I went into Until the Light Takes Us with no prior knowledge of its subject. After being given the assignment, I read a brief synopsis, which informed me that I was in for Norwegian black metal music and church burnings. That was enough to peak my interest, but what I received was more than black metal and smoldering churches, I saw depth in, and had sympathy for, the two central characters in this documentary.
We first meet Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell (Darkthrone, Valhall), who is traveling by train when his belongings get searched by the officials on board (we later learn this happens often to Nagell). Nagell has been in the music business since the late 1980s, his face reflects the unsettled frustration with the world around him, he’s looking for something real, tangible, something to bring him joy. At the same time, he’s willing to let the camera follow him through his daily life as he speaks candidly about his life and the events surrounding the central subject of the film, which leads us to Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes.
Vikernes (Buzum, Mayhem) can only take us through his life with his words, because (at the time this documentary was filmed) he’s in the Trondheim Maximum Security Prison in Norway. Initially we’re not told why Varg is there, but as the story unfolds we learn that he is not only responsible for some of the church burnings, but also murder (although Varg’s testimony points to it being a matter of self-defense).
As a music buff, it’s interesting to learn about the roots of black metal in Norway and how Nagell and Vikernes each played a role in its development, however, what makes this documentary interesting (beyond learning what seems to be a more honest and believable account of what really happened with the church burnings and murder), is the glimpse of what lies deeper within Nagell and Vikernes.
Nagell is subdued, and often appears uninterested in the camera and the questions. On the surface it’s easy to think Nagell’s done this a thousand times before, it’s old hat for him, but later it becomes clear that Nagell has passion for what he does and passion for the truth to be told. Most artists say they’re not in it for the money, but I think Nagell’s voice rings true, he’s a willing slave to his craft.
Just as Nagell is true to his music, Vikernes is as true to his political beliefs. Both men are searching for truth, but Nagell has come closer to finding it. Vikernes seems more sane in this film than he does if you read about him, but regardless, Vikernes is still seeking truth, however, he’s at a disadvantage because his mind has been clouded with unsound ideals. And while it can be argued that every individual is responsible for their own deeds and thoughts, Vikernes is someone whose well intended search has led him down a misguided path. With that said, both men have a mutual respect for each other, and the paths they’ve chosen, and this is what really drives the film.
There are others interviewed and discussed throughout the film, most of which are uninteresting and spout off a few lines of uninspired thought, before falling back into obscurity, where they most likely belong (Harmony Korine even shows up and provides his own misguided take on the subject). It is worth noting Bjarne Melgaard, who Nagell begrudgingly meets during an art exhibit. Melgaard is influenced by the Norwegian black metal, but like so many others, he just doesn’t get it. Kjetil-Vidar “Frost” Haraldstad, who is associated with Satyricon, as well as other black metal bands, gets involved with Melgaard for a gripping and intense piece of performance art that ends up being too much for even the hardcore fans.
Until the Light Takes Us delivers on its goal of getting the truth out about Norwegian black metal, church burnings, and murder, but it would have been even better to dive deeper into the lives of Nagell and Vikernes, while leaving some of the other interviewees on the cutting room floor. Be sure to watch after the end credits, as Nagell shows his humorous side and hams it up for the camera, giving the fans, and the media, exactly what they want.
Director: Aaron Aites, Audrey Ewell
Cast: Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes, Gylve “Fenriz” Nagell
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Runtime: 93 minutes