Battles in the North: Until the Light Takes Us

Imagine my surprise: I arrived 30 minutes early to the Grand Illusion Cinema, Seattle’s oldest (and probably smallest) active theater, to find that Until the Light Takes Us was sold out. Why surprise? Well, if you haven’t heard of the film, you’re far from alone: the documentary on black metal, Norway’s most infamous musical export, is currently making the limited-engagement rounds across the US. On IMDb, it has a paltry 119 votes. So how did it sell out?

On closer inspection, it’s less of a shock. Black metal, whose practitioners wear a style of makeup called corpsepaint and shy away from high production value, has long attracted a cult following. This small, vocal minority champions artists who stay “true” and shun those who go commercial. It is a strange, contradictory movement, and much more interesting as a cultural phenomenon than as a style of music. Prior to Light, black metal had already spawned a number of other documentaries and books.

The film was worth coming back for three days later. Light is odd in that is assumes prior knowledge of its subject matter—nothing is given in the way of context or back story—but it provides little new information. Looking around the theater, it was clear that I and everyone else there already knew much of the bloody history: in the early 1990s, a group of Norwegian musicians started burning down churches and killing outsiders, each other, and themselves. (And you thought hip hop was violent.) A documentary is only as interesting as its topic, and filmmakers Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites have picked one that’s proven to intrigue.

The film is most successful in showing the divergent paths black metal’s progenitors have taken. Its two main subjects are Varg “Count Grishnack” Vikernes of Burzum and Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell of Darkthrone. The former is possibly the most infamous of all the black metallers. His interviews take place entirely in Trondheim Maximum Security Prison, where he was serving Norway’s maximum sentence of 21 years for murdering Mayhem bandmate Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth and burning down three churches. (Vikernes was paroled in 2009 year after serving 16 years.) There has been a tendency in past films and books on black metal to glorify the man, despite how unsympathetic a person he is. Unfortunately, Light falls into this category. One gets the sense that Ewell and Aites think Varg is actually pretty cool, and the film’s title is the English translation of Hvis lyset tar oss, his fourth release under the name of Burzum.

Fenriz, who chose to shy away from ideology and focus on music, comes off as much more coherent and likable than does the neo-Nazi Vikernes. His blunt statements often prove unintentionally funny and, more importantly, shed some light on the realities of black metal’s enduring popularity. (“People like to dress up,” he practically laments.) The Lemmy to Varg’s Goebbels, he adds a much-needed perspective of levelheadedness to a movement that’s saturated with anything but.

  1. February 19th, 2010

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