By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Like a Stieg Larsson story come to life, HBO’s new documentary series PRAY, OBEY, KILL takes a close look at a crime that shook the sleepy village of Knutby, Sweden one snowy night. Like so many crimes, the story leading up to the death is far more complicated than it initially appears. Sex, coercion, a self-styled messiah, and Sara Svensson, a then 26-year-old nanny, all play into the murder that took place inside a tight knit religious community. We spoke to director Henrik Georgsson on how he crafted a cohesive and organized series from the messy and complex crime and extended investigation.
Is this your first time directing true crime?
It depends. I’ve been doing a lot of crime series, but fiction series. One big one called Bron/Broen which had an American/Mexican version [The Bridge]. And then I did a documentary film and TV series about a Swedish crime series about crime novelist Stieg Larsson. You know The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? That wasn’t really true crime, but it had the same feeling to it, in a way. From the beginning, I’m a documentary filmmaker. Then I turned more and more into doing fiction. Now, I’ve done a few mixed things. They are documentary, but we use some fictionalized material.
What drew you to this project?
They had already started and they asked me if I wanted to direct it. I was already interested in the killing. I knew about it. When I dug a little bit deeper into it, I got more fascinated about the whole story with the congregation and these people. And also, about the journalistic work of Martin Johnson and Anton Berg. What they were discovering about the police and the prosecutors’ work. There was a connection between power misuse there and also in the congregation. It was a challenge for me to try to combine these two different stories. One journalistic piece of work and one storytelling about this congregation, which formed into a cult.
Religious fundamentalism is not too rare in the U.S., where I am. How rare is it in Sweden?
It is very unusual. That’s why it is an interesting story for me, as a Swede. Sweden is quite secular. This is very uncommon, a cult like this. Sarah Svensson, she’s this innocent young woman with her blond hair. Her last name is actually the most common last name. It was such an unusual killer. You never heard of someone like that killing two people, or almost killing two people.
One of the visual tools in the series is a scale model of the town Knutby. How did this idea come about?
That’s a problem with documentaries. When you retell a story you have some archive footage and some talking heads interviews, but that is really all there is. It is not easy to make film out of that. There was a need to be able to visualize these images from the murder night, which was really hard without any images. So, we came up with this idea. We also felt it corresponded well with the fact that Emma, from the congregation, says that Åsa [Waldau, leader of the sect] treated them as if they were her dollhouse. She dressed them up, decided who should live with who, painted their houses. It was like a dollhouse. We felt it had a connection with that too.
Mostly, it was an opportunity to create an atmosphere and a mood in the images. It was interesting to see if it worked, or if it would be weird. I think it works quite alright. The impact is much stronger if you can visualize things.
You worked quite closely with Martin Johnson and Anton Berg for this. Have you worked with other journalists in this capacity before?
On the documentary film about Stieg Larsson [Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played with Fire], it was kind of a similar way of working. There were journalists also doing research and interviews. It is very interesting and a bit complicated at times. There is sometimes a difference between journalism and storytelling. You have to find a balance that works, both for them and for me. We had a lot of discussions of the different ways of telling the story. How far can you go? How free can you be? From their perspective, they were a bit afraid of fictionalized material. It wouldn’t be true, in a journalistic sense. We had a lot of those discussions.
How did you make sure that the series never became exploitative?
That’s a lot of work, and mostly the journalists did that work. They had contact with these people. They were the ones who get the phone calls after the series is out there. Because the congregation was dissolved years ago, they really wanted to tell their stories. But other ones, they don’t want to be connected with the story at all any longer. It is painful for them to see themselves on the screen. We understand that, of course. At the same time, we think it is an important story to tell to other people. That’s always the problem in documentary film and journalism. Is it more important to make a single person happy, or is it more important to tell the story and avoid things like this happening again? That’s the purpose of the series, I think. To make people understand that you can’t be this naive, you must listen to yourself when you think something is wrong. Probably something is wrong.
Were there any moments that you found especially disturbing?
Not really in the filming, but more in the editing. With Helge [Fossmo], for instance, who is sentenced as an instigator for the killing. He claims he’s not the instigator. How much of that should we put forward? He puts the blame on Åsa, the “Bride of Christ.” That’s a journalistic issue, really. Should we let him do that or not? We had a lot of discussions with lawyers too. There were a lot of discussions behind every decision. Are we doing the right thing or not? No one can really say. Some people will get upset, sad, angry. But that’s the way it is. If you do things like this, you have to understand that will follow.
What do you want audiences to take away from the series?
Listen to yourself. Listen to your inner voice. What they [cults] do is cut that connection off. [When people] stop listening to that and they just obey their authorities, their pastors. That is dangerous.
PRAY, OBEY, KILL is now available, exclusively on HBO Max.