In a darkened room at the Kunsthall museum in Bergen, visitors can stretch out on a beanbag below a speaker and eavesdrop on a nine-year-old girl talking to her mother at bedtime. “Is Dad evil, Mum?” the girl’s disembodied voice asks. Bedsheets rustle with impatience as the mother fails to conclusively answer her question. “Is Dad possessed by the devil?” A police siren is heard passing on the street outside. “Am I also possessed by the devil since I’m his daughter?”
The girl in the recording, reenacted from memory, is artist Lene Berg, and Dad is the film director Arnljot Berg, an influential figure in 1970s Norway. The reason why little Lene thought her father may have been possessed by Satan is evident from the series of Norwegian and French newspaper headlines that have been embroidered into curtains that hang around the space. In 1975, Arnljot was arrested in Paris for the murder of his second wife, Evelyne Zammit. He took his life a few years after his release from prison, when Lene was a teenager.
In this sound installation, Lene’s mother tries to assure the restless child that Evelyne’s death was an accident. Now 57, Lene is unequivocal when asked if her father killed his wife. “Yes, I think he did it,” she tells me, via video call from the gallery. “There’s no doubt that he killed her. But I think he went in and out of accepting the guilt and saying it was an accident. Until I started this project, I had the feeling he had not accepted his guilt properly. He had a strong armour, and one way of shielding himself was to be very pathetic. I never asked him whether he killed her or how she died. That’s probably because I worried he would say something like: ‘I am a very bad person, Lene.’”
Arnljot was sentenced to five years, four on probation, a surprisingly lenient sentence that meant he effectively walked free after the trial, having spent the previous 15 months in prison. Classified court documents, which Lene got hold of shortly before the opening of the Kunsthall installation but chose not to properly scrutinise until after, show that Evelyne’s father testified on Arnljot’s behalf.
“I suspect Evelyne’s death was a suicide of sorts, a suicide by proxy,” says Lene. “That is my reading of it now. But the question of whether that would be evil is still unclear to me. As a child, I wondered if my father was an evil man, and that is still something I find impossible to answer. I think you would need to feel an incredible amount of anger and rage to kill someone. And in moments like that, this incredibly intelligent and warm man who was my father is still like a stranger to me.”
Lene is known as an artist who investigates the lives of others rather than her own. Encounter: Gentlemen & Arseholes, from 2006, was her first notable project, an annotated reprint of the first edition of Encounter, a literary magazine founded by poet Stephen Spender later found to have been covertly funded by the CIA.
A fascination with cold-war culture inspired Lene’s first two art films: 2006’s The Man in the Background, about the CIA agent Michael Josselson; and 2008’s Stalin by Picasso or Portrait of Woman With Moustache, about a lost work – sketched when the Soviet leader died – that was immediately denounced by the French Communist party for straying from social realism. Her films share a DIY aesthetic reminiscent of Michel Gondry or early Wes Anderson, but with a drily sarcastic undercurrent rather than twee romanticism. “Realism?” she has Picasso ask in her film. “Is that Stalin with an erection or without?”
The Bergen exhibition – called Fra Far, meaning From Father – is conceived in her trademark style. For a short film showing in the first room of the show, Lene built a miniature set of the French car park where her father was arrested, complete with Matchbox cars, model railway figures and vape smoke blowing across the scene to evoke early-morning fog.
Her shift towards personal memories, instead of archive material or courtroom documents, is new. “In a sense, I have now used the same method on my own life that I used to use on others. Maybe I had to do that. I have done extensive research on many themes and people, but this material belongs to me.”
Cerebral and driven by themes, Lene’s works break free of the usual art-world restraints on storytelling: many of her films are so much fun to watch, you instantly want to show them to your friends. Her 2013 documentary Kopfkino, in which BDSM sex workers share drinks and talk shop around a Last Supper-style dinner table, could have been a hit on Netflix.
At the start of her career, she says, film people told her she was only winning awards because the art world didn’t understand film, while art critics complained she wasn’t actually making art. “Art critics had a feeling there was too much story in my films, that this was too close to entertainment. Whereas film people thought my films were totally experimental. I think those positions have changed.”
Lene’s father directed five feature films, two of which were shown at the Berlin film festival. However, she says: “He never really found his style or form.” Arnljot remains better known in Norway for a TV programme that introduced the country to modern European cinema.
When she became a film director, Lene spent years trying to distance herself from her father. School friends told her their parents advised them not to hang out with her. “It became very important for me not to be Arnljot Berg’s daughter,” says Lene, who left Oslo to study film in Stockholm, and now mostly lives in Berlin. “But then, a couple of years ago, I gave a presentation at a film convention, and I realised that even film people really don’t know who my father was any more. Even those who did had no idea I am connected to him. I was no longer defined as his daughter. Rather, it was the other way around.”
She pauses and says of the show about her father: “I am not interested in reinstating his grandeur. But I also didn’t want it to be an attack, or a reckoning. I really just wanted to remember him in as many facets as I could.”
Fra Far is at Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, until 21 August.