Norwegian Ninja

It makes me happy to wake up and discover, more or less totally by accident, that the world of film is still surprising and delightful. I have no idea how I heard of Norwegian Ninja. Perhaps appropriate to the subject matter, awareness of the movie simply popped into my head with no external stimulus at all, like the world knew that I needed to know Norwegian Ninja existed, and the cosmos took whatever metaphysical steps were needed to enlighten me. There it was all of a sudden on my television, and I was pretty happy. After this and Troll Hunter, maybe I should start paying attention to Norway beyond making jokes about the black metal scene and how their scary devil make-up isn’t as scary as they think it is when all those people pose for a photo out in their back yard.

I won’t pretend to be well versed in the particulars of recent Norwegian history. There was, what? Some trolls, and then black metal, and I think something about guys in horned helmets, only they never actually wore helmets like that. Then Ernest Borgnine hollered and jumped in a pit full of rabid dogs while waving around a couple battle axes. And that brings us pretty much up to the modern era, right? So I confess my ignorance up front, but also have done my best to rectify it somewhat, at least as pertains to the subject in this movie, which is Norwegian cold war espionage during the 1980s. I mean, that’s a pretty awesome sounding topic anyway, so I was happy to study up a little.

The primary joke in Norwegian Ninja is that the movie is a true story. Central character Arne Treholt is, in fact, a real person, which people probably know if those people are Norwegian. He was a member of the Norwegian Labour Party and in 1984 was arrested and convicted of espionage and treason after being accused of passing confidential data to agents of the KGB during the 70s and first half of the 80s. The trial was sensational not just because it came at the height of Cold War paranoia, but because the evidence against Treholt was considered by many to be somewhat flimsy, if not totally non-existent. Accusations continue to be made as late as a book published in 2010 that most of the damning evidence against Treholt was fabricated or planted by antagonistic intelligence organizations. Regardless of the questionable nature of the evidence, the politician was found guilty and sentenced to twenty years in prison, only eight of which he served before being pardoned.

Severe criticism of the quality of the prosecution even caused the case to be re-evaluated in the fall of 2010, an event that could possibly result in Arne receiving a new trial. It’s likely the flare-up in interest surrounding Arne Treholt is what got Norwegian Ninja made, though writer-director Thomas Cappelen Malling takes a slightly quirky approach to recounting the history of Norway’s most notorious “traitor.” As imagined by the movie, Arne Treholt was actually the commander of an elite, ultra top-secret special force of ninjas who answered only to the king of Norway. After endlessly irritating Stay Behind, an anti-Communist black ops organization with close ties to the CIA, Arne and his band of ninjas are either framed for treason or murdered.

To tell this bizarre “secret history,” Malling uses a variety of techniques that give the movie a documentary-like feel, including the use of authentic archival news footage. He also gives the film a slightly faded, grainy appearance similar to what you got from old Jacques Cousteau documentaries or the covers of VHS rental tapes that had been on display in the store window too long and had become sort of yellowed and washed out. Malling also uses a clever and mostly convincing combination of CGI and terrible miniatures dangling from wires to give the film its old school look.

Arne’s Ninja Force lives on a pastoral wooded island where they commune with nature, meditate, study ninjitsu, and sometimes swing into action to protect Norway from enemies both foreign and domestic. Particularly irritating to the laid-back but effective ninjas is Stay Behind, headed up by failed Ninja Forcer Otto Meyer (Jon Oigarden) and dedicated to committing acts of terrorism that are blamed on the Soviets in order to convince Norwegians to go along with whatever policy the United States wants them to adopt. From Arne’s point of view, being loyal to Norway doesn’t mean kowtowing to the United States, nor does it mean being mindlessly hostile toward the neighboring Soviets. When he meets with a couple Soviet agents to apologize for Norway’s freak-out over some phantom Soviet subs (most of which was staged by Stay Behind), Otto sees it as an opportunity to frame the ninja for treason, getting Arne out of the way so Stay Behind can pull off a series of dramatic terrorist attacks that will galvanize public support for a more aggressive anti-Communist approach.

Stay Behind is another of the true parts of Norwegian Ninja‘s “true story.” Created jointly by the CIA and whatever other shady ops groups were working for NATO at the time, Stay Behind were meant to be already-in-place resistance movements should the Soviets move in and take over a particular country. As is often the case with shadowy organizations invested with a somewhat vague mission that causes members to presume they are above the law, some of the Stay Behind enclaves decided to get a little bit more creative with their anti-Soviet operations and started carrying out terrorist attacks meant to look like they’d been perpetrated by the Reds. In 1978, Norwegian police raided the home of Hans Otto Meyer, believed to be the head of a Norwegian Stay Behind group, and found a large cache of weapons and lord knows what else. Director Thomas Malling decided that the Meyer case and the Treholt case went together as well as bacon and syrup (don’t pretend like you haven’t done it), and the resulting tale is Norwegian Ninja. Think of it as historical fiction for the Cold War era.

As with another recent Norwegian comedy, 2010’s Troll Hunter, Norwegian Ninja plays it pretty dry with the humor, though there’s more overt jokes here than in Troll Hunter. For the most part, the humor is effective. Arne entering rooms by simply appearing in a puff of smoke is perhaps a predictable ninja joke, but one that is never the less delightful every time it happens. The fact that the entire island is protected by a feng shui field that is modulated by turning fu dog statues slightly askew made me smile as well. The comedy is mixed in with a good dose of old school espionage action — the night-time raid on an oil drilling platform being the action highlight — and intentionally awkward (and thus somewhat more realistic) martial arts training and fight scenes.

But what really made the film special is its attention to the philosophy and spirituality behind what Arne’s task force is doing, in regards to both the martial arts and politics. During the opening mock recruitment video, Arne explains that the original ninja were not mighty warriors and assassins; they were farmers who understood the land and used their knowledge of local surroundings to stand up to aggressive, better funded, better equipped samurai looking to exploit the rural folk. Hell, it’s a more accurate explanation than we ever got during the ninja craze of the 1980s. Arne’s troop comes off like a force of well-trained hippies, complete with shaggy hair, Zen enlightenment, and campfire sing-alongs (which irritates the shaved-head, militaristic Otto to no end).

Similarly, the movie’s take on patriotism is refreshingly progressive, especially as we operate now in a climate of hyper-jingoism and xenophobia. There’s a melancholy about Arne and his ninja, as it increasingly looks like their policy of understanding, of reasoning out a situation rather than simply charging in full of bravado and paranoia, becomes antiquated and suspect. When action is called for, they act, but the ninja don’t like being dicked around by a self-serving bureaucracy or war-mongering hawks. That sort of carefully considered thought, that questioning of official claims and authority figures blustering and throwing their weight around, should be the norm, not the fringe. It should be the patriotic duty of everyone to keep a wary eye on our elected leaders and not accept their word at face value. Instead, we exist in an environment where even tepid questioning of authority is often met with shouting, madness, and cries of being unpatriotic.

One of the things I like about watching movies from other countries, especially movies that deal with the Cold War, is the different perspective and attitude one gets on the situation. I was in high school during the 1980s and remember the last throes of Cold War paranoia vividly, as well as the ways in which we in the United States dealt with it in popular culture (Wolverines!!!). Since I was also a rowdy punk in the 80s, I was less likely to buy into Reagan era hate and doom scenarios than others, but I won’t pretend like the specter of nuclear war didn’t loom heavily over pretty much everything, however fabricated parts of it may have been. Hell, my friends and I even had a nuclear war survival shelter built in the woods not too far from where we lived — and thank god the war never came, because had we been forced to rely on that shelter…

Malling’s film places Norway and its central character of Arne where Norway actually sat — stuck between two grumpus super powers locked in a deadly battle of “made ya flinch!” Norwegian Ninja is not entirely anti-American (after all, the “American black ops organization goes rogue” scenario is plenty common in American espionage films), just as it’s not entirely pro-Communist. What you have instead is the real/pretend Arne Treholt, a man who recognizes that the democratic side is capable of dictatorship-esque atrocities just as the Communist side is composed of actual human beings who aren’t altogether different than people on the western side of the Iron Curtain. What he wants more than anything is for these two bruisers to stop bullying smaller countries. And he wants to oppose corrupt militarists and politicians who use Cold War fear to manipulate populations and enrich themselves.

It’s an interesting political razor’s edge to walk, and a stance with which I am generally sympathetic. Being a proponent as I am of free speech and political expression, there’s little in the old Soviet style government that I find worth praising. At the same time, it breaks my heart to watch the self-proclaimed bastions of freedom slide further and further down the slippery slope to tyranny while hyping up an assortment of threats to “our way of life” in hopes of whipping people up into a paranoid hysteria that makes politicians more powerful, erodes civil liberties, and marginalizes reason. These sorts of things don’t happen in one big chunk. You don’t wake up one day and find yourself living in East Germany. Instead, rights are whittled away in tiny little bits which, taken one at a time, seem acceptable, even prudent, until you begin to look at the sum of what’s been done. The United States isn’t a police state, despite the rhetoric you may sometimes hear. But not being a police state doesn’t mean we aren’t diligently agreeing to a series of baby steps leading us in that direction.

Although Norwegian Ninja is spoofing the look of old espionage films, no one plays it goofy. There’s an earnestness in the performances that helps sell the central concept. As is almost always the case, playing it straight makes the comedy a lot funnier than if the movie had been full of over the top cartoonishness and mugging. Norwegian Ninja is occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but for the most part, it strives for and achieves a more subdued sense of consistent amusement.

Familiarity with Cold War politics, Norwegian history, and of course, martial arts and espionage movies will augment your enjoyment, but I don’t see them as being entirely necessarily for finding the movie entertaining. Norwegian Ninja puts its heart into creating its own believable universe and succeeds no matter how fantastic the events become. By the time they’re done building their little world, you discover that you’re totally invested emotionally in it and the bizarre, hippie-ninja-super soldiers who inhabit it. When Otto and his forces lay siege to the ninjas’ island with assault teams and carpet bombing, it’s downright upsetting (especially when one of the ninjas is bravely shouting, “We must save the animals!”).

Aside from looking freakishly similar to the real Arne Treholt, Mads Ousdal plays the role with conviction. The supporting cast is similarly serious about absurdist material, and although the character of Otto is one that could easily lend itself to hamming it up, Jon Oigarden knows just how far to take it without taking it too far. The other character to get substantial screen time is rookie ninja Humla (played by Norwegian rocker Amund Maarud), who is very committed to the ninja force while also being totally confused by almost everything that goes on around him. Despite Humla’s mediocre performance during training, Arne ensures the youth that he will one day be the master of the ninja force. Exactly what this means, however, only becomes clear once Arne is targeted for elimination by Otto’s nefarious group of mercenaries. The rest of the ninjas are more thinly sketched, though they get enough development to make you actually care about what happens to them.

Author turned director Thomas Cappelen Malling pulls off a mostly flawless film, or at least close enough for my money. Totally flawless would be pretty boring after all. He opts for a largely documentary style approach to the narrative and camera work, though unlike many other faux-documentaries, he doesn’t over-indulge in shaking cameras and other irritants. Malling and cinematographer Trond Hoines don’t let the fake documentary approach serve as an excuse for shoddy filmmaking. I wonder sometimes if a lot of the people who go for the faux documentary look have ever actually seen a documentary. I mean, documentarians do still work really hard at things like cinematography, camera steadiness, and, you know, keeping the shot in focus and whatnot. Norwegian Ninja shoots for the polish of a documentary made by accomplished amateurs, and it nails it. As always, the dramatic scenery of Norway does its part to augment the cinematography.

What Arne Treholt actually did remains to be puzzled out. What he was thinking and how he felt when he did it are internal dialogues I can’t pretend to know, and that may or may not finally be dragged into the light if his case finds itself back in the spotlight, as it seems like it’s about to. But it’s easy to sympathize with the ninja version of Arne Treholt and the precarious situation in which he and his scruffy band of elite soldiers find themselves. That’s not to say that the politics of Norwegian Ninja are front and center or especially heavy on the shoulders. This is an action-comedy after all, and while politics are at the heart of the events, I think persuading viewers of one political philosophy or another is not among the film’s top priorities — though encouraging people, even through fairly absurdist means, to question “the official story” probably is.

Norwegian Ninja is a rich enough storytelling experience that you can approach it as satire, as action-comedy, as a political thriller, as a philosophical treatise. It operates on multiple levels and has a lot to offer viewers. Norway seems to be well on the way to having itself a lovely little film renaissance, at least in terms of genre films and the sort of things I like to watch. Norwegian Ninja was a hugely entertaining movie for me. Films like this remind me, like I said, of why I love writing about film. You can chug along, even start to get jaded and think you’ve either seen it all, or at least seen all that’s worth seeing, and then, like a Scandinavian special forces ninja, up pops a movie like this that makes you grin and appreciate movies all over again.

Release Year: 2010 | Country: Norway | Starring: Mads Ousdal, Jon Oigarden, Trond-Viggo Torgersen, Linn Stokke, Amund Maarud, Martinus Grimstad Olsen, Oyvind Venstad Kjeksrud, Henrik Horge | Screenplay: Thomas Cappelen Malling | Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling | Cinematography: Trond Hoines | Music: Gaute Tonder | Producer: Eric Vogel