Theater of Cruelty

Heritage, artistry and staging

From father
Forfatter: Lene Berg
Forlag: Kolon forlag, (Norge)
REALITY NOVEL / Lene Berg's project is a staging of the memory of a father shrouded in myth – but just as much of herself and her own identity. She was only nine years old when her father was arrested for the murder of her stepmother Evelyne.


Suddenly my long-deceased father was standing in front of me, in his extravagant woolen coat and with a smoldering Teddy with no filter between his lips, or was it Gauloise?'

This is how film director and artist Lene Berg describes the memory of her father. She stands on the club stage at Mir in Oslo and reads from her debut novel From father. I can't help but nod in recognition at the words that follow – while smiling faintly at some of the many familiar faces in the packed room. It was exactly this passage I had wanted to hear in her characteristic drawling voice.

During my own reading earlier, it had drawn me straight into the myth, the man and the filmmaker Arnljot Berg and got his mind spinning. The director, her father, was a hot topic of conversation in my youth with weekly film club screenings in Oslo.

Oslo from a bygone era

The color disappears, and Berg shows us an elegantly lit film noir scene: With his lapel folded up, he comes towards his daughter; she is still a child, and they find themselves in the dusty streets of Skillebekk in the 60s and 70s.

Lene Berg's home poem from Oslo is a rare commodity. Barnet Berg's perspective not only evokes father, but an Oslo from a bygone era. In both language, subject matter and with her multitalent, Lene Berg is an artist and writer for her own generation and contemporaries. She narrates as easily in film as in installation, works with the suggestive, the implicit, but also with direct rawness – without the rawness having the faint aftertaste of sensationalism that often follows. Here, Berg's triple project – festival art, short films and novel – differs from many other contemporary reality-based projects.

Although much of the book revolves around the event, which is of the worst brutal variety, the book is not experienced as painful or difficult to read. Perhaps it is the nuanced look that makes the reading experience healing, playful, curious. The visual artist, filmmaker and now author in the form of both an adult woman and younger daughter narrates, builds and puts together. This is a staging of her own memory of her father – but just as much of herself and her own identity. As in his previous film False Belief (2019) – about the Kafka process Berg and her African-American roommate in New York were in – Berg is able to create distance from the private and revealing via the cut-and-paste method. Where in the film she used scissors and paper – which illustrated and created absences and displacements – some of the same effects are evident in the novel. At the beginning of the book, Berg shares a thought-provoking stipulation: She will never do like her father and blame him the way he blamed his mother – no matter how awful life gets.

The murder of the stepmother

Lene Berg was only nine years old when her father was arrested for the murder of her stepmother Evelyne. The French boulevard press feasted on the story of the Norwegian director who was found in the car next to his suffocated and half-naked actress wife.

She has waited 45 years to read the clippings her mother has collected.

But Evelyne was not an actress at all, she was a teacher. What else from the tabloid newspapers was made up, Lene Berg asks herself in the novel. She has waited 45 years to read the clippings her mother has collected in a large envelope. Now she supplements them with hospital records, court documents, diaries and other things. In the reconstruction of the murder of the stepmother, Berg uses a red toy car. It was part of a party game installation and also central to one of the short films that were then shown. On the aforementioned club scene, tonight we get to see another one – where many young actors read the older Arnljot Berg's texts. I don't quite keep up, slipping into reflection on the danger. As he ended up in the infamous French hospital La Santé, he writes letters upon letters to Lene and his brother in capital letters – so that they could read them themselves. Children's drawings were sent from Norway – like a man in a striped prison uniform with a large iron ball around his foot drawn by his brother. But their mother adjusted this, insinuated that the father actually did not feel this way. Berg's book is also a lot about the mother, about her relationship with her ex-husband – and their unique contact through long conversations throughout their lives.

The book counts down to the father's disappearance, a possible suicide which also brought relief to the affected family. Arnjot Berg's suicide attempt and his thoughts about it are regularly mentioned. Regardless of his condition, he was persistently creative – like his daughter.

Arnljot Berg

Arnljot Berg, 1973. (Photographer unknown)

The novel oozes creative steadfastness with two generations of Berg. The father returns home to Norway after only a couple of years, but much of his career naturally lies fallow. Nevertheless, he continues with both television drama, novel writing and an involvement in education at NRK, and in Volda he manages to end up as a professor. High productivity in various artistic expressions, despite opposition, is something Lene Berg has, among other things, from her father.

Her father's training of Lene in the use of camera equipment and selection of sections is in her blood and is fondly mentioned in the novel. But also the steadfastness and honesty of the mother, she who was always prepared to be there for both children and ex-husband while at the same time looking after her own intellect and providing a stable and safe presence. The mother is not as enveloped in glamour. Here, everyday life emerges in color and closeness.

From the prison in France Arnljot dictates a confession for his own mother to sign. The wording and content are ugly. She takes all the blame for her son's misdeeds, apparently causing his fragile mental health. Ibsen's regulars is placed on the head. The son acquits himself and his own violent, alcohol-influenced behavior. He is hurt because she chose to have him out of wedlock and also raise him alone, without the wealth he might have wanted. The lack of response screams. This settles in me as a disturbance.

The novel depicts a warm man in pieces in contrast to increasing alcohol problems, blackouts and constant admissions. In the midst of challenges, he emerges as alert and attentive, with a warm look at those closest to him. Even the in-laws who have just lost their daughter want to let him go free. Slowly, a contradictory image of the man Arnljot emerges, but unfortunately little doubt is left about what may have happened on the morning branch in Parc Vincennes. Details from forensic medicine and other things speak for themselves. Lene has found space for one of her father's unpublished texts, Greek is a beautiful language – a memoir diary where the father tells about a younger man's erotic relationship with an older one. The handling of sexuality reminds me of her fresh and unconventional film head cinema (2012), where she let eight prostitutes sit dressed as the customers' fantasy objects – like a schoolgirl, a princess, a director... all seated at a long table. The camera moved slowly along the table as they continuously shared professional episodes.

For me it was like eating candy as a child.

Lene has today created a layered reconstruction that evokes many associations. For me it was like eating candy as a child. Some bites burned with alcohol in the mouth, others caused a heat to spread through the body. She serves Mediterranean, psychiatry, himself, and very dramatic human destinies. Above all, she awakens a desire for more.

High time with a cavalcade of both her and his cinematic works? NRK and others – feel the call.

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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