'Into the Deep': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A knockout doc.

Emma Sullivan's Netflix documentary investigates Danish inventor Peter Madsen's killing of Swedish journalist Kim Wall aboard his submarine.

Sometimes journalists and documentary filmmakers stumble into circumstances that produce unforeseeably fascinating results, while occasionally they fall into disaster or worse. Tragically, the latter was true for a Swedish writer when a charismatic genius tortured and murdered her on his homemade submarine, while the former is the case for the woman who has made Into the Deep, which breathtakingly tells the tale of the entire grievous affair. Netflix has a sensational title in this one in both senses of the word.

The pivotal event on which the whole tale turns was the murder in Copenhagen of Swedish journalist Kim Wall on Aug. 10, 2017, on board a private submarine, the UC3, designed and built by the Danish maverick inventor Peter Madsen. At first, when Wall went missing, Madsen claimed that he had let her off the boat at her own request and had no idea where she was. Eventually, her gruesomely butchered remains were found and Madsen was charged with her killing.

From a documentary film point of view, the good news was that Emma Sullivan had already been covering Madsen’s activities for a year with the intent of letting the world know about his go-it-alone approach to both air and sea ventures; in addition to his hand-crafted submarine, the charismatic and indisputably brilliant fellow had built and begun testing a rocket ship meant to make its designer the first “amateur” astronaut.

The doc’s early phases showcase both the evident skill and enterprise that went into making the projects come to fruition, and the relative amateurism of the approach; it remains unclear if the spaceship stood any chance at all of exiting Earth’s atmosphere, even though three of their rockets were launched over and into the Baltic Sea in 2017. Madsen’s employees were nearly all under 30 or so, young enough to work cheaply and go along with whatever the eccentric boss said.

With consummate skill, Sullivan contrives to compress her two different narrative tracks — the construction and testing of air and sea vehicles, and the criminal yarn — into shorter and shorter segments, thereby felicitously increasing the suspense. Naturally, the latter story strand comes to dominate once Madsen is hauled in and the horrors of what he did to Wall become known, but the material is balanced and accelerated masterfully, and without ever seeming manipulative or exploitative.

One’s heart is wrenched by what happened to Wall, but it’s undeniable that the film greatly benefits from Madsen’s cavalier brilliance, manifest engineering expertise and undoubted self-regard as an Ubermensch, one beyond reproach. It’s clear from some of his remarks that he considered himself above the law. There is no footage of him after his arrest, so we don’t know what he would say now, but true psychopaths have frequently found ways to twist and thereby justify their actions, and there’s little doubt from what’s shown that Madsen would fit into that category.

The 90-minute film moves with breathless speed and the story so quickly takes hold of the viewer that it’s hard to believe anyone not becoming fascinated by the villain of the tale, so easily does he seem to entrance and wrap anyone he wants around his little finger. The man is obviously some kind of genius, of the most diabolical nature, and he will undoubtedly get some kind of kick from becoming more famous than ever once the doc is widely shown later this year.

Production company: Plus Pictures
Distributor: Netflix
Director: Emma Sullivan
Producers: Mette Heide, Roslyn Walker
Executive producer: James Marsh
Directors of photography: Cam Matheson, Henrik Bohn Ipsen, Lars Skree, Emma Sullivan
Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

 

90 minutes