The world can be divided into those who love board games and those who would bite the face off anyone who dared to suggest such a pastime. It can also be split according to those who adore fancy dress parties and those who would book root canal surgery in order to miss one. Similarly, there are only two positions to be taken with regard to practical jokers. In one camp, we have those for whom japesters and tricksters are practitioners of a high art who aerate the human condition. In the other, we have those who think they are tedious narcissists who should be gathered on an island and left to prank each other to death.
I belong firmly in the second camp, so I was predisposed to finding a 90-minute documentary about Pål Enger grating. He is the footballer turned criminal who, in 1994, nicked Edvard Munch’s The Scream from the National Gallery in Oslo, seemingly for no other reason than he could. My frame of mind was aggravated by the fact that I am not terribly relaxed about the true-crime genre, although it is certainly less problematic when it concerns art theft rather than rape or murder.
But The Man Who Stole The Scream gradually overcame my defences. This was despite the fact that it took itself very seriously and unfolded at such a stately pace that I felt every one of its 90 minutes; at times, I found myself looking at my watch to check each was just 60 seconds long.
Enger, who is interviewed at length on camera, possesses an unwillingness – maybe even an inability – to equivocate that you can only warm to, even if he is too hard-edged to be charming. He grew up on the deprived Tveita estate in Oslo, where violence, crime and drugs were rife. Sport was the only distraction. Enger soon made his mark as a talented footballer and played professionally for the top-flight side Vålerenga.
Off the field, however, he was climbing the criminal league table at a similar pace. His teammates noticed that he always had flash cars and plenty of money – the proceeds of smuggling and raids on jewellery shops and ATMs. Anything but drugs, Enger says. The football fell away and crime took over. The rewards became bigger and better (a boat, “beautiful women”), but Enger says: “I wanted more. I always liked attention.”
He began to plan to steal The Scream, a painting he had been obsessed with since he saw it on a school trip as a boy. The terrible, wordless anxiety on the famous figure’s face and the hands over the ears reminded him of how his violent stepfather made him feel: “I maybe think – other people have it also.”
He returned to look at the painting, to the ineffable consolation of art, at least twice a week for years. You do not have to be a bleeding heart to wonder what might have become of this child if his circumstances had been slightly different. Could his sensitivity to one painting have blossomed into a fuller appreciation of art? Or was it a simple call-and-response to a particular experience, never destined to be anything greater?
Anyway, in this life, he stole it. But not the first time. The first time, he stole Munch’s Love and Pain instead, after smashing the wrong window. He used the consequent prison sentence to work on a better plan and succeeded while the Oslo police were distracted by the opening ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
I say “a better plan”. It was basically the same plan: put a ladder against the outside wall, break the (correct) window, grab the painting, run. (There is a film to be made about the apparent absence of any security around Norway’s National Gallery, even after it was alerted to its parlous state by the theft of Love and Pain.)
The eventual capture of Enger is thrilling. But the heart of the film is Enger’s missed – thwarted? Twisted? – potential: his work ethic; his perfectionism; his ambition pressed into the wrong service; his readiness to settle for negative attention when there was no other kind on offer; his grief at the loss of his boyhood friend and partner in crime who let him down at the last hurdle.
Unless of course, the police who caught him were right and he is just “a hooligan and a thief … a self‑serving son of a bitch”. Either way, this film manages to make you wonder.