‘Until the Light Takes Us’ Is Grim and Frostbitten

The history of Norwegian black metal needs no embellishment. Arguably one of Norway’s most significant artistic and cultural exports, this is a subgenre of music borne from figures with lifestyles and back stories that rival the Nordic folklore often associated with the style. In Until the Light Takes Us, directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell use a no-frills approach to explore the individuals and environment that formed the foundation of black metal.

Embedded in Norway, Aites and Ewell gained access to Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, Darkthrone’s Gylve Nagell, Mayhem’s Jan Axel Blomberg, and Satyricon’s Kjetil Haraldstad. This valuable access to some of black metal’s most consequential and sensational figures lends credibility to the film. Particularly strong is the filmmakers’ attention to the function of violence within the development of the black metal mythology. Although as much as the filmmakers should be credited for accessing the most relevant players and revealing their impulses, the approach to storytelling is out of balance and prone to tangents of association and rationalization.

Early in the film, there is a montage of corporate logos that includes Coca-Cola, 7 Eleven, McDonald’s, Levi’s, etc. Set to a ragged metal song, the montage plays on ironic humor — “proof” of a hostile takeover of Oslo by outsiders. However, the film sets up the sequence with an interview by Vikernes, in which he decries Christianity, NATO, and the United States of America. By combining his verbal list of hated entities with a visual series of homogenizing forces, the film tries to associate all of these problems into one and set up some widespread invasion that calls for a rebellion. Though many would agree that there is a strong spirit of rebellion that fuels this type of music, Until the Light Takes Us scapegoats many easy targets as a means of avoiding too close an examination of what, exactly, these artists are raging against.

Vikernes, who says in the film that he and his kindred “hoped for World War Three”, is a troubling choice for a voice of authority, but there is no getting around his status as a founder of black metal. Sole member of Burzum, Vikernes created a handful of noteworthy recordings in the early 1990s using what he describes as a “necro-sound”, the result of purposefully poor production technique that was in its own way a sonic rebellion. Yet instead of using the opportunity to interview Vikernes more in a more in-depth manner about the musical innovation of which his recordings played a significant role, or to investigate more fully the substance of his worldview, the filmmakers seem charmed by his mild-mannered philosophizing. That the filmmakers present him in keeping with their enchantment is a problem, because Vikernes is a self-described Nazi, church arsonist, and convicted murderer.

The murder of Mayhem’s Øystein Aarseth by Vikernes is a well-known piece of lore with which the film’s natural audience will be familiar prior to viewing the documentary. However, even for viewers approaching this film cold, the revelation is not a satisfying climax, because Vikernes’ tendency to justify his actions is not confronted in any way by the filmmakers. That’s not to say the filmmakers have a responsibility to take any specific attitude towards their subject, but with such a provocative figure and event, there is a lot of frustration in their decision to neither avow nor disavow, but instead to turn the voice of the film over to this particular subject.

Vikernes claims his murder of Aarseth was pre-emptive self-defense, though at a couple of points within his well-rehearsed story, he seems to become mindful of the camera and/or pauses to acknowledge an implausible detail. Regardless of how his version of the events differs from the truth, it becomes clear that Vikernes shows no remorse. His rationalization covers not only the murder, but extends to his involvement in church burnings and hatred of Christianity, which he decries as “a Jewish religion”. In his cell, Vikernes seems to have become even more convinced of his national and personal supremacy. The filmmakers enable his perverse fantasy.

In contrast to Vikernes, Nagell (the film’s other primary subject) comes across as a well-rounded figure — no less important to the formation of black metal, yet far more successful in escaping its shadow. Nagell rightly appreciates the genre’s musicality and theatricality, and he provides an insider’s perspective of early developments such as the riff and corpse paint. Archival footage, photographs, and artwork that accompany Nagell’s sections of the film illustrate how black metal became a cultural movement with a distinctive ideology, sound, and dress.

The film follows Nagell as he walks the streets, goes to bars, and rides a train. These mundane activities are too frequently set to metal or otherwise somber music, which is a reductive choice that works against the complex portrait of the artist that develops. More interesting by far are those scenes in which he seems conflicted over the legacy of the music he created. Nagell’s youthful passion for black metal records is evident, but he stands at odds with the trend those records inspired. In a scene at a record label office, an inane journalist tries to provoke a reaction by suggesting that Nagell listens to electronic music. He responds in the affirmative and wonders why this would be a contradiction, and then he reminds the journalist that Mayhem’s influential Deathcrush begins with a piece by Conrad Schnitzler.

There is discomfort on Nagell’s face when he walks through an art gallery displaying images appropriated from black metal for Bjarne Melgaard’s exhibition inspired by the music. His physical presence in front of the art work could be perceived as complementing the work, rendering it inauthentic or negating it altogether. Also in this section of the film is an interview with Nagell in which he discusses modern art, at one point identifying “wealthy and troubled art that comes from the exhaustion of easy life”. Musings such as this are thoughtful, even poetic, and do a lot to offset the empty philosophizing of Vikernes.

Until the Light Takes Us offers a closing argument, of sorts, in the unlikely form of a performance art suicide by Satyricon’s Kjetil Haraldstad. He’s framed within the documentary as a dark, lost soul, and there appears to be something freeing in his stepping as close as possible to maximum self-violence as a means of creating art. Melgaard, at least, sees the value that Haraldstad’s “darkness” could bring to his black metal exhibition. Prior to this, Until the Light Takes Us has shown how the real-life deaths of Mayhem’s Aarseth and Per Yngve Ohlin contributed to the extreme reputation of black metal — in Ohlin’s case, literally on an image level, as a photo of his corpse became album cover art. By including footage of Haraldstad’s suicide act, performed in front of a live and nervous audience, Aites and Ewell convincingly combine their two central points: Black metal is still the territory of lost souls, but its symbolic power is also a commodity available to those (like Melgaard and other spectators/listeners) wanting to indulge in darkness without actually participating.

The two-disc version of Until the Light Takes Us features several deleted scenes, a wisely excised alternate ending, outtakes, and extended interviews with musicians (some of whom were interviewed for the film but do not appear in the final cut). The treasure of the second disc is “a 45-minute class on the history of black metal” with Nagell. In this bonus feature, his knowledge of heavy metal proves to be encyclopedic. As he draws the metal family tree on a chalkboard, Nagell points out the stylistic and sonic contributions of each act, and he describes how the sound evolved as a result of an international group of artists. Ever the black metal enthusiast, Nagell writes every “t” on the board as an inverted cross. His seminar is more informative (and certainly more humorous) than the feature film.

RATING 5 / 10