The doors of Norway’s Bastoy Residential School remained open from 1900 to 1953, and in that half century hundreds of wayward boys called it home. They found themselves there for crimes big and small, but the goal was the same for all of them. Find the “honorable, humble, useful, Christian boy” inside the criminal, and then return them to society. But while this small chunk of rock adrift just south of Oslo was a home it was never meant to feel like one.
A biting cold pervaded the place, inside and out, and it was as prevalent as the rigid discipline, hard labor and overall oppressiveness that was the school’s daily routine. And as inescapable as the island itself.
King of Devil’s Island is based on the true story of a student uprising that occurred at Bastoy in 1915. An incident triggered by sexual abuse but fueled by pent-up rage led to the boys overthrowing their guardians and rioting until a unit of the Norwegian army arrived to quell the situation. The film is an affecting drama that mostly overcomes a familiar story with strong acting by Stellan Skarsgard and others, atmospheric cinematography and a core message of integrity and solidarity.
“Make sure they learn the rules.”
Two new boys arrive by boat in the fall of 1915. Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is rumored to have killed someone, and his face bears the bloodied bruising of police brutality. Ivar (Magnus Langlete) is a skinny and weak willed boy, timid and easily frightened, whose crime is unknown but one can’t imagine as anything more than petty or mistaken. They’re rechristened C19 and C5, respectively, before being stripped and paraded in the nude past their new neighbors and on to their dorm.
The harsh conditions of their open-ended stay at Bastoy are immediately visible in the frozen sea that surrounds them and in the eyes of the other boys. The island’s governor, Bestyreren (Skarsgard), lords over the place with his unhappy wife at his side, but while his intentions are noble his methods stretch the boundaries of the word. Isolation, caning and forced exertion are a few of the official tactics, but Bestyreren’s right-hand man, house father Brathen (Kristoffer Joner), has one more that he keep secret.
Erling feels a certain protectiveness over Ivar, but he has little interest in anyone else. His only goal is escape, but when his behavior catches the eye of a model student due to be released any day now a challenging but oddly rewarding friendship develops. Olav (Trond Nilssen), aka C1, is the student leader on the verge of freedom, but while the truth can sometimes set you free it can also seal your fate.
The film follows these three boys and the others as they interact and learn to deal with their lot in life until that no longer remains an option. We’ve seen dozens of prison-set films before where prisoners are presented in somewhat compassionate light so that we cheer their inevitable uprising and bid for escape, and King of Devil’s Island does little new with the premise aside from setting and historical basis. But that familiarity is the film’s only real weakness.
The characters come to us as enigmas. Their past lives are left unspoken at Bastoy and are therefore unknown to the viewers. Has Erling actually killed someone? We only see him and the others in the here and now as they’re driven to find conformity and friendship in what appears to be the coldest damn place on Earth.
Of course Norway isn’t anywhere near the cold of Antarctica (the actual coldest place on Earth), but director Marius Holst and cinematographer John Andreas Andersen have crafted a place that looks and feels as cold and foreboding as no other. The boys’ breath is visible at night in their beds, and the wind bites at their faces throughout the day. The bitter cold is paired with and against the shots of the darkly beautiful island and crashing sea, and you’ve never seen such a starkly gorgeous vision of hell.
The visuals reach their peak in scenes that bring to life Erling’s repeated tale of life aboard a whaling vessel. We see large mammals cresting the waves, bloodied and taut harpoons impaled in their sides, and we know that some creatures will fight to survive in even the most dire situations. Erling, Olav and the others find strength in the stories, and through them they find a bond with each other.