sundance 2020

Into the Deep Chronicles the Monstrousness of Danish Inventor Peter Madsen

Emma Sullivan’s documentary about Danish inventor Peter Madsen began one year before he murdered and dismembered journalist Kim Wall on board his submarine. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In 2017, the world was riveted by the bizarre, grisly murder of Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall by the Danish inventor Peter Madsen, who had invited her to take a voyage on his homemade mini-submarine for an article she’d been working on. Wall was initially reported as missing, with Madsen claiming that he had dropped her off after their trip. With each new terrifying development in the case (and each new body part that washed ashore), Madsen changed his story — until the nauseating enormity of his crime became clear.

Turns out, Australian filmmaker Emma Sullivan was making a documentary about Madsen at that very minute. Into the Deep, which premiered at Sundance last night and will be on Netflix later this year, is the kind of film that, through the dark fortune of timing, starts off as one thing and then proceeds to become something far more important and disturbing, effectively interrogating itself. Sullivan had started filming Madsen a year before the Kim Wall murder. She was fascinated by this vivacious, outspoken autodidact engineer with dreams of building a private rocket — an “intercontinental ballistic missile passenger ship,” in his words — and the group of young, impressionable engineers and students and other outcasts he had gathered around himself. Sullivan kept shooting throughout Madsen and Wall’s initial disappearance, and then through his changing story, and his court case. (He was convicted of murder in 2018 and sentenced to life in prison.) She would eventually become a witness, and her footage would become evidence.

Sullivan never shot Wall, however, despite being embedded with Madsen’s assistants. They didn’t know about her either, which seems weird at first. (“Something in this story does not add up,” notes one of Madsen’s young workers early on in the case.) Until it becomes clear that they didn’t know about Wall because Madsen was deliberately keeping her existence hidden. And he was keeping it hidden because he already knew what he was going to do to her. And once you realize that, you have to take a minute to let the monstrousness of this whole thing sink in.

Sullivan intercuts between different timelines — really, different movies — so that we see earlier, happier days among Madsen’s crew, and the remnants of the cheerful, wide-eyed documentary she was making, alongside the agonizing drip-drip-drip of increasingly terrifying information. And the film becomes a kind of forensic visual mystery into itself. Revelations from Madsen’s trial put certain earlier scenes in a different light. An emerging timeline connects seemingly unimportant, disparate events — revealing sinister purposes hiding beneath throwaway text messages, or offhand comments, or even just an out-of-place object lingering in the background. (“Why do you need a wood saw on a steel submarine?” someone asks, long after it’s too late.)

So, we may get an early testimonial from a crew member — one woman, for example, talking about how Madsen saved her from a hard life — and, not long after, see them recalling other times when he has creeped them out. Indeed, despite his crew’s initial insistence that they couldn’t imagine him ever doing anything like this, Madsen appears to have given off any number of warning signs. But everyone was sucked into the vortex of his charisma. Not only did they brush off the warning signs, they appear to have fallen under a kind of collective delusion. “He makes you feel like you’re close to adventure and fairy tales,” one crew member says. Another calls him “the most epic person you’ve ever met.” And yes, these are all the same reasons why Sullivan was attracted to Madsen’s story in the first place; she recalls seeing a TED talk of his on YouTube as the impetus for wanting to make this film.

But once reality comes screaming back, everyone starts to see Madsen in the cold hard light of day, and we realize that we’ve been watching a horror movie all along. Or maybe that’s not the right way to describe it, since we already have some idea of where it’s all headed. Rather, the director Sullivan realizes that she’s been making a horror movie all along — and that at one point she herself, like several of the other women who worked with him, might have become Madsen’s victim. One of the final scenes is an interview Madsen gave her, in which he speculates, out of the blue, about being a serial killer: “There is the possibility that you’ve actually come upon a human predator,” he says, looking straight at her. Once a pointless aside, it’s now a chilling confession.

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Into the Deep Chronicles the Monstrousness of Peter Madsen