Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Phoebe A. Cirio: 22 July — A film that helps us understand a mass killing

22 July, a film currently streaming on Netflix, depicts the events that occurred on that day in 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik began a killing rampage in Norway. Breivik turned his van into a fertilizer bomb, placed it in the government section of Oslo, and lit the fuse. When the van bomb exploded, killing 8 people and turning downtown Oslo into chaos, he was already on his way to the island of Utoya, where a camp for the Worker’s Youth League was in session.   When Breivik arrived at Utoya he posed as a policeman, and ordered the ferry to take him onto the island. Once there he immediately, and systematically, began murdering the teenagers on the island, killing 69 of them and wounding over one hundred more.  

The film fosters a sense of intimacy and familiarity as it depicts these events. We get a glimpse into Breivik’s personal life when we see him stealthily entering and leaving his mother’s apartment. He’s up to something and wants to keep it secret.  The innocence of the victims is conveyed through scenes of hundreds of kids disgorging from the ferry onto the island, setting up tents, playing soccer, and beginning the workshops that are the reason for the camp.   Despite the brutality and scale of these crimes, the essentially civilized values of the criminal justice and legal systems in Norway emerge when Breivik is captured, jailed, and gets the lawyer he specifically requested, money seemingly no concern. Our sympathies for the victims are honed through depictions of the near death of Viljar Hanssen, his parents’ panic when they can’t locate him, his surgeries, the long, hard battle with what seems to be post-traumatic disorder, and the arduous physical therapy regimen required for his recovery. 

The release of the film at this moment in history is perhaps related to the intersection of several elements of the plot. These events, and the subsequent trial of Breivik, mesmerized much of the world in part I think because most of us think of the Scandinavian countries as less prone to violence than the US.  Breivik was motivated to undertake these killings because he opposed what he termed the “Muslim colonization” of Europe.  He targeted Utoya because the former Prime Minister of Norway, a member of the Labour Party, was speaking at the youth camp that day, and the next day, the then current Prime Minister was scheduled to speak. He said he wanted to kill the children of the Labour Party members because that would hurt them the most, because he would deny them a future.  

Early in the film, we see Viljar Hanssen on the ferry. Played by Jonas Strand Gravli, Viljar is an esteemed, rising youth leader, and seems to be expected to be a future leader of the Labour Party in Norway.  When the shooting rampage begins Viljar, his younger brother, and ten or so other kids are hiding from Breivik by tucking themselves under a rock cliff.  When Breivik spots them and begins shooting, they jump to the beach below.  Viljar is shot 5 times, including in the head, and throughout the film he is haunted by flashbacks of seeing Breivik targeting him through the scope of his high-powered rifle.  As a result of being shot, Viljar’s subjective experience of himself shifted. He was no longer the boy he had been, simply living his life. Rendered as a target for Breivik’s rage, he was compelled to experience himself as Breivik’s victim, deprived of his humanity.  We witness Viljar’s torturous regimen of physical therapy to recover from the assault, and to prepare to testify at Breivik’s trial. Early in his recovery process, Viljar’s expressed motive is to walk into the court room–because he wants to deprive Breivik the satisfaction of seeing that he was hurt by him.  

Breivik’s primary concern is that he be considered sane by the court, and that the court regards his cause as a rational one.  He tries to persuade the police that he is a leader of a broad, unstoppable movement that violently opposes the integration of migrants into European nations.  A psychiatric evaluation is ordered and he is diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.  His attorney advised him to accept a plea of mental illness, which would allow him to serve his sentence in a treatment facility. However, Breivik rejects this advice. The exact diagnosis for Breivik was heavily debated at the time, and various alternative diagnoses were offered including, according to Wikipedia, narcissistic personality disorder.  

As the two narratives, that of Viljar and that of Breivik, converge at the trial, Viljar testifies about how he was impacted by the attempt to murder him.  The film begins to revolve around the central tension of the story, life versus death.  Here is where the alternative diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder becomes relevant.  Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized by self-absorption, lack of a feeling of self-worth, a search for validation from others, and a lack of empathy for fellow human beings– actually an inability to see others as a center of subjectivity within themselves.  These traits are clear in the depiction of Breivik, in fact in court he was asked if he had any empathy for the kids he was shooting, and he never answered. In malignant narcissism there is a further dimension of rageful and vindictive malignity when the desired affirmation from outside is not forthcoming.  Breivik sought to forcefully and violently impose his view of the world on others.  

Just before he embarks on his killing spree, he releases his statement titled “A European Declaration of Independence,” a document of one-thousand-five-hundred-eighteen pages in length, which announces his view of the state of the world.  In this act, we see the essence of his malignant narcissism: everyone must heed to his worldview, is expected to wade through over 1500 pages simply to grasp it, and he is incapable of recognizing as legitimate any perspective but his own.  Furthermore, the aim of his world view is stasis.  Breivik wants to stop the natural progression of human migration. People are leaving the Middle-East because of war. Like anyone, they seek safety when they are threatened and endangered. But lacking any empathy for those seeking safety Breivik instead wants to preserve the status quo. He seeks to prevent the forces of change from moving him or the world forward. Resistance to change is common, most people don’t like change imposed on them from outside, but for those not afflicted with a narcissistic personality disorder there is the sense that the world will turn anyway, and we must accept it.  What is malignant about Breivik is that he took it upon himself, in an omnipotent act, to employ violence to stop the progression of history.  This exercise of omnipotence to halt movement, to stomp out other people’s quests for a safe and fulfilling life, contains the essence of what Freud termed the death drive. To impose one’s will, to alter the progress of the lives of others, is intrinsically in opposition to the life drive. 

The concepts of the life drive, also known as the libido, and its complement, the death drive have often been misunderstood. These are core concepts of Sigmund Freud’s psychology.  The life drive is much easier to understand. It refers to the forces, intrinsic to life, to reproduce and seek out loving relationships with other people.  The death drive is less obvious, and more controversial within psychoanalysis, but in some sense life is spontaneous and surprising.  The death drive as expressed can be understood as an effort to suppress or undermine the expression of striving for fulfillment, spontaneity, or surprise, through the imposition of an external structure or force.  In the case of Breivik, he strives to suppress life itself, and that which supports and nurtures life– the children, the future of the Labour Party.  

In Dante’s Infernothe lowest place, the ninth circle of Hell, is a frozen expanse where Satan, the “Emperor of the Universe of Pain,” is buried chest-deep in the ice. He desperately beats his wings in an effort to escape the ice in which he is imprisoned, sending a chilling wind throughout all of Hell, maintaining the frozen temperatures, further ensuring that he will never escape.  Satan has three heads and each head has a mouth.  In each mouth, tortured by being chewed by massive teeth for all of eternity, is one of the three most damned of all sinners, those who were treacherous to their masters.  Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ leading to his crucifixion, is head-first in Satan’s mouth, and in the other two mouths feet-first are Brutus and Cassius, who conspired to assassinate Julius Caesar.  Dante’s Hell is frozen, and the sinners at the bottom of Hell are frozen, their bodies contorted, and for all of eternity they must contemplate their crimes.  Ultimately, the punishment for attempting to mandate, dictate, and determine the fates of others, through treacherous means, is to eternally think on their transgressions. 

In the dramatic climax of the film, Viljar walks into the courtroom unassisted, and confronts his would-be killer.  He had talked with his friend, Lara, another survivor of the attack whose sister was murdered on Utoya.  He tells her of his wish to not appear to be hurt, and to not show how he has cried. She tells him that it is possible to be weak andstrong.  In the film version of Viljar’s testimony, he tells the court of having to relearn how to use his body.  He said “I am blind in one eye, but that’s a relief.” When asked why, he said “A relief, in a way that at least now I don’t have to look at him.” Breivik is seated on his blind side. There is brief laughter, a kind of catharsis because of course the audience also wants Viljar to triumph over sheer evil.  But it is the next remarks where Viljar makes his point so clearly. He goes on and says: 

“But of course it’s not that simple. I… I have a fragment of his bullet lodged in my brain that could kill me at any time. And I don’t look like the person I used to anymore, I… My body, it’s… it’s broken. And the worst is that he… he killed Anders and Simon, my best friends. Stopping them from making their mark on the world, and… and they would have made it a better place. And I… I miss them every day. I’m sorry, I… I didn’t… I didn’t want to cry. I so much didn’t want to cry in front of him. I… I wanted to stay strong. Because I do this for them. So they will not be forgotten. And when you shot them and left me alone on the beach, I didn’t know if I was living or dying. And I’ve been stuck there ever since. But now… I realize that I got a choice. Because I still have a family… and friends… and memories. Dreams. Hope. And love. And he doesn’t. He’s… completely alone. And he’s going to rot there in prison, whereas I… I survived. And I choose to live.”

It is here at the end where Viljar makes his choice.  Had he presented with a false face, a stiff upper lip so as to appear unharmed and unchanged, he would have indeed been dead, killed emotionally. It is when he can render to the audience that he has been changed, and in ways he wishes had not been done to him, that he chooses life.  What he has that Breivik no longer has is hope, and love, and dreams. Viljar cannot undo the damage to his body, but he also does not have to pretend to have more physical integrity than he actually has.  Breivik is sentenced to solitary confinement, for what will probably be the rest of his life. He was 32 years old when he executed his rampage, and 33 when sentenced to prison. Given the humane system of Norway, the term to which he was sentenced is subject to review, but he is in solitary confinement, and with the exception of a chaplain, receives no visitors.  He is where Satan remains, frozen in time and space and given the rest of his natural life, who knows about eternity, to contemplate his crimes. 

And of course this film is timely. The current occupant of the White House of the United States of America has been described by credible sources as a malignant narcissist, preoccupied with receiving affirmations to fill the insatiable maw of his neediness. Many of us fear the retribution and vindictiveness that would be unleashed if he does not get his way.  He is a self-described nationalist, who in attempting to manipulate the electorate prior to the mid-term elections fomented a sense of threat—from impoverished, and frightened, migrants leaving their dangerous communities in Central America to walk to the United States, a distance of well over 1000 miles, to search for something better for themselves and their children.  This malignant presence in the White House would deny the relative safety of this nation to the huddled masses, and actively fans the chilling winds of hatred and mistrust of others to any who will listen.  It is in this political climate that 22 Julyemerges to offer an opportunity for reflection. 


Phoebe A. Cirio, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in St. Louis, Missouri.

Copyright 2018 Phoebe A. Cirio

22 July is  director Paul Greengrass’ re-enactment of the 2011 massacre of 77 people in Norway by a deranged right-wing extremist. (production still/Netflix)

2 comments on “Phoebe A. Cirio: 22 July — A film that helps us understand a mass killing

  1. phoebe777
    December 3, 2018

    Thanks for the comment Kaye. But no, I did not research Breivik’s childhood. What I commented on was in the film. But, I just consulted Wikipedia and there is an account of a harrowing childhood including child abuse and accusations that his mother “sexualized” him and told him she wished he was dead. Such treatment leaves a legacy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kaye Bock
    December 3, 2018

    Well-done film commentary – It is particularly relevant in explaining malignant narcissism. I wonder if Ms. Cirio learned anything of the killer’s early forrmative years and primary relationships or of his inherited endowment. Norway supports early childhood development in general but individual empathic failures still happen as does intergenerational transmission of trauma.

    Liked by 1 person

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