Discipline without compassion is cruelty, Scandinavian actor Stellan Skarsgard declares as the early-20th-century governor of a Christian boys' reform school on the remote island of Bastoy, in the fiord of Oslo. But it's a corrupted compassion that throws his young wards into underground cages, makes them cart rocks pointlessly from one pile to another and facilitates sexual abuse.
Born in 1965, director Marius Holst grew up in Oslo but had never heard the true story of a violent rebellion in 1915 by 29 boys at Bastoy, a harsh, punitive environment for young offenders. In the late 1990s, Holst met a man who had once been one of the boys on the island, sending the filmmaker off to interview others, whose caretakers addressed them not by name but dormitory assignations such as C-1 or C-19.
The rebellion was little-remembered in Norwegian history. Was it an incident Norway had preferred to forget? ''Maybe so,'' Holst says. ''The public opinion back in that day was the state used huge resources to help these boys, who paid them back by destroying public property and attacking people employed by the state.''
Holst, however, unearthed a universal story of the human capacity to abuse power in the familiar name of religion. ''You go to any institution of correction and there are still people of power who at the outset have good intentions but the power corrupts them and when something goes astray they'd rather protect the name of the institution,'' he says.
The real Bastoy boys told stories of sexual and corporal abuse through the decades. In creating the film's characters, Holst imagines a specific prolonged case of a dorm master's sexual abuse that triggers a teenage ward's suicide as a tipping point to spark rebellion.
Most of the filming took place in Estonia because Bastoy, ironically, is today occupied by one of the world's most liberal adult prisons. Holst's decision to film scenes on overcast days adds to the dramatic impact; the blue lighting becomes more monochrome, infusing the film with artful Nordic melancholy.
But Holst pulls back on the pathos and Skarsgard gives the cowardly governor nuances of moral misguidance, while Benjamin Helstad as the illiterate Erling - C-19 - and Trond Nilssen as Olav - C-1 - are poignant as they tell one another metaphorical tales of whalers' freedom.
KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND
CRITICAL BUZZ Classic retelling of buried history of power abuse, best feature Amanda 2011 (Norwegian Academy Awards).
STARS Stellan Skarsgard, Benjamin Helstad, Trond Nilssen.
DIRECTOR Marius Holst.