Film interview: Paul Greengrass on 22 July, his new film about the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik

A still from 22 July, Paul Greengrass's dramatisation of the Anders Behring Breivik shootings in Norway
A still from 22 July, Paul Greengrass's dramatisation of the Anders Behring Breivik shootings in Norway
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The atrocities of far-right terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011, are the subject of the latest film by Paul Greengrass. He is a character of our times, the director tells Stephen Applebaum

Before transitioning into movies, Paul Greengrass cut his teeth on ITV’s iconic investigative current affairs programme World in Action. He never lost his curiosity, and still has a taste for stories that tell us where we are, and where we might be going. Thus, whether he is doing a fact-based drama or a big-budget Jason Bourne action thriller with Matt Damon, each film is “a long conversation with yourself,” Greengrass informs me at a hotel in London. “I’m still making films about the world in action. I’m still interested in what makes the world go.”

Paul Greengrass on the set of 22 July PIC: Netflix

Paul Greengrass on the set of 22 July PIC: Netflix

Often this takes him to dark and controversial places. He’s addressed the Troubles in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday), 9/11 (United 93), and the Stephen Lawrence case (The Murder of Stephen Lawrence). Now, in 22 July, he’s homing in on Anders Breivik: the Norwegian far-right terrorist who, in 2011, killed eight people by detonating a bomb in the Government district of Oslo, and then shot dead 69 more at a Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya. All of these events left deep wounds on the psyches of individuals, communities and nations. Greengrass, though, is interested in the “bigger picture” such episodes can reveal.

“They’re like lightning flashes – they illuminate the landscape and suddenly you see things, momentarily, incredibly clearly, over a long space,” he says.

“If you can choose those moments and look at them in detail, and you look at them fairly, and you don’t try to impose your views on them, what you get is the DNA of our times. And that’s what I try and make the film about.”

His point about fairness is important. Greengrass refuses to demonise Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) in 22 July, just as he refused to demonise the Islamist hijackers in United 93, arguing that the alternative is a kind of moral and intellectual dead-end.

“It’s pointless to present people as monsters,” he says. “You’ve got to try and understand, along the way, why people do what they do, without sympathising with what they do.”

Greengrass came to Breivik while researching what was going to be a film about the migration crisis. At some point he realised that the real story was the fear (“greater than the actuality”) that the overwhelming mass movement of people was creating, and what this was doing to our politics.

The effects are something he says he’s never seen before in his lifetime:

“Together with flat-lining economic growth, post the 2008 crash, it’s causing this unprecedented move to the Right. Extreme nationalism, populism, protectionism, a whole wildfire that’s raging through the West. So I was thinking, ‘How do I do that?’ That’s actually what the film’s really about – not the migration experience.”

Breivik was his way in. When he looked at his testimony from 2011, Greengrass realised that his then-marginal worldview, with its rhetoric about treacherous “elites,” blasts against “enforced multiculturalism,” claims that “democracy is a sham” and calls to “resist globalism” was no longer fringe. “His intellectual framework, the arguments he deployed, it’s [become] standard for your populist right-wing politician across Europe and across America,” he says. “Those views have gone from the margins to the mainstream, and that tells a story about where we are.”

Today, Breivik is in prison, but he can’t be swept under the carpet and forgotten about as if he were some grotesque anomaly. Though he was damaged by his childhood (abandoned by his father, isolated, etc), the damage wasn’t so bad that it explains his actions. Ultimately, he was what he claimed to be, says Greengrass: “A political actor. A dedicated, radicalised, right-wing extremist who was prepared to kill on a grand scale for his ideals.”

As part of the birth of the alt-right in Europe, the mass killer is “a character of our times”, the film-maker adds, chillingly. “We’re now living in the shadow of Breivik.”

For this reason the main focus of 22 July isn’t the attacks themselves, which only take up a small-but-intense part of the film, but how we deal with such people and their extremist ideologies. Do we fight for our democratic principles by practising them for all, or allow fear to drive us down darker avenues? And, importantly, do we let extreme voices be heard, or do we ignore them and risk them curdling into something more dangerous?

“To me,” says Greengrass, “the issue of being heard, and then how you deal with the fact that if you allow them to be heard you don’t want to allow them to be a platform, is one of the most important issues out there at the moment.”

Taking the high ground, the Norwegians accorded Breivik the same judicial due process available to any other citizen. He could choose his own lawyer, and was even given the opportunity to speak in court (which he exploited with relish). To combat his views, hundreds of young people were called to testify, just a few feet away from the killer. In the film, Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli), a Utøya survivor grappling with the consequences of terrible injuries, movingly delivers a life-affirming counter argument to Breivik’s nihilism.

“That was the way they defeated him, because young people stepped up in court,” says Greengrass. “Some of them cried and some of them didn’t; some of them addressed personal issues; some of them addressed broad political points. Collectively, they portrayed, they advocated, and fought for, and articulated with immense power, courage and single-mindedness, a different way.”

He believes that Norway’s struggle in 2011, its fight for democracy, is one that we’re all engaged in now. People therefore have to choose the path they want to go down. I tell Greengrass that what happens in the courtroom scenes in 22 July is a powerful rebuke to the moral equivalency President Donald Trump shockingly bestowed last year on Neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, and the people who protested against them.

“Definitely,” he says. “There are values and we have to fight for our values. Young people have to fight for them.

“In Norway, I found in the story of what happened so many truths for today, and that’s definitely one of them: there is a side and a way to go. Do you want to go that way or this way? That’s the choice for young people.” n

22 July will be in selected cinemas and available on Netflix from 10 October