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Film / King of Devil's Island

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Left: the Governor. Right: The king.

"Here, I'm your captain. This island is my ship. The housefathers are my mates. . . Our goal, and your goal, is to find an honorable, humble, useful Christian boy in here. Shape and polish him. And if we don't find him. . . you'll stay here."
The Governor

King of Devil's Island (Norwegian title: Kongen av Bastøy) is a 2010 film by Marius Holst, which dramatises the events surrounding a 1915 inmates' revolt at Bastøy Reform School, an island prison for teenage boys. It is Very Loosely Based on a True Story.

The mutinous seventeen-year-old Erling and the naive Ivar are the newest inmates of Bastøy, the desolate island reform school ruled by a disciplinarian Governor (Stellan Skarsgård). While Erling immediately begins to plot his escape, against the advice of his barrack leader Olav, Ivar falls prey to the abusive Housefather Bråthen. When the school attempts to bury the crime, one boy's revolt leads to a riot. . . and the arrival of the Norwegian army.

The film was was nominated for 2011 Amanda Awards (i.e. Norwegian Oscars) for Best Actor, Cinematography, Production Design, Sound Design, and Visual Effects, and won Best Film, Best Score, and Best Supporting Actor.


The official site (in Norwegian, of course) is

King of Devil's Island contains examples of:

  • A Crack in the Ice: When the only escape from Prison Island is over a frozen fjord, you're obviously going to encounter one of these.
  • Abandon Ship: The Governor's wife leaves the island after seeing the gaping hole her husband is burying himself into.
  • Big Brother Is Watching:
    Bråthen: "One thing. I observe everything. I see everything. I hear everything. And I write everything down in the book."
  • Blatant Lies: The Governor says that Ivar drowned when tried to escape the island by swimming when Erling found rocks in Ivar's pockets.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: Endorsements of Bastøy Reform School include "I'd rather be here than in prison."
  • The Bully: Øystein harasses Erling and steals Ivar's watch when they first arrive, until Erling beats him up a few times and Teeth-Clenched Teamwork turns them into Fire-Forged Friends. There's also Bråthen, particularly towards Bjarne.
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  • Bunnies for Cuteness: Axel Johnson's rabbit is the only warm fuzzy thing in the film.
  • Character Development
  • Chromosome Casting: The setting is an early 20th century One-Gender School / Penal Colony. The handful of female characters are Astrid the Governor's wife, the school committee chair, Erling's correspondent Elsa, a nurse, and the aforementioned rabbit.
  • Class Representative: Olav's chief motive for discouraging Erling's insubordination is that he'll be held responsible for it, which he fears might jeopardise his imminent release.
    The Governor: Dorm boy C1, Olav Fossen, is the boatswain. He's one of you, but he's a leader.
  • Corporal Punishment: The heavy manual labour that the boys perform in the fields and forest is a punishment in itself, but casual beatings from Bråthen are also in the curriculum. So are more unusual punishments, like standing on a chair all night, or shifting a pile of rocks to another pile several metres away – and then back again.
    • A Taste of the Lash: When Erling is recaptured after his escape attempt, he's sentenced to ten strokes. The staff make Olav administer them.
    • Denied Food as Punishment: Goes hand in hand with every other punishment. While felling trees, Erling, Olav and Øystein share half a bucket of fish carcasses. After Erling's escape attempt, the entire barrack is put on short rations.
    • Punishment Box: On Erling's first day Olav points out the solitary confinement shed, in which a boy beat his head against the wall until he could no longer speak. Olav, Erling, and Øystein are later locked in caged beds in its freezing basement.
  • Curbstomp Battle: There's no overkill like deploying the army to round up schoolboys.
  • Dean Bitterman: The Governor, though he views himself as a Reasonable Authority Figure, is a ruthless authoritarian who constantly undermines the boys he's supposed to be rehabilitating. His subtle Victim Blaming of Ivar and the rest of barrack C and his capitulation to Blackmail are revealing.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When the committee comes to the island to inspect the boys, when asked, Erling comments how "delicious" is the food. The Governor gives him a Death Glare.
  • Deathbed Confession: As Olav is trying to pull him from the freezing fjord, Erling apparently deems it urgent to inform him that the person they've been writing to isn't his Girlfriend in Canada, as he had allowed Olav to believe, but his sister.
  • Death Glare: Olav gives one to the Governor when he is about to receive his release certificate. Before Erling stops his intent, he would have answered the Governor with a stone to the temple.
  • The Determinator: Erling is going to escape from Bastøy or die trying.
  • Deuteragonist: Olav first appears as the Governor's minion and seems poised to be The Dragon, but proves to be The Lancer instead. The film's second half shifts gradually into Olav's perspective, and by the end, it's Erling who is The Lancer to him.
    • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Erling and Olav. Erling is openly defiant, audacious, rude, resilient, and uneducated but clever and calculating. Olav is controlled and polite, kind, intelligent, and introverted, but internally conflicted. Early on, Olav tries to restrain Erling; by the end, Erling has to restrain Olav.
  • Driven to Suicide: Bråthen intimidates Ivar into believing that even reassignment to the forest work crew won't help him avoid sexual abuse at his hands. To escape him, Ivar walks into the sea.
  • Don't Tell Mama: As far as the girl Erling writes to knows, he's on a whaling ship. He plans to be back with her before she can learn otherwise.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Governor. Mister Governor if you're nasty.
    • Nominal Importance: The English subtitles don't give the names of most of the background characters, who, though they appear frequently enough to be recognisable, have little dialogue.
    • You Are Number 6: The inmates are designated by the letter of their barrack and a number: Erling is C19, Olav is C1, Ivar is C5, Øystein is C9. Though the Governor and Bråthen invariably use the designations, the boys don't use them among themselves.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Erling, Øystein, and Olav are ordered into Teeth-Clenched Teamwork felling trees as punishment for fighting. The hard labour, scant rations, and Hostile Weather just unite them in hatred of the school.
  • Genre Savvy: The Governor's wife is already uncomfortable by her husband's mismanagement of the correctional's funds and having to reside on the island, finally deciding to leave him when he decides to cover up for a pedophile.
  • Graduate from the Story: After six years of good behaviour, Olav is desperately trying to do this. He asks Erling to defer his escape attempts until after he is paroled, three weeks after Erling's arrival. He ends up sabotaging his own discharge by attacking Bråthen.
    Erling: I've gotten to know someone who's about to sign off. For six years he's done everything right. Now he's going ashore.
  • Great Escape: Erling and Øystein's first plan is to ingest toxic mushrooms, break out of sick bay, break into the boathouse using pieces of broken sawblade with handles made from strips of bedsheet, and row across the fjord. Eleven-year-old Olav tried to stow away on the mail boat, and someone once tried to swim the fjord.
  • Hufflepuff House: If barrack C, then barracks A and B. Presumably.
  • Icon of Rebellion: Barrack C lines up to shake Øystein's hand after his escape attempt, and he only got as far as the infirmary.
  • Implied Trope:
    • Bråthen's devious behavior with the boys is just implied until the Governor puts it into words.
    • The inmates know of a boy that lost his ability to speak when he banged his head repeatedly when he was placed in solitary confinement. Bjarne the barnkeep is both a former inmate at the island and he seems stunted, traumatized and unable to speak.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure:
    • Barrack C is sentenced to daily inspections after Erling suggests that the inspector smells of drink.
    • This is the reason Olav is reluctant to take any action, as anything that happens to Barrack C will fall into his responsibility jeopardizing his imminent release from the correctional.
  • Just Ignore It:
    • The Governor is forced to turn a blind eye on Bråthen's molesting of Ivar because he has dirt on his fund management. Though he sincerely didn't know from the start until Olav pointed it out, he intended to bury it when Ivar kills himself.
    • There are indications that there is some awareness from the rest of the staff about Bråthen's devious behavior, as they warn the boys that they will not be safe by doing field work.
  • The Marvelous Deer: A stag elk – in Norway, "the king of the forest" – appears unheralded on the island in the midst of the riot, creating a moment of stillness and Erling's realisation that the fjord is frozen over.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    "I once saw a whale get hit by three harpoons, and still keep going. It took him a whole day to die. He was weaker because of the harpoon I'd hit him with. And covered in scars from all the battles he'd fought."
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: The boys turning on the staff – particularly Olav, who eventually snaps after following the rules and taking the blame anyway for problems caused by Erling, Bråthen and the Governor.
    • Ivar rats out Erling's escape attempt after Erling refuses to take him along.
    • The Dog Bites Back: Bjarne attacks Bråthen in the barn when Bråthen, hiding from the rioting students, unwisely insults Bjarne yet again.
  • Nautical Motif: Erling was a harpooner on a whaling ship, and apparently takes the memory of a particularly determined whale as a role model. He evolves a story for Olav and Øystein in which they are the crew of a whaling vessel. The latrine overlooking the fjord where he does much of this storytelling is like a wooden ship inside, surrounded by the sound of the ocean. When Olav is released, he tells Erling they might meet again aboard some ship, and in the epilogue he has indeed become a sailor.
  • Never Learned to Read: Erling. Olav befriends him by covering for him in class and reading and writing down his letters for him.
  • Never My Fault: Bråthen, when accused of abusing a student, claims to have been helping Ivar cope with bullying by "those animals in barrack C." The Governor, having failed to protect Ivar, tries to persuade Barrack C that their cruelty and Ivar's weakness were to blame, with extra guilt-tripping as a thank-you to the whistleblower.
  • New Transfer Student: The story opens with Erling and Ivar's arrival on the island. The welcoming committee includes having their hair cut off, being renamed with numbers, and walking naked across the courtyard to their barrack through the crowd of assessing students.
  • Pedophile Teacher: Housefather Bråthen doesn't do his job for the excellent pay and benefits.
  • Penal Colony: Bastøy, the site of the reform school from 1900 to 1953, is a small island 75 km down-fjord from Oslo and is partly self-supporting through the prisoners' farm labour. It's still a minimum security prison for adult men.
  • Prison Rape: No abusive institutional exposé is complete without some unfortunate kid being molested by a pedophile authority figure – Ivar and Bråthen, respectively. In the sense of rape of fellow prisoners, though, the trope is averted.
    • Rape as Drama: The sexual abuse is treated deadly seriously, both psychologically in its traumatic effects on Ivar, and dramatically in its exposure of the Governor's hypocrisy and its ultimate effect of touching off the riot.
    • Rape Discretion Shot: Bråthen is never shown doing anything to Ivar. Erling, Olav, and Ivar talk around what happens. Only the Governor explicitly articulates it.
  • Prison Riot: The film is based on a Real Life incident. In this version, the riot is touched off by Olav attacking Bråthen, and leads to the boys chasing the staff off the island, ransacking the school, burning down a barn, and scattering when the authorities arrive to quell the revolt.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The Governor is a pro at them. Barrack C, Erling, Olav, and Bråthen are all on the receiving end, until the Governor is completely silenced in his final scene.
  • Sadistic Teacher: Bråthen despises the students and hits and belittles them on the slightest pretext. And that's before the rape.
  • Simple Score of Sadness: Mostly Playing the Heart Strings on a sombre Norwegian fiddle, with a recurring Lonely Piano Piece sample from Sigur Rós for extra pathos.
  • Son of a Whore: A drunken whore and a petty thief! Olav, according to the Governor. All of the boys whose history is mentioned come from lower-class backgrounds, in contrast with the hypocritical respectability of the staff.
  • The Speechless: Bjarne, the mute ex-inmate with an Ambiguous Disorder, presumably the result of a life spent on Bastøy. Even as a mentally ill, adult employee of the school, he's constantly insulted by Bråthen.
  • Stealing from the Till: How Bråthen blackmails the Governor into silence after Olav reports him for sexually abusing Ivar.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Ivar betrays Erling's escape attempt in order to punish him for not allowing Ivar to come with him, and is condemned by the rest Barrack C for it. Erling shames Olav into reporting Bråthen's abuse of Ivar, but the Governor, though he acts on the information, treats Olav with disgust for bringing the subject up.
  • Story Within a Story: In his letters, Erling recasts events on Bastøy as those of the whaling ship he's pretending to be still aboard. Erling is the harpooner, Olav and Ivar are deckhands, Øystein is the cook, the Governor is the captain. The whale they're struggling with might be Bastøy itself.
  • Snow Means Cold: It's snowing at some of the lowest points of the film, just to increase the characters' misery – while Erling is piling rocks for hours in the yard; when he's recaptured and dragged barefoot back to Bastøy; when Olav is leaving and Bråthen returning; and when the Governor is driven out.
  • Snow Means Death: It's also snowing when Erling pulls Ivar from the fjord, and there's snow on the ground during the riot and escape across the ice.
  • Take My Hand: Olav has to pull Erling from A Crack in the Ice.
  • Title Drop
    Erling: Lieutenant? I need to talk to someone higher up.
    Erling: I wish to speak to the King of Norway.
    Erling: Tell him. . . it's the King of Bastøy.
  • Unnaturally Blue Lighting: It's never sunny on Bastøy.
  • What Are You in For?: The Governor warns Erling that they don't discuss the past; Olav asks during their first conversation. Erling refuses to say, but later he returns the question.
    Erling: What had you done at eleven to be sent here?
    Olav: I stole from the church donation box.


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