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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Dec. 13, 2009 | 2:44 PM

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“Until the Light Takes Us”, a new documentary about the Norwegian Black Metal music scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s,  takes a very insider approach to an esoteric subject.  The filmmakers moved to Norway for a couple of years, and gradually gained the confidence of several prominent Black Metal musicians of the time, and the film’s story is told almost entirely through their voices.  This grants the film a rare authenticity and intimacy with its subject matter, but it also makes for a murky end result for those who are unfamiliar with this particular scene. 

The film borrows it’s title from a song by Norwegian Black Metal band Burzum, whose sole member, Varg Vikernes, was one the pioneers of the black metal scene.  Gilve “Fenriz” Nagell, of another seminal black metal band Dark Throne, is also prominently featured in the movie.  Fenriz and Vikernes worked together on couple of projects (Vikernes contributed lyrics to a couple of Dark Throne albums, but the film seems to indicate that the two men have grown apart over the years.  Fenriz claims early in the movie that he stayed interested in music while Varg became more involved in politics, while Varg describes Fenriz cryptically as “a special person with special goals.” 

Instead of functioning as a primer on Black Metal, the core of the movie is dedicated to the rash of historic churches in Norway that were burned down in the early 90’s.  Many of these were linked to the Black Metal scene, and Vikernes was eventually convicted of setting three of the fires.  He was also convicted of murdering one of the other scene leaders,  “Euronymous” of the band Mayhem, and was sentenced to 21 years in prison (the maxium allowed in Norway).  All of the interviews with Vikernes are conducted from his stint at the maximum security prison in Trondheiim, Norway. 

The wave of church burnings in Norway naturally received a tremendous amount of media attention, and it didn’t take long before the Norweigan media was labelling them as Satanic.  Whle he makes no bones about his strong anti-Christian bias, Vikernes claims that the burnings had nothing to do with Satanism, but rather a reaction against the early Christians’ attempts to eradicate the Norwegians ancient pagan cultures.  His belief is that the media’s “satanic hysteria” only made the situation worse, and furthermore had the unintentional effect of creating a new wave of copycat church burnings and vandalism where Satanic imagery was much more blatantly invoked. 

Both Fenriz and Vikernes spend a good deal of the movie lamenting the commericalization of the Black Metal scene.  The two of them seem to feel little connection to the current Black Metal music, and there’s an especially compelling sequence where Fenriz watches with amused detachment as a contemporary artist opens an exhibit of vintage Black Metal images.  This is taken a step further by the inclusion of gothic performance art pieces by both another black metal musician, “Frost”,and oddly, filmmaker Harmony Korine.  Like the section of the film that deals with the church burnings, the media is presented as a destructive force.

What is most compelling, even to those unfamiliar with the scene, are the interviews with Vikernes.  The filmmakers were present for a Q & A at the screening I attended, and they revealed that it took them 8 months to convince Vikernes to participate in the film.  For the most part he comes across as thoughtful and intelligent, and he certainly seems to welcome a platform to tell his side of the story.  The filmmakers also seem to know full well what a charismatic presence he is, and they carefully dole out his interview segments throughout the film,  leading up to the big reveal where Vikernes claims to have stabbed Euronymous through the skull with his pocket knife.  He could easily be the subject of his own documentary, and was released from prison a few months before the film’s release.

The filmmakers claim that they have hours of extra footage that may end up being included on the DVD release,  and that may be why “Until The Light Takes Us” feels curiously incomplete.  The relationship between Fenriz and Vikernes is not really explained, and the feud between Euronymours and Vikernes over black metal supremacy is heavily slanted in Vikernes’ favor.  More importantly, little mention is made of Vikernes extremely conservative and nationalistic political views.  Aites and Ewell remarked that they were interested in the idea of images being “recontextualized and redefined.”  The film shows numerous examples of this within the Black Metal scene, but they also do some recontextualizing of their own in the way they choose to present Vikernes. 

Ewell also mentioned the difficulty they had licensing music for the film.  We do get an eerily effective score from Lesser (of Matmos), but “Until the Light Takes Us” is ultimately less interested in what Black Metal sounds like than in what it represents.  The movie is now playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles.