be these monsters from up north, but what separates this movie is that it shows the human side of it.

How important was it for you to stay true to life?

A Norwegian guy called me recently who was very close to Euronymous, and he said - and this almost made me cry - 'You nailed Euronymous. He had a very soft, emotional side to his personality' and he thanked me for doing the movie. I was very taken by that call, you know, because I'd been speculating and making my version of it. I'm hoping that part of it is true, and close to reality.

Do you personally know the musicians who appear in the film?

Pelle, the Swedish guy who travels to Norway to join the band and then commits suicide, he was part of my metal background in Stockholm. He was a couple of years younger than me, which was a big deal back then, and he was in the band Morbid when I was in Bathory. He was also in the very first music video I ever did, which was for Candlemass. I know some of the other guys now. Euro's parents and Pelle's brother are all people that I know well now and care about.

And Euronymous?

I never met Euronymous. They didn't play live much back then. I discovered film editing very early, which was the main reason why I left Bathory and the reason why I left music, period. I was a much better editor than I ever was a drummer, and I'm really happy I discovered that.

What about Varg Vikernes?

I had nothing to do with him at all. We did send him the script, early on, just to make sure that he was aware of what we were doing. We never asked for his music and we never contacted him. It's very expected that he doesn't like what we’re doing, but he's also been the one who is most outspoken about his perspective and how he sees it and what happened, so he was probably the easiest person to research. He told the story so many times.

The film is a comedy in many ways, but it's also really brutal. Was that the plan right from the start or did it evolve that way?

It kind of evolved. I always thought that metal is serious, but the fun part of it is that is serious. Spinal Tap is still the best rock and roll movie ever made, you know, and I felt that if the kids didn't have any fun, and it was just darkness in there, it wouldn't really work, especially in the first act. They had parties, they did all the stupid things, it was fun at the beginning. The second part, when it becomes a little bit more serious, becomes funny when we take a step outside their bubble, like the journalist that comes to the house to interview Varg. It becomes funny because he's so damn serious about it and we see it from an outside perspective, and we see how stupid it is. So the humour was always there, and the violence, which is the opposite to the humour, was always there too. Again, I wanted it to be as close to the reality as I could, and those violent moments are there. They did actually happen. I get criticised for a lot of things on this movie from the black metal professors around the world, but nobody's really said anything about the violence, because we know that this is how it happened.

What have the black metal professors criticised you about?

Oh, everything. Again, it was very expected, but what was unexpected was that there are a lot of black metal professors who really love the film as well. I'm really happy about that, of course. I think it's hard to understand that this is a movie, and a lot of people are talking about truth and what really happened, and what is accurate and inaccurate, but does it really matter? It's a movie, and we’re saying that it's a movie. We have actors playing roles, and we even open the movie saying that it's based on truth and lies - because that's what it is based on. People are not used to seeing that these were young boys with emotions, and that they were real people. I think that's what bugs people - like, 'No, they were monsters and demons. We don't want to see them cry or be fragile!'

Lords Of Chaos is in UK cinemas and available to stream on demand now