True crime documentaries are all, to some extent, attempts at recreation, and Pray, Obey, Kill explicitly highlights that endeavor, not only through staged dramatic sequences but via recurring shots of a miniature model of the remote Swedish village of Knutby where, on Jan. 10, 2004, Alexandra Fossmo was executed in her bed, and her neighbor Daniel Linde was also shot, albeit not fatally. Through those devices, as well as recurring scenes of journalists Martin Johnson and Anton Berg poring over evidence and conducting interviews, director Henrik Georgsson puts the reconstructionist nature of his proceedings front and center in order to convey the sort of history-resurrecting work that goes into such investigations.
By the time his gripping five-episode docuseries is finished, however, recreations aren’t simply part of his formal approach—they’re a key to unravelling his tale’s central mystery.
Premiering on HBO on April 12, Pray, Obey, Kill is a story about a cult, and the considerable and lethal damage it wrought. The Philadelphia congregation in Knutby was a Pentecostal sect that revolved around its leader, Åsa Waldau, who believed, and proclaimed, that she was the Bride of Christ, destined to be imminently betrothed to the son of God. Whether she came up with that idea herself, or it was given to her by her right-hand pastor Helge Fossmo, is a matter of dispute. Then again, so are many of the things in this sordid saga. What is definitely known is that, when Helge’s wife Alexandra (who was Åsa’s sister) was slain in 2004, he was in another bedroom. It’s additionally clear that he was texting his family’s impressionable and eager-to-please nanny, Sara Svensson, before, after, and in-between the shootings. In fact, Helge incessantly texted Sara, who lived in his house with Alexandra, and with whom he’d been carrying on an affair for some time.
Helge was also sleeping with both Daniel Linde’s wife Anette and with Åsa, so it’s no surprise that he quickly became a chief suspect. As if his numerous amorous connections weren’t reason enough to think he’d played a part in Alexandra’s death, his first wife, Heléne, had died under severely shady circumstances in 1999, in the same house he later resided in with Alexandra. Still, police soon came to believe that Helge hadn’t been the triggerman; rather, he had convinced Sara to commit the shootings. Sara herself confessed, claiming that she had been receiving anonymous texts that implicitly and explicitly ordered her to perpetrate this double homicide, both because it would get her back in the good graces of Jesus (and Åsa, his future bride and earthly loudspeaker), and because it would allow Alexandra to receive what they all wanted: a one-way trip to Heaven.
It’s into this bonkers subculture that Pray, Obey, Kill wades. Director Georgsson pieces together a bounty of great archival material, from footage of Helge’s police interrogation and audio recordings of trial testimony, to texts, maps, diagrams, and home movies of life in Knutby. Furthermore, he nabs new interviews with virtually everyone involved, including various members of the congregation. Those men and women detail their traumatic ordeals living with—and blindly serving—Åsa, who was scarily jealous of any woman that might threaten her relationships with the men she coveted, and who was a physically and psychologically abusive wannabe-deity who created a culture of fear, self-loathing and retribution so intense, she was eventually convicted in 2020 of assaulting her acolytes.
Helge and Sara were both found guilty in 2004—he received life in prison; she was placed in institutional care—and Pray, Obey, Kill’s coup is convincing both to sit down for chats about the infamous crime. Central to those conversations is a video that the police created at the time of the trial in which Sara retraces her steps on the fateful night of Alexandra’s death. The 23-minute edited version of that recording was crucial courtroom evidence used against Helge. Yet when Johnson and Berg get ahold of the six hours of unedited footage, what they discover is a production akin to movie shoot, complete with rehearsals, multiple takes, staged shots, performance tips, and people cajoling Sara into replicating her actions in a manner that will accurately parallel her already-given testimony.
The nagging incongruity between forensic analysis of how Alexandra was shot (at point-blank range) and Sara’s account of the shooting (at a distance) is echoed by the discrepancy between the cannily-edited version of the reconstruction video shown in court and the raw material acquired by Johnson and Berg. Pray, Obey, Kill thus becomes a multifaceted look at the limitations of recreations as a way to ascertain objective truth. Helge, Sara and Åsa were all probably involved in Alexandra’s murder in some fashion, but parsing the particulars of their knotted dynamic proves difficult, if not altogether impossible. Sara may have acted alone, been duped by Helge into committing these crimes so he could be with another woman (Anette or Åsa), or Sara could have simply been an accomplice, driving Åsa to Helge’s house that night so the Bride could do the dirty deed. No matter how many stacks of cell phone records Johnson and Berg comb through, or how pointedly they grill Helge and Sara on camera, doubts abound.
That might render Pray, Obey, Kill an exercise in frustration if not for the fact that, while plumbing this mystery, director Georgsson captures an intimate sense of Åsa’s twisted indoctrination processes, and of her minions’ resultant, warped headspaces. In interviews with Knutby survivors Patrick Waldau (Åsa’s ex-husband), his new wife Maria Waldau, and Peter Gembäck and his ex-wife Emma, the series taps into the stew of faith-based lies and delusions that granted Åsa such authority over her flock, and then led to this senseless tragedy and, ultimately, the collapse of the congregation itself. In that regard, it’s less a whodunit than an alternately scary and depressing portrait of a cult that was predicated on terror, power, greed and sexual deviance, and inevitably ended the way all cults do: in disastrous ignominy.