In the last few years—and much to the chagrin of its most devoted followers—the musical subgenre of black metal has grown in popularity. Once the most cultish of cult art forms, black metal (characterized by highly theatrical visuals, low-fidelity sonic intensity, and lyrics focusing on Satanism and paganism) has attracted the attention of casual fans, cultural thrill-seekers, and even academics. For better and for worse, the latter group’s approach stands out in the documentary Until The Light Takes Us.
Directors Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell came to the black-metal scene as outsiders, but they gained unprecedented access to some of the key members of Scandinavia’s so-called “Black Circle.” Interviews with two of them dominate most of the film: Varg Vikernes, alias Count Grishnackh, is the man behind Burzum, as well as a convicted murderer, a charismatic nationalist, and a dodgy racist. The filmmakers indulge many of his rants about globalism and the extinction of “authentic” culture without ever revealing that they’ve obviously given it more thought than he has. Gylve Nagell (a.k.a. Fenriz), the drummer and songwriter for Darkthrone, is less spellbinding and articulate than Vikernes, but also far more attuned to the contradictions of the black-metal scene, and he offers less pseudo-intellectual self-justifications and more insight into the music and its appeal.
Aites and Ewell are wise in selecting their interview subjects, but too indulgent in letting them fill in the background of a extremely convoluted, complex scene. They aren’t confident filmmakers, but they have a keen enough eye for what is, after all, a visually engaging medium. The filmmaking isn’t ultimately unsatisfying, but their approach is. For one thing, like too many academics exploring a subject perceived as exotic or “outside,” they can’t seem to commit to a perspective. Their fannish enjoyment is clear enough, but Until The Light Takes Us has an arm’s-length distance that prevents them from either presenting the subject with true academic objectivity, or really getting down and rolling in it. The resultant film feels as cold and distant as a Norwegian winter; it’s clear that the directors neither want to condemn the worst excesses of black metal’s participants, or to be seen as celebrating them. Neither fans of black metal nor newcomers are likely to come away with much understanding of the music, either; only brief snippets are played, along with pointless electronic interstitials. Seeking a third way divergent from the fearful sensationalism of the mainstream media and the over-familiar insularity of fandom, Until The Light Takes Us instead manages to come across as standoffish and unfulfilling.
Key features: A raft of bonus materials, including outtakes, deleted scenes, extra band interviews, an alternate ending, and discussions with performers not included in the film (featuring members of Enslaved, Darkthrone, and Mayhem), fills a second disc that in many ways is more interesting than the feature. An additional 45 minutes of Vikernes adds little, but a lengthy tutorial on black-metal history with Fenriz would make an excellent short film on its own.