Norwegian prison drama King of Devil’s Island is based on real life events that happened in 1915 at the Bastøy Reform School, located on Bastøy Island south of Oslo. It served as a juvenile detention center for young (under-age) offenders from 1900 to 1953 when it was finally taken over by the Norwegian government. Like many other films about juvenile detention centres or boarding schools (Swedish Ondskan comes to mind here) this film includes tyrannical guards, brutal reformatory regimes, sexual abuse, suicide and attempted escape. Yes, we’ve seen it all before, but that doesn’t make it any less believable. I had a lot of teachers in the past that I could easily describe as borderline sociopaths: they enjoyed humiliating us, making us submissive and afraid to speak up, they suppressed our individuality, our creativity and our ability to think for ourselves. If you would send them to this island where they would be their own bosses, with no government control over them – if you would give them omnipotent control over the youngsters there – what would happen? It wouldn’t be much different than what happened on the Devil’s Island, no doubt.
The film begins with a teenager named Erling arriving on the island. Immediately after his arrival he must give up his real name – he becomes C-19 in the C Barracks, which is only one of the ways in which they completely dehumanize the boys. Then there’s also forced manual labor and cruel punishments for anyone who disobeys or talks back at the guards. As expected, C-19 is one of those boys who has trouble following the rules. He doesn’t misbehave for pleasure or out of pure stubbornness, but because he thinks the way they treat the boys is unjust. He can’t stand the hypocrisy of the guards, especially of the dorm master (who is regularly checking boys for their hygiene, insulting them in the process, while he himself is stinking of alcohol and who is sexually abusing the weakest boy in the group, C-5). He eventually becomes the reason for an uprising of the boys who arm themselves with farming tools and stones, burn down the barn and take over the control of the island until the military is called on the island to restore the order.
Although this is a story that was already seen many times – and it really has nothing new to tell – it is still an interesting watch. Film stands out from thematically similar works mainly because of the beautiful cinematography (by John Andreas Andersen). Harsh and cold landscape is captivating and it only increases the sense of brutal conditions in which the boys had to live (they deliberately chose to film in a wintertime, even though the real events took place in May). You can almost feel the freezing cold weather and it is really painful to watch the boys work in this inhumane environment.
Another attribute of this film is the cast. Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as the governor (who sees the teenagers as human trash that needs to be turned into »honorable, noble, useful, Christian boys« and who is deliberately turning a blind eye to the indications of sexual abuse because he is afraid it would ruin institution’s reputation) is strong, as always, but the real surprise here are the boys – especially Benjamin Helstad as C-19 and Trond Nilssen as his accomplice, C-1.
During their time on the island, C-19 and C-1 are secretly writing a story about being on a ship and trying to catch a whale that is repeatedly harpooned and seriously wounded but that continues to fight for its life: a story that symbolizes the resistance of the boys against the brutal reformatory regime.
Directed by: Marius Holst
Written by: Dennis Magnusson and Eric Schmid
Starring: Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen, Kristoffer Joner, Stellan Skarsgård
Running Time: 116 minutes