Paul Greengrass, Auteur of Globalization and Its Discontents

In his new film 22 July, the director portrays the Norwegian killer Anders Breivik as a harbinger of the ‘alt-right.’

Paul Greengrass (right) and Jonas Strand Gravli (left) on set for '22 July'
Paul Greengrass (right) and Jonas Strand Gravli (left) on set for 22 July  (Erik Aavatsmark / Netflix)

LONDON—On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian who was enraged that his country, as he saw it, was beholden to liberal elites and becoming overrun by Muslims, went on a murderous rampage. He killed eight people with a bomb he planted outside government buildings in Oslo, then slaughtered 69 others, almost all of them teenagers, at a historic Norwegian Labour Party youth retreat on the bucolic island of Utøya west of the Norwegian capital.

The homegrown attack stunned Norway and plunged it into national soul-searching. Breivik’s trial in 2012, at which he was ultimately allowed to take the stand and defended his actions with a long, self-indulgent monologue, became a test case for how democracies respond to terrorism while still upholding the rights that make them democracies. For the British director Paul Greengrass, whose latest film, 22 July, dramatizes the attacks and their aftermath with an urgent, understated power, the Breivik killings were more than a one-off; they were a harbinger. (The film comes out on October 10 in theaters in the United States and around the world on Netflix.)

What clinched Breivik as a subject, Greengrass told me over tea in London recently, was the moment he read the killer’s court testimony. “That was extraordinary,” Greengrass said. “He talks about the betrayal by the elites, the sham of democracy, enforced multiculturalism,” he continued. “Those opinions in 2011, 2012, would have been considered on the margins of discourse. Today, what he said, that’s mainstream now, that’s populist right-wing rhetoric.” Not his murderous methods, “of course not,” Greengrass said; “I’ve no doubt that Steve Bannon would abhor Breivik’s methods.” But that’s not the point, he said. “The point is the worldview, the intellectual framework, if you can call it that, is the same and it has moved into the mainstream.”

Greengrass is 63, a large and imposing presence softened by shaggy white hair and a thoughtful manner. He follows the news widely and thinks about it deeply. To hammer home the point about how far-right ideology had crept into the mainstream, he paused and did a tour d’horizon of Europe: a neo-Nazi party holding the balance of power in Sweden, the same in Austria—to say nothing of the authoritarian shift in Hungary and Poland, and the right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland in Germany, whose youth wing was just put under surveillance for alleged antidemocratic activities. “The youth wing of the AfD is really very, very, very strong and growing fast,” Greengrass said. There’s the far-right activist Tommy Robinson in Britain, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) in France, and Steve Bannon trying to unite anti–European Union forces across the continent. “You feel we’re only at the beginning of it,” Greengrass said of the rise of the right. “That’s why I made the film.”

Greengrass has always been drawn to political subjects. Earlier in his career, he made two films about the troubles in Ireland, Bloody Sunday (2002) and Omagh (2004). His United 93 (2006), about the plane whose passengers took on their hijackers after learning about the World Trade Center attacks, causing the plane to crash into a field in Pennsylvania and not its target, may be the definitive film of 9/11. And the three movies about the rogue CIA agent Jason Bourne that Greengrass is best known for directing are about the guilty conscience and emotional toll of American covert power. His 2013 film Captain Phillips, about the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009, examines the unlikely profiteers from an impoverished country trying to get their slice of the global economy. Now, with 22 July, Greengrass has definitely secured his place as the auteur of globalization and its discontents.

These questions were very much on the director’s mind in the fall of 2016—after Brexit and before the election of Donald Trump—when Greengrass said he first started conceiving of the Breivik film. At the time, he’d actually set out to make a film about Lampedusa, the Italian island that was for years the first port of arrival for hundreds of thousands of migrants coming north from Africa into Europe. “But the more I sort of set out to do it, the more I felt that that was, for all its humanitarian tragedy and personal drama, that it was only a piece of a much larger story,” Greengrass said. “And the larger story was about the projection of globalism.” He sees 22 July as a kind of bookend to United 93. If United 93 “was really about blindness,” he said, “that we were blind and they were blind”—we being the targets and they the terrorists—then 22 July looks at a different kind of “rejection of a globalized vision of the world,” he said. The way Greengrass sees it, Breivik is an “original member of the ‘alt-right,’” which grew up in the wake of 9/11, he said.

In a monologue in court, Breivik explained his motivations for the attacks. “Nationalists and cultural conservatives were broken-backed after the fall of the Axis powers. Europe never had a McCarthy, so the Marxists infiltrated schools and the media. This also brought us feminism, gender quotas, the sexual revolution, a transformed church, deconstruction of social norms, and a socialist, egalitarian ideal of society,” Breivik said. “Norway is suffering from cultural self-contempt as a result of multicultural ideology.”

In choosing Utøya, Breivik was targeting the heart—and the future—of the country’s ruling-class establishment. The island is owned by a youth group affiliated with the Labour Party, which was in power at the time of the attacks. Generations of politicians and civil-society leaders attended the camp as kids. It would have been the equivalent of opening fire at a model United Nations convention, or a Harvard College Debating Union meeting. Before deciding to make the film, the first person Greengrass went to talk to was Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister at the time of the attacks and now the secretary-general of NATO. A longtime Labour Party politician, Stoltenberg himself had attended the retreat on Utøya as a teenager and had returned to the island almost every year since. Greengrass said Stoltenberg told him that if the families of the victims gave him their blessing, he should make the film, so people could understand that what Breivik represented was metastasizing.

But how to do that in a film without glorifying Breivik? Here Greengrass rides a fine line, giving the killer his due, but giving the victims the last word. In a key moment in the film, police have Breivik (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) in custody and are interrogating him to find out if more attacks are on the way, and he asks to speak to the prime minister. Stoltenberg—in real life and in the film—conveys to the police the message that he’s listening to Breivik’s demands. “[That’s] such a profound thing, really,” Greengrass said. “Because the great feeling, when you really look at that populist rebellion, if you can call it that, or the rage on the right or whatever you want to call it, the feeling you get time and time again is that they feel they’re not listened to or feel they’re not being listened to. Somewhere, I think that’s right. I think that is clearly right.”

For the past few weeks, Greengrass has been screening the film in Norway for various branches of an association of families of victims of Breivik’s attacks. The director got the blessing of some key families to make the film. He based it on the investigative journalist Åsne Seierstad’s remarkable 2015 book, One of Us, which reconstructs the killings, the life and mind of Breivik, his trial, and the toll on the families affected in forensic detail. Before making the film, the families gave Greengrass two injunctions: “not to sanitize the violence,” he said, and not to make the violence “gratuitous, or exploitative, or graphic.” He succeeds at both.

Isak Bakli Aglen (“Torje Hanssen”), left, and Jonas Strand Gravli (“Viljar Hanssen”), right, in a scene from 22 July. (Erik Aavatsmark / Netflix)

The film opens with a harrowing reconstruction of the attacks, and then largely centers on the aftermath through Viljar Hanssen (played by Jonas Strand Gravli), a boy who was shot and severely wounded by Breivik on Utøya and who goes through years of physical rehabilitation to be able to function again. In the film and in real life, Hanssen still has pieces of shrapnel lodged in the back of his neck, which could shift and kill him at any moment—the abiding metaphor of the film. He and other victims ultimately testified at Breivik’s trial, cutting the killer down to size, challenging his ideology.

Greengrass has said that he found it “incredibly inspiring” how Norway responded to the killings—how it gave Breivik a platform in court but then brought victims to testify “about their commitment to preserve their democracy.” But the attacks are still a third rail that continues to destabilize Norway’s politics. In March, the same week that a different film about the attacks came out, the government nearly fell after the then–justice minister, from the right-wing Progress Party, stepped down. She had come under fire for posting on Facebook that the Labour Party “believes the terrorists’ rights are more important than the nation’s security.” She was referring to the defeat in parliament of a bill she had supported that would have stripped Norwegians of their citizenship if they were suspected of joining a terrorist or militant group—without a court hearing. (Breivik himself had once been involved in a Progress Party Youth Forum.)

The story is not at all over, in Norway or elsewhere. Greengrass said that Viljar Hanssen had told him, after seeing 22 July, that he was struck by how the film captures Breivik’s defeat in court, but doesn’t end there. “I get that he was defeated,” he said Hanssen had told him, “but I get that he’s still out there and getting stronger.”