‘Scum’ in early 20th-Century Norway. You look into the faces of the boys in ‘King of Devils’ Island’‘s brutal borstal and you see a lack of warmth and hope that approaches a living death. Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of this grim correctional program and hard disciplinarian, fancies himself gentler than some. That may be so, but still, none of his actions make you think he cares in the least for his charges. His self-proclaimed righteousness and stern kindness is the method he uses to get himself to sleep at night.
Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is the new kid. He is a burly young tough who immediately tries to buck the system, and who is especially considered a risk to the collective because he is not a thief or a vandal, like most of the boys, but a murderer. He arrives with a split lip from a scrap with the police and a bad attitude, and the staff is determined to break him.
After some deliberation, Erling befriends Olav (Trond Nilssen,) who has been at the center since he was eleven and is determined to be released for good behavior. But how can one maintain poise and dignity when the system is beating free will and individuality out of you? Problems spring up in the form of Bråthen (Kirstoffer Joner) an aide with a predilection for young boys.
Erling and Olav know Bråthen is molesting Ivar (Magnus Langlete,) thought to be a bit simple by the students and the staff, in the laundry room. But they can’t prove it. When life as the borstal becomes unbearable, and their extended days of hard labor and abuse interminable, Erling decides to fight back. Things can only get so bad before there’s a breaking point, and Erilng rallies the boys and raises a whole lotta hell in a outburst of enraged rebellion that no one will soon forget.
The King of Devil’s Island is a bit standard in layout for prison-slash-social injustice movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. All the actors give outstanding performances, incuding Stellan Skarsgard, who chills you as a man who is thoroughly convinced of his own moral superiority. He’ll fix the boys’ bad attitude yet, he insists, but you can’t fix where you destroy.
He also covers up Bråthen’s pedophilic behavior, misuses school funds, and accepts payoffs. On the surface he can seem like a stern father figure, even reasonable, but underneath his guise of a concerned righteous man lies a man who doesn’t give a damn about any of the kids under his care. To him they’re already hoods who have ruined their lives and others’, why should he give a shit?
The tension escalates and the characters are decently developed to the point where you are actually invested in what happens next, an important facet of any film. The film’s color palate is all bleak blues and greys and dusty off-whites,reinforcing the grim, and more importantly cold, feeling of the visuals and sets. We are in the midst of a savage Norwegian winter, after all, and the boy’s ongoing pain and discomfort is put nakedly on display.
Racism and rampant unfairness is portrayed here, in a very similar way to Alan Clarke’s British Borstal film Scum (one member of staff insists that a young teen can’t wash the ‘Gypsy smell’ from his flesh,) and we really get the oppressive atmosphere here, the sense of being pushed to the edge by terrible living conditions and sadistic authority figures. You can taste the rancid fish carcasses the boys shove into their mouths out of pure desperate hunger, feel the cruel Norwegian winter on your blue-grey skin. As much as you’d want to, anyway.
The film tells a timeless story (although it’s been told many times before,) and it tells it with powerful performances and visual verve. The lead’s jaw is set in a firm line of pain and hatred within the first few minutes, what have they made him by the ending? What kind of rehabilitation is this, where you beat and deprive someone to the point of starvation? It’s like squashing a flower and denying it sunshine while insisting it will grow.
Don’t let the subtitles frighten you off and deny you the chance to view a thoroughly well-acted,w ell-written, and well-shot foreign film. I hope Stellan Skarsgard’s name will attract more people to this interesting little project, and I hope it will jump start some deserving young actors’ careers. It’s not a pretty story (though how many Borstal films are a sunny affair?) but it’s worthy of the film lover’s time