The Northman (2022)
Written by Sjón and Robert Eggers
Directed by Robert Eggers
Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself as a filmmaker that attempts to recreate the feel of specific periods in humanity’s past. With The Witch, he captured the colonial paranoia of the fear of the wilderness. The Lighthouse evokes the birth of psychoanalysis and the expansion of the Western mind’s interiors. He does this once again in the Viking-centered The Northman, a picture that transports into the mind of the 9th century. Here the landscape is imbued with mystic power, and humanity believes that through faith & ritual, they can connect with these volatile elements. While not as profoundly esoteric as Eggers’ previous two features, The Northman is still a film overflowing with aesthetic richness and exploring complex themes.
After pillaging and conquering, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns to his island kingdom in the North Sea. His Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and son Amleth are happy to see him, and he is embraced by the hearth. It is decided that young Amleth be introduced to the spiritual side of his family, so Aurvandill takes him to a nearby temple of Odin. There, the jester/shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe) sends them on a journey via psychedelics. Unfortunately, their father/son bond is disrupted when Amleth’s jealous uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), attacks and kills Aurvandill. Amleth flees on a boat, vowing to return in adulthood, avenge his father, and save his mother.
Years later, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker, aiding a band of Viking raiders working along the coasts of Rus. After a village is raided, Amleth encounters a witch (Bjork) who speaks of his vengeance and implores him to return home. Posing as an enslaved person, Amleth is carried by boat to the new home of Fjolnir, who has lost his kingdom and lives as the owner of a sheep ranch. With him is a Slavic sorceress, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who comes to an agreement with the man about protecting each other in this harsh, violent world. However, Amleth quickly finds that what he remembers from his childhood is not the truth, complicating his vengeance.
Since the film’s release, there has been concern on social media about far-right-wing/white supremacist groups fetishizing the film’s imagery. I don’t think we should get too worked up about reactionaries being unable to engage with art beyond a visual surface level. It’s sort of their whole thing to be dense morons. Instead, the film is actually about deconstructing those sorts of ideologies and uses the journey of Amleth to reveal how the world becomes more complicated as we can engage with it on a deeper level. By the end of the film, everything is tinged with sadness, Amleth is caught in a machine of faith he believes he’s unable to break from, and it will destroy him.
There’s a pivotal scene in the film when Amleth lowers himself into a burial mound to retrieve a mythical sword he’s been told about. The weapon rests in the hands of a skeleton king, buried there generations earlier. When Amleth pulls at the blade, the king rises, and the two battle. Amleth outwits the zombie by having him walk into moonlight which paralyzes him. When suddenly pulled from this, realizing the entire fight was playing out in Amleth’s mind as he stood before the corpse. In reality, he pulls the sword from the bone hands with no consequence. From a young age, Amleth has been imbibing psychotropics and stimulants; these were culturally important in many religious ceremonies and in his role as a berserker. To believe in this unseen spirit world where gods and monsters were real, these drugs helped open the mind. They also obscured connection to the material world and, for Amleth, helped in aiding his delusions about his family.
Amleth is introduced to a worldview that reinforces tradition and simplifies structures as a child. As he rows away from his home, his oath shows this limited scope: Avenge my father, save my mother, kill Fjolnir. With each step of his journey, this becomes complicated. Fjolnir fails as king, so by the time Amleth returns, he’s lost the kingdom and lives in a blasted land near a volcano. Things get more complicated, with our protagonist wanting to draw blood but feeling obligated to fulfill the seeress’s prophecy. He believes he can’t die until certain things come to pass and behaves with abandon. Eventually, the truth of what was happening within his family comes to light, and it doesn’t fit the narrative Amleth has fed himself. We see his decades of bitterness suddenly become an impediment. He doesn’t know how to act if the foundational ideas he lives his life by are lies.
Love in The Northman is one of the most challenging things to express. This is a culture where strength and power are the most valued traits. Amleth is a broken man, despondent over the loss of his family and now the horrible truths about them. He can only express this in destructive rage; otherwise, there is no vocabulary for him. There are moments where reason breaks through; he calms and can articulate himself. This is most often with Olga. However, she presents a different image of the love interest than expected. There is no light affection shown to her lover; she’s a Slav who struggled in life and now has been enslaved in a foreign land. She’s protective of herself and aligns with Amleth, not necessarily for love but for mutual survival.
Clinging to myths like Valhalla and a glorious hero’s death is undoubtedly comforting. But when a person’s life is driven by hollow mysticism and broken from material reality, then disappointment is an inevitability. The same men falling over themselves for white supremacy’s distortion of Norse culture are set up to fail. They will come up against the wall of reality and, unable to stop it, will spill into rage-fueled hatred. We see it in the succession of mass shooters in the United States, mentally unwell and exacerbated by toxic hate-filled reactionary ideology. Yet, one must never forget that no Valhalla is awaiting us. This world is all we know we have, and that means we should seek peace & empathy to make it the best possible world for us and future generations.