A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
When it comes to the early days of Norwegian black metal, the facts have always been mired in exaggeration, posturing, and fan loyalty. So it's no surprise the Mayhem biopic Lords of Chaos from director Jonas Åkerlund raised hackles even before it started shooting. How can a film tell the—even remotely fact-based—story of Mayhem's rise to infamy without washing off some of the corpse paint?
Lords of Chaos shows the originators of Norwegian black metal as ambitious and at times overwhelmed youngsters. The film follows Mayhem's founder Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth (Rory Culkin) from early tremolo shreds in his parents' basement to Helvete, his genre-building record store in Oslo, and his brutal murder at the height of his underground fame. Euronymous' murderer, Varg Vikernes (Emory Cohen), followed in Mayhem's wake with his one-man project Burzum and played bass for them. Maybe it was this position in Euronymous' shadow that motivated Vikernes to burn down churches and eventually stab his former friend to death.
Vikernes had an accomplice, a young black metal musician. The film credit only reads "Varg's Driver" for legal reasons, so we'll refrain from using his name here. The taciturn sidekick is portrayed by German actor Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht. A generation of kids grew up admiring Ochsenknecht in the family film series The Wild Soccer Bunch, but he's clearly developed an interest in the dark side. When Polish extreme metal legends Behemoth played in Berlin recently, Ochsenknecht and I went backstage to talk Lords of Chaos with frontman Nergal, who's followed the Norwegian scene from its inception.
VICE: Wilson, the cast of Lords of Chaos is mostly American and director Jonas Åkerlund is Swedish. You're the only German actor. How did you get involved in the film?
Wilson Gonzalez Ochsenknecht: I play a little part, but it was actually a fight to be in the movie.
Wilson: I got asked to audition for the movie, but they dropped it for a while when it didn't get financed. So I started to hunt Jonas down, because I really wanted to be in it. I started growing my hair out and watched and read everything on the topic. I auditioned for lots of characters: Dead, Occultus, Hellhammer. After the seventh audition, I was exhausted. And then they started shooting, so I thought I was out. Then they asked me to audition again. I was emotionally done and was like, “Fuck, man, not again!”
But you did audition, right?
Wilson: My friend who helps me record was gone, so I put my MacBook on a pile of books and recorded myself playing against my own voice with, like, spaces in between. I think it was the worst audition ever. But two hours later they said, "You're leaving for Budapest in two days." I was happy about my role, even though it's not that big. I knew they needed names, and I'm like this unknown German guy.
Nergal, you've been involved in extreme metal since the days the film is set in. What did you think about Lords of Chaos?
Nergal: I have an ambivalent [opinion]. I remember the early nineties, when I was a spectator to the whole Norwegian drama and the scene. I had friends there and stuff. I was still a kiddo, a teenager, so I felt very much connected with that and it felt inspiring in many ways as well. But it was very real and scary and just very sincere, too. Obviously I'm familiar with Jonas' productions and I'm pretty much a fan of his videos. He did some great work for…
Wilson: For everyone.
Nergal: For everyone, from Madonna to fucking Satyricon. So he's a pro, right? And I really like how the movie is done. I definitely give it credit for the acting and how it's all put together. And I need to give credit for paying attention to details. Because a lot of stuff is very much literal and one-to-one. I've seen it and I remember. I was in the [record] store.
How did all those little details feel behind the scenes, Wilson?
Wilson: When I got on set, I saw this house and the VW band bus with the Mayhem logo on the back. It felt like stepping out of a time machine, bizarre and beautiful at the same time. Whether some things were fiction or not, they felt very real and organic. That really blew me away. The outfits—everything we had was original stuff from the nineties. Some shirts were valuable pieces from museums. Things like axes and chain mail were collected from various places. Jonas and the costume and art direction people are a really tight team, and they've all been into this story for so long. They had a lot of time to find the right things.
Nergal, you said you had an ambivalent opinion on the film, though?
Nergal: It feels like it's very realistic. Yet, I think the whole story is way too shallow, too trivialized. It looks banal.
What was the part that was missing for you?
Nergal: Well, I'm not a filmmaker, but I would just do it way more serious, less Hollywood. I like the Millennium books and I've seen the movie, but I'm a fan of the Swedish production rather than the Daniel Craig one. Obviously the Hollywood one is the one that's selling. I know the thinking behind it and I'm cool with that. But it's like with music: I'm more interested in stuff outside the mainstream, niches where stuff is scarier. That's why I'm a huge fan of Netflix, because you can watch amazing local stuff. In Germany you’ve got Dogs of Berlin, which I think is fucking awesome! Some local guys tell me the acting sucks. I don't care. I watch it in German with subtitles and I sense danger there. To me Berlin is just being a tourist and shopping, but it shows you the dark side of [the city], you know? And it's not cheesy. What I don't like about Lords of Chaos is the cheesiness in it, and it's pretty much all over the place.
OK, those are some stronger words. Wilson?
Nergal: Defend yourself! [Laughs]
Wilson: [Laughs] I don't have to defend myself, because I myself am actually more a fan of European movies, especially old ones. I think Jonas tried to go as extreme as possible, but in the Hollywood way.
Nergal: Yeah, that's what I sensed too. I don't think the movie is very Hollywood-like, but I see some of that shallowness there. So it's somewhere in between. For this, this, and that reason, it's fucking awesome. For the other stuff, I'm not sure. I understand that some of these guys who were there are probably like, "Fuck." They're personally, emotionally related to that, so probably anything on that topic will be disturbing for them.
Wilson: Even I had problems when we were shooting. I prepared for some things that were known about my character. He went to school with Euronymous, so they knew each other. They're like, "Doesn't matter. You're gonna meet the guys for the first time in the movie. Just say hi. Or you don't say anything anyway." [Laughs] But, you know, mentally I'm still fighting, like, "Dude, this is weird."
Did you feel bad, sort of like you were lying about this real person, whose name we aren't mentioning for legal reasons? He was sentenced as Vikernes' accomplice, but your character didn't strike me as very murderous.
Wilson: Not lying. He wasn't always mentally stable. I wanted to do it so you never know, "Did he know [he was an accomplice], or didn't he?"
Nergal: Yeah, but they kinda [made it] look too dumb. I'm watching it and thinking, is he really retarded? Or is it artistic license? You know what I mean?
Wilson: Yeah, that's what somebody told me. Not that he was dumb, but a little bit off.
Nergal: Ah, OK. OK.
Wilson: It was a different way to show that, and it was also more a fun thing. Because everything's really fucked up in the end, so I think it lightens the mood a little.
In the film, we see some of the church arsons Vikernes was convicted for. That was another thing that looked very real to me. Did the churches look real at all on set, Wilson?
Wilson: It was real. You could say those were actual churches. I think one was a quarter scale model, but that was still 15 meters high. The other one was four or five meters. To make it burn brighter, the crew put so much wood into the smaller one, the one with the bomb. They had to carry the cameras further away and take a break so the equipment wouldn't melt. It was nearly singeing our faces. The other one we actually went close to; we just sat there and enjoyed the moment. I was there with [Mayhem's singer] Attila. He thought it was cool too. His son plays him in the movie.
That sounds like the relationship between Jonas Åkerlund and Mayhem isn't all that bad. A while back, members of the band said some pretty negative things. How did he win them over?
Wilson: I think the first thing Jonas did was to contact Euronymous' parents, and then he sent the scripts to Necrobutcher and Hellhammer. Of course they were skeptical at first. Who wouldn't be when some guy shows up to make a movie about you? That's just weird. Then Hellhammer wrote to Anthony de la Torre, who plays him, that he liked the video Metallica shot with us on set. I think Necrobutcher was still a bit skeptical then. Probably because he's Necrobutcher.
Did you meet anyone in the band besides Attila, Wilson?
Wilson: Mayhem played in Oslo toward the end of our shoot and Hellhammer invited us on Facebook. I was with Attila already, but I was scared, you know. Because then we got the message that we're to go backstage. I was like, "Nooo. I'm just gonna stay here, maybe?" Because Necrobutcher's gonna say, "Fuck this, fuck everyone, fuck Hollywood!" I never met him that evening, but everyone else, and they were really kind and nice.
Did you grow up with metal, like Nergal?
Wilson: When I was 12, 13, I started listening to bands like Slayer, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Slipknot. From the age of 15 I went to [the German festival] Rock am Ring every year. I just loved the atmosphere in the crowd. Even though I broke two ribs, and one time my ankle.
Moshing and breaking bones—pretty hardcore! Did you have any interest in black metal in those days? Did you know Mayhem?
Wilson: I always knew Mayhem existed, but I had no further connection before I was asked to be in the movie. I knew there were church burnings. In Germany I heard on the news that there were Satanic killings–
Nergal: [The black metal band] Absurd, yes.
Wilson: They polarized it by saying it was ritualistic and stuff.
[Editor's note: The three members of the German neo-Nazi black metal band Absurd murdered 15-year-old Sandro Beyer in 1993. The case made headlines as "the Satanic murder of Sondershausen," propelling the band to infamy. An Absurd member was also interviewed for the book Lords of Chaos.]
So did you talk about the film with members of Mayhem, Wilson?
Wilson: We didn't talk much about it. Because I feel terrible, in a way. I respect their feelings, you know. But the story is just so good. It's what I always wanted to do, even if it was just a small role. Being a part of it is definitely an adventure and one of my personal highlights.
Nergal: Cool. I have some questions too!
OK, great! Fire away, Nergal.
Nergal: Because probably you got some insight into that: Was Varg really such a fuckin'… such a fucker? They made him like a fucking gigolo of Norway!
Wilson: Someone Jonas knows in the Norwegian scene confirmed it. So it looks like it's true! Apparently he was really into porn and stuff too.
Anything else you're wondering, Nergal?
Nergal: The next question that comes up after watching the movie is: Was Øystein really such an opportunist? It made him look like one. If he wasn't really like that, that's not cool. But then again, a movie has to sell, and artistic license is the fucking iron rule of every artist. "It's my creation and I can do whatever the fuck I want with it"—that's how I defend my albums when someone tries to dissect them. Hey, that's art. Fuck off!
Wilson: That's how you felt at the time and that's how it came out.
Nergal: Absolutely! Who am I to fucking sit here and—no, it was definitely an interesting experience and I'm happy I saw it. And this movie is not gonna bring in extra support for what happened, because at the end of the day it's just burning buildings. It's vandalism and it's not very smart, let's put it that way. There's other ways to fight bigotry and backward thinking. But it's gonna bring some attention to heavy metal again, which is always good. We're selling out tonight's venue [with Behemoth]. It's 1,600 people; that's amazing. Maybe next time we'll sell out a 3,000-cap room. Probably not. Whatever numbers we can reach, it still remains an underground genre of music, period.
Have you both read Lords of Chaos , the book the film is partly based on?
Nergal: I read the book when it was out. It's still interesting for me because I was a spectator; I saw it all from a distance. I was in Poland and nobody had internet back then, so we'd get all the information by mail and stuff. I still have a fucking pile of original regional papers I got from my Norwegian pals. And the Varg trial on VHS, hours and hours of it. I never try to sound judgmental, but it was super naïve, you know, and [the film] made it look very naïve. They were like children in a fog.
Wilson: Totally. When I was approached about the movie like six years ago, I asked my girlfriend, "Hey, do you know Lords of Chaos?" She had the book on her coffee table, along with the photo book from VICE.
True Norwegian Black Metal by Peter Beste? Awesome.
Wilson: Exactly. And I just read the books, and everything else I could find. And I've been stuck on the subject for years now.
Say you have to commit arson. Of course nobody wants to, but let's pretend you have no choice. What building would you pick?
Nergal: The Polish government… the main building.
Wilson: Or an AfD building. That's not bad.
So Wilson would target this right-wing party in Germany, and you're going straight for the government, Nergal?
Nergal: Yeah. [Everyone laughs] I fucking hate the Polish ruling party. For many reasons, [like how] they never want to make friends with Germany and Russia. They always want to stand in their position and pretend they're stronger than they are. But I don't want them to die.
Wilson: Yeah, we mean, like, at night, when they're gone.
Nergal: Of course.
Wilson: The churches [in Norway] were all empty too. Eighty percent of churches in Scandinavia are empty now because no one is religious.
Nergal: They're all wearing [Thor's hammer] Mjölnir around their necks anyway.
Yeah, Nordic paganism is really booming again up there, it seems.
Nergal: It's probably because of the Vikings too.
Vikings, the show?
Nergal: Yeah, it's fucking amazing. I think the new episode is on now, so I need to download it.
Wilson: It's good. I've seen it through the end of the second season.
Nergal: Ah, I'm up to date with it.
In the film, Euronymous mocks Varg over a Scorpions patch. Is the shade even justified? Do the Scorpions suck?
Nergal: Not at all. Actually I bought the original Blackout shirt from like '80. That's my hobby, getting vintage shirts from 30 or 40 years back. I actually went to a show a year ago. [Lead singer] Klaus Meine is 70—he still kicks ass; he's in great shape. It's maybe the finest German rock band ever. I'm a huge fan of their middle era, Tokyo Tapes and Blackout. And I mean it.
Wilson: The funny thing is, I met [Klaus Meine] when I was little. One of the first songs I sang in school was "Wind of Change." So I always knew the Scorpions. I stopped listening to them because to me, they were friends of my dad's [famous German actor Uwe Ochsenknecht].
Literal dad rock!
Wilson: That just made it weird. Later on I listened to them again, but I've never seen them live.
Nergal: They kick ass. And now they have Mikkey Dee from Motörhead on drums, which makes it even more legit. It's really a powerhouse. Seriously, it's awesome. I'm 41 now, and I'm like, "Shit! When I'm 70, it would make sense to be that!"
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Lords of Chaos is now available on demand.