Lords of Chaos (2018)
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund
Starring Rory Culkin, Emory Cohen, Jack Kilmer, & Sky Ferreira
Written by Dennis Magnusson & Jonas Åkerlund, based on the book by Michael Moynihan & Didrik Søderlind
The book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, and published by Feral House, is a masterpiece that everyone should read. The film, unfortunately, is not something everyone should see.
Lords of Chaos tells us right from the beginning that truth will be mixed with lies, so there’s little point in going through the factual errors in this saga about the rise of Norwegian Black Metal. Instead, it’s better to ask the same question we should of any film—what is the Narrative being pushed here? What are they trying to tell us?
Given that this was partially produced by Vice, you can probably guess—be a consumer. If you yearn for more, you are dangerous, pathetic, or probably both.
The film begins like a teen comedy. We’re introduced to the band Mayhem and its leader Euronymous, Øystein Aarseth’s stage name. We see that Euronymous comes from a comfortable, middle-class family, and has a good relationship with his little sister. However, we never learn about his parents, why he’s rebelling against this comfortable background, or whether he’s even rebelling at all. His parents, after all, helped bankroll the famous Helvete record shop in Oslo, and they leaned on him to shut it down when it became too infamous. The question of whether the notorious head of the “black circle” was even a non-conformist against his family is fascinating. Yet it’s completely unexplored, and even the little sister quickly disappears.
We’re introduced to Dead, Per Yngve Ohlin, when he sends a demo (and a crucified mouse) to Euronymous. Dead is something of a mythical figure now, but here again, the movie treats his obsessions and demons flippantly. His supposed abuse of cats is basically a punchline. His depression is breezily explained away by bullying, thus providing a Victim Narrative. What happened to him is Our Fault. “There’s a way out if you’re so fucking depressed,” Euronymous snaps at him at one point. However, when Dead aims the gun Euronymous is carrying at his head and tells Euronymous to pull the trigger, he can’t do it. Dead smiles and runs off. Throughout the film, Euronymous has alternatively haunting or pastoral visions of Dead running through the forest, images of ruined innocence. Sometimes these manifest as cheap jump scares, something out of Five Nights At Freddy’s. It’s lame.
In Lords of Chaos, Mayhem is, despite Euronymous’s scorn for Swedish metal and its supposed life-affirming message, about having fun. “We are the lords of chaos!” exclaims Death, though the real “lords of chaos” from the book were a murderous American youth “militia.” Mayhem’s parties are like any other parties, except the band members are in corpse paint as they drink beer. Why would they be wearing corpse paint at a raucous party? Why play music from bands you are rebelling against? It would be like playing R&B at a nationalist gathering. It’s especially absurd because Euronymous spends most of the movie calling people who like the wrong bands “posers.” At one party, we get our first introduction to the film’s Varg Vikernes, whose first words, as he minces around, are “I’m sorry.”
To its credit, the film accurately captures a legendary gig when the band threw a pig’s head into the audience and Dead sliced away at himself with a bottle. Of course, it is after this performance, in a Middle Eastern restaurant, that we are introduced to the film’s main conflict. Vikernes attempts to offer congratulations for the show, but is humiliated by Euronymous for wearing a “Scorpions” patch on his cut. Thus, Vikernes must overcome Euronymous’s taunts and prove he is not a “poser.” However, unlike the actual Norwegian Black Metal scene, the scene in the film has no real artistic or ideological component. It’s just a trend, a slightly more extreme version of finding the best brewpub in some gentrified nowhere city.
The film is pure character assassination of Varg Vikernes. It doesn’t confront his ideas or even mock them. Instead, the film paints him as utterly pathetic, with a stupid, high-pitched laugh. It has to. The book Lords of Chaos doesn’t glamorize Vikernes, but at least it lets him speak, and lets others speak about him. The film just turns him into a joke, the stock character of the bumbling, fat, stupid “Nazi” we’ve seen in films like American History X. When Euronymous sardonically observes that Vikernes is a vegetarian “like Hitler,” Vikernes responds eagerly, “Exactly like Hitler!”
Adding to the insult, Euronymous spends most of the movie forgetting Vikernes wants to be called “Varg.” The idea that this would happen repeatedly is completely unrealistic. The point is to make Vikernes look stupid, like a little boy playing dress-up, even when he’s throwing an entire country into chaos.
Emory Cohen portrays Vikernes, and the physical discrepancy is so great it makes it almost impossible to pay attention to the performance. Whatever one says about Vikernes, he clearly had enough charisma to assemble a following. He was also rail thin. In this film, one can barely watch him because he’s such a dork. Because of the contrast, Cohen looks positively obese playing Vikernes. You spend the movie wondering why Euronymous, or anyone, would ever give this lardass a chance. For that matter, the friendship and rivalry that would define early Norwegian Black Metal is barely explained. What drew these two incredible personalities together? What put them in such violent conflict? Basically, the film implies it was just a status competition in a small group, the kind of petty politics you would get among staff at an office or restaurant.
One thing the film does almost perfectly is the suicide of Dead, perhaps the most riveting depiction of the act ever seen on film. It’s not quick or glamorous, nor overwrought. There’s no music. There’s no catalyst or explanation, as there often isn’t. Dead slashes down his wrists and cuts his throat, writes his suicide note while choking on his own blood, and then blows his head apart with a shotgun. It looks real. It’s hard to watch, as it should be. It’s also metal as hell, as it should be. The only false note is the phone call from his father we hear on the answering machine, a sentimental indulgence that should have been left out.
Immediately after this act, Euronymous (as he supposedly did in real life) takes pictures of the corpse, which would later be the famous album cover for “Dawn of the Black Hearts.” (It’s left ambiguous whether he actually ate the brain, as he bragged.) He also supposedly makes necklaces from pieces of the skull. He claims that he “wants” fans to commit suicide and fires bassist Necrobutcher when the latter, reasonably, expresses disgust. This immediate turn to marketing after suicide is sociopathic, but would be interesting to explore.
However, instead, the rest of the film attempts to convince us that Euronymous was haunted by Dead’s suicide. Euronymous didn’t want things to get too serious, and he just wanted to be a normal guy (maybe like his unseen father). Yet Euronymous does things like speculate about what it’d be like to kill someone, praise a murderer (Faust) after he kills a homosexual (calling it “really fucking smart”), and approves and participates in church burnings. This makes it difficult for the film to drive home what seems to be its main point, that Euronymous was somehow horrified by what he had set in motion and wanted to pull back. At the end of the film, Euronymous claims the necklaces are fake, but this just makes him look pathetic. It’s not redemptive. You can’t sympathize with this guy.
Whether or not Euronymous was like this in real life, the movie doesn’t show us how this is even plausible within the film’s universe. Euronymous’ moral ambivalence is rarely shown; instead, we get Euronymous breaking the fourth wall to flippantly tell us “all this evil and dark crap was supposed to be fun.” It was? It’s hard to believe him when he’s telling other characters the opposite, even after situations like suicide, arson, and murder.
Letting others take the fall for ideas you don’t even believe in is arguably worse than killing people yourself. He gets off on his power when others act on his anti-Christian or anti-Establishment rants, but we are also supposed to believe he is disgusted by these actions. The main indication he’s not serious is his reluctance to join Varg in the church-burnings—something apparently true historically, though this could partially be explained by fear of getting caught. When he does burn the church, the mutual joy Euronymous and Varg take in the blasphemous destruction is the one moment of pure friendship this iconic duo experiences throughout the entire film.
When Euronymous sets up the record store Helvete and its basement, home of the “Black Circle,” we get more scenes that make no sense. Vikernes, after revealing his genius through Burzum, becomes part of the inner circle. The dork suddenly becomes Lothario and begins plowing through endless women like he’s in Led Zeppelin. (Vikernes denies he ever acted like this.) In one bizarre scene, he, Euronymous, and the blonde who for some reason ends up becoming Euronymous’ (probably fictional) girlfriend are in the basement. Vikernes brusquely orders her to take her clothes off. She complies while Euronymous looks uncomfortable. Then the film goes to something else. Did Euronymous stand up for her? Did Vikernes just laugh and order her to leave? Did they have a threesome? We don’t know, and this emotionally abusive scene is never mentioned again. So why was it inserted?
The highlight, of course, is the church-burnings, the propaganda of the deed that made Black Metal the media terror that it was. It’s hard not to make this at least somewhat visually compelling—the burning buildings, once the center of entire communities and cultures, consumed by flame in the black of night. There’s one especially striking shot of a raven over a cross, Odin’s vengeance.
Even here, however, there are false notes. At one point, Varg declares while spilling gasoline, “Let’s get you good and white.” What does that even mean? Is this just a clumsy attempt to link the acts to “white supremacy”? Euronymous also simultaneously seems enraptured and horrified by the burning churches, the fulfillment of what he’s preached. It’s odd that he can be troubled by this but think it’s hilarious to scream obscenities and sexual taunts at women and children walking down the street. Rory Culkin’s task in this film is almost impossible, because his character makes no sense.
Unmentioned is the real-life suggestion of drummer Hellhammer that mosques should have been targeted, not “very old Norwegian artworks.” Indeed, Hellhammer practically fades into the background throughout the story, probably because the film can only make one “far-Right” guy look like a buffoon. In passing, Vikernes notes that the churches were built over heathen holy sites and that his desecration is, in its way, a form of revenge. Yet later, when confronted by reporters, he’s content to be portrayed as a combination of a Satanist, a Nazi, and an Odinist. “What a fucking idiot,” a reporter observes after an interview. Right there, that is what the movie wants you to think about everyone involved.
The conflict between Euronymous and Vikernes, the culmination of the movie, comes off as petty. Euronymous and his new girlfriend watch schlock horror movies at their apartment, a signal to us that the “horror” and “death” is just for show. Euronymous prepares to make Mayhem a normal metal band, with tours, festivals, and fans. Euronymous’ girlfriend tells him he was a “leader” with a “vision,” and could be one again. But what is the vision? To sell merchandise? Near the end of the film, she symbolically cuts his hair, as he leaves behind his troubled past to become essentially a businessman. Whether or not he did actually cut his hair before his death is irrelevant—this is the message the film is telling us.
In contrast, Varg Vikernes wants media notoriety and credit for their crimes. Euronymous argues against it, but when the tactic succeeds, Euronymous attempts to share glory. The supposed threat Euronymous made against Vikernes’ life, the source of Vikernes’ claim of pre-emptive self-defense, is played off as silly, making Vikernes look foolish. His murder plan is amateurish, and we are invited to feel contempt at his bumbling.
Even the murder is pathetic, with Euronymous confessing at the end that he didn’t really believe in anything. “I just talk,” he says. Vikernes stabs him repeatedly as Euronymous pathetically tries to crawl away, until he’s finished with a blow to the head. This scene just doesn’t communicate the immensity of what’s happening; it’s so heavy with dialogue and clumsy messaging that the death of the main character is somehow lost. The sister we haven’t seen since Act One and the girlfriend who probably didn’t exist mourn, but Euronymous tells us post-mortem that we shouldn’t cry: He created Norwegian Black Metal—and we are just posers.
Posers to what? Insofar as the film has a theme, it’s to defend the idea of a consumer-based identity. Today, people wear costumes with logos of video games or comic characters. This has even infiltrated once-sacred rites like marriages or funerals. A young person can define himself by a musical genre or fandom; a safe form of identity because, if you are white, racial or national identity is forbidden. Norwegian Black Metal was, quite consciously in the eyes of some of its founders, tied to white identity. Thus, it needs to be sanitized, shorn of its rough edges, and made into a form acceptable enough so Apple will allow it on iTunes.
Occasionally, the film explores the meaning of what it is to lead a double life or to feel caught in a movement beyond your control. Many white advocates can sympathize with this. I know I can. Yet Lords of Chaos can’t quite make this coherent, either, because Euronymous’ plan makes no sense. His proposed escape from the madness is to plot Mayhem’s tour—hardly an escape from the scene. He’d just be getting in deeper. After all, Varg Vikernes was his bassist. Worse, and unforgivably, he urges others to take extreme actions he won’t take himself. For him, it’s implied, it was just marketing. But if even his inner circle thought otherwise, how was the world supposed to know? The film’s Euronymous preaches authenticity simply as a marketing strategy. It’s hard to make such a cynical character a “hero.”
The film seems to suggest that Euronymous wanted Norwegian Black Metal to be another one of these consumer options, like mumble rap or house music. This is almost certainly not true. Euronymous promoted Communist dictators because he consciously supported “evil,” in the same way Aleister Crowley did. Perhaps part of it was cartoonish, but there was something authentic there. The film is as much a hit piece against Euronymous as it is against Vikernes, turning Mayhem’s leader into a self-hating cuck who today would be writing a column for MetalSucks or something. Euronymous had a core; maybe an evil or despicable core, but whatever it was, Lords of Chaos fails to reveal it to us.
The film ends with the Black Circle being destroyed. Vikernes’s iconic smile in court is missing; the last shot is instead of him looking panicked as he’s caught by the police. Faust looks equally pathetic. The film neglects that both are now out of prison. Faust has performed since then, and Vikernes is known to a new generation through his YouTube videos. The film seems to suggest this is all over, in contrast to the book, which says the ideological and musical currents unleashed by this movement are just beginning, for better or worse.
If you are interested in the history and the music, Lords of Chaos is worth watching if only to remind you of the old days. Some scenes come close to brilliance. Dead’s suicide is haunting, and Euronymous’ desperation as he realizes he’s no longer in control of what he’s unleashed is palpable. (I get it.) Yet the moments of dramatic intensity are almost deliberately undermined—Dead’s father calling, Euronymous imagining Dead peeking out from behind the trees, an utterly contrived romance with a woman who has no personality. Worst of all is Euronymous telling us repeatedly that this is all just fun and games, while he tells his friends that it is life and death. If we aren’t supposed to take it seriously, then why are we watching this? And why are we supposed to like a guy who recognizes that this is going to end in disaster, but keeps telling others to do illegal, crazy, or immoral things?
The problem with Lords of Chaos is that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a dark comedy, a drama, or a glorified version of VH1 Behind the Music. The lesson I took away was the opposite from what I think its creators intended: If you are going to do something, do it seriously. Do it all the way. And if you are content to just be a consumer, then accept that and don’t pretend to be anything else. Consumers are dead even while they are alive. Artists live forever.
And you’re better off watching Until the Light Takes Us.