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Review - The Northman

I was a bit late in seeing Robert Eggers’ The Northman compared to a lot of other very online Heathens for a variety of life-related reasons and have been holding off on giving any serious takes until I could really get my thoughts together on it. On the whole, I think this was an excellent, highly enjoyable film, with some flaws and shortcomings, but one specific element in The Discourse that gave me some pause is the question raised by Steve Rose with the Guardian. In his article, Rose claims this film engages in white nationalist signaling and is prime for co-optation, a topic which I don’t think he handles very well. I will break down my thoughts on this movie by what I think it does well, where it does badly, and then I’ll get into the question of white nationalism. Be warned, there will be spoilers!

Easily the biggest positive thing I can say about this film is its truly immersive quality. The Northman is probably the most materially accurate depiction of early medieval Scandinavian life to date, with an attention to detail that misses nothing. The art direction clearly took the advice of leading archeological luminaries like Neil Price to heart. Many of the props and costumes could have easily passed for the museum pieces which inspired them. This kind of historical fidelity is a calling card for Eggers, as shown by the detailed research on New England dialects he conducted for The Lighthouse and The Witch in conjunction with painstaking attention to the clothing, homes, and details of daily life.

What makes this eye for detail especially rewarding is how he uses it to effectively convey the otherness of the historical periods he has covered in his films. “The past is a foreign country” is a common expression in all disciplines of history where it serves as a reminder to students of different periods to consider how fundamentally different the expectations, assumptions, and institutions of different eras in history are to our present day. Eggers seems to understand this, as shown in how he captures both the rich material texture and the social fabric of the early medieval Nordic world. Even though the actors in the film are what modern societies would code as white, including the enslaved Rus people like Olga who are sold to Fjolnir’s farm, and look superficially similar to a modern white American they clearly live in another world with completely different assumptions and expectations.

Easily the best example of this immersive quality is Eggers’ superb handling of pre-Christian Nordic spirituality. It could have been very easy for Eggers to engage in borderline fantastical depictions of the spiritual world of these peoples when examples like The Vikings’ blinded seer and gold-painted temple priests or pretty much everything in Midsommar are standard fare in the genre. All of these are replaced with wild, naked, but more real, grounded seers giving prophecy and leading Amleth into spiritual visions. More fantastical moments, like Amleth being ferried into the cosmos by a Valkyrie or his duel with the angry corpse, are presented with enough ambiguity that you are left wondering if these scenes really happened, if they were just Amleth’s perception of events, or if it was some combination of the two. Regardless, these are unquestionably a part of reality for the inhabitants of The Northman without any doubt or question of the validity of what they are experiencing.

One of the strongest ways Eggers does this is in the pervasiveness of thrall slavery in The Northman. Amleth’s first battle is, unambiguously, a slave raid and he gains passage to Fjolnir’s farm in Iceland by posing as a recently-taken thrall. The captives are a constant presence on the farmstead in their labor and their own, private rituals held away from the prying eyes of their enslavers. Even Gudrun, Amleth’s seemingly stolen mother, reveals she was in truth taken as a thrall by Amleth’s father Aurvandil War-Raven, married to him against her will, and had long been plotting with Fjolnir to take her vengeance on Aurvandil. Even though the film is, ostensibly, about one man’s quest for revenge it becomes clear much of this vengeance is deeply rooted in the brutalities of thralldom.

What makes this choice particularly exceptional is how rarely other Viking media seriously engages with this institution. History Channel’s The Vikings does show this institution in the form of the captive Christian monk Athelstan but Athelstan he is only one of a handful in Ragnar’s household, making for a stark contrast to the captives on Fjolnir’s farm who easily outnumber the free inhabitants. The Last Kingdom is more egregious with only two episodes in the entire series touching on this topic, both of which focus on the main character, Uhtred, being sold into thralldom by a treacherous ally with little time spent on the broader reality of this system.

This relative lack of attention to thralldom is a significant problem in most Viking media. More recent scholarship, including Neil Price’s Children of Ash & Elm, shows this institution was critical for making critical economic activities like sail-making, ship construction, and farming possible. Some scholars even theorize most of the wealth was generated from trafficking enslaved peoples to buyers across the modern Mediterranean, parts of Europe, and the Middle East than from the looting of goods. The brutal raid on the Rus village in the beginning of the film and Gudrun’s condemnation of Aurvandil as a slaver are much closer to the truth than most depictions of this period.

Eggers also does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Nordic and Icelandic sagas. Though the broader story was inspired by the same saga that eventually gave us Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it does more than just tell that one story. Everything from consulting with seers for guidance to berserker cults, dueling dead warriors for ancient swords, and wrestling with the demands of fate are common elements in this body of literature and Eggers effectively delivers a delightful tour of them for the audience. Eggers cements this by beginning the film with an unseen poet calling our attention to the story they are about to share.

Unfortunately, there are places where The Northman somewhat misses the mark. The most obvious problem is how this film firmly fails the Bechdel Test. Both women with speaking roles in multiple scenes, Gudrun and Olga of the Birchwood, are consistently defined by their relationship to Amleth and their actions are effectively oriented around Amleth. Part of this, I think, is because of the very strong first-person approach that Eggers takes in The Northman and his previous films. All the action is filtered through the perspective of each film’s protagonist which limits what information is available to the audience. Within the confines of the framework, it makes sense for everything to be about Amleth because the audience is, effectively, being put inside his head for the duration of the movie.

That said, there were some definite missteps in how both characters were handled. Easily the biggest problem was having Gudrun attempt to seduce Amleth. This choice was probably a call-back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet but in this narrative it makes little sense. Gudrun, prior to this attempt, had just revealed the brand she received when she was first taken captive and announced her lifelong desire for revenge against Aurvandil. In Shakespeare Gertrude’s actions are not justified but the moral universe of The Northman is very different. Thralls taking vengeance on cruel masters was seen as a somewhat justified action in Nordic cultures. The best example of this is the Volundsaga where the hero Volund the Smith begins the story as a thrall taken in war and much of the action is him plotting & carrying out revenge against his captors. Her somewhat nonsensical attempt to seduce Amleth makes little sense for a character who has just revealed her motive was some highly justified revenge on the man who had, from her perspective, ruined her life.

Olga runs into similar problems in how most of her interactions with anyone are focused on her sexuality. There is mention of her possessing mystical knowledge, as best shown when she summons a breeze to carry her away to the Orkneys, but there is little time given to this aspect of her character. This is a somewhat surprising choice in a film that, for the most part, did a spectacular job of handling pre-Christian spirituality and practice. Not giving Olga more opportunities to express her spirituality feels, to me, like a missed opportunity for giving Olga more depth beyond her status as a sexual object.

This brings me to the question of white nationalism. There is no question that white nationalists and other fascists have long co-opted Nordic imagery and aesthetics. The addition of, “See you in Valhalla” to the boilerplate manifestos produced by the Christchurch and Buffalo shooters is one especially brutal reminder of this. It is therefore understandable for critics and mainstream commentators to be wary of any media depicting this historical period.

That said, there is nothing about Nordic-oriented media which is inherently fascist. The modern far right, particularly in its most terminally online variants, gleefully co-opts any cultural product they can get their hands on as best shown by the white nationalist My Little Pony community, Nazi furries, and Nick Fuentes' totally not gay fascination with catboys. Fascism, as a political movement, is not very good at coming up with original ideas or concepts without taking them from someone else first and this is just as true of culture as anything else. White nationalists are, as a rule, going to take whatever they think benefits their cause and will always be completely shameless about it. It, therefore, becomes important to ask whether the work’s narrative and presentation lends to a fascist interpretation.

This is where the consistent ambiguity in The Northman comes into play. If The Northman offered a straightforward, unambiguous validation of everything Amleth did then it would be fair to claim this is nothing more than a male power fantasy but Eggers does not do that. Even though there is no question Amleth sees his visions of family lineages, passage to Valhalla, and his foretold destiny as unshakeable reality, there are questions posed within the film on whether Amleth’s decisions were truly the right ones.

Understanding this requires digging more into the film’s main antagonist, Fjolnir. Fjolnir begins the film by killing Amleth’s father, seizing his kingdom, and claiming Gudrun as his bride. We later find out he was overthrown by King Harald and forced to move to the farmstead in Iceland where most of the action occurs. He even goes so far as to dedicate a worship space for Freyr, a god more commonly associated with fertility and a more positive version of masculinity in contrast to Amleth’s worship of the wild, warlike Odin.

This spiritual contrast mirrors both of these men’s responses to highly traumatic events. Fjolnir could have, like Amleth, devoted his entire life to avenging the loss of his lands on King Harald. Instead, he relocated to Iceland and built a safe, prosperous life for himself and his family. In the face of loss he chose to focus on protecting the people he loved and making the best life he could for them. Fjolnir only truly gives in to his lust for vengeance after Amleth has killed Gudrun and both of his sons before freeing all of his thralls. Everything had been taken from him, leaving nothing for Fjolnir but revenge.

Amleth, by contrast, sacrifices everything in pursuit of vengeance despite multiple opportunities to pursue a different course. This is directly stated by the seer’s challenge that Amleth can choose to destroy his enemies or save those he loves. Amleth at first seems to think he can pursue his vengeance without hesitation but his growing love for Olga presents a dilemma best expressed when he forsakes a chance to kill Fjolnir so he can buy time for Olga to escape. He then discovers she is pregnant with his children, giving him the choice of leaving with her to the Orkneys to build a new life or going after Fjolnir.

Amleth rationalizes his choice to go back as necessary to do both but I think this is a self-serving justification. Amleth’s decision leaves Olga, still bearing the mark of a thrall, and her unborn children alone in a strange world far from her home, support, and community. Though Amleth claims his choice was necessary to protect them from Fjolnir’s vengeance, he effectively dooms them all to a highly uncertain, dangerous life. His visions of his future offspring and entrance into Valhalla may offer comfort to the dying man but they can do little to provide for and support them. Amleth, in stark contrast to Fjolnir, effectively casts aside any option other than vengeance despite having a clear chance and reason to do so. His commitment to a particularly violent and brutal understanding of the world brings nothing but destruction for him and those who are closest to him.

This worldview even receives something of a direct rebuke from Gudrun. Though the gravity of this performance is undermined by the attempted seduction, Gudrun nonetheless stands her ground and clearly argues why Amleth’s father was, in truth, a pretty terrible person. Her choice to be with Fjolnir, support him, and fight for the life they have together becomes an extended rebuke of everything Aurvandil represented and taught Amleth. Her denunciation of Aurvandil’s violent, slaving ways is a strong rejection of the destructive masculinity he represents and a clear endorsement of Fjolnir’s more nurturing, protective approach. This makes the forced kiss more regrettable as it undermines a firm repudiation of the violence and cruelty which defined the Viking way of life embodied by Aurvandil War-Raven and Amleth.

To sum it up, I think The Northman is a piece of entertainment that is pretty successful in being an entertaining, engrossing experience. It has its flaws but, overall, it is one of the better depictions of early medieval Nordic spirituality. There are certainly places where white nationalists will try to co-opt, but I think the deliberate moral ambiguity, the central role of thralldom in the film, and Amleth’s ultimate demise suggest these takes will require a very selective interpretation of events. Either way, just because a Nazi likes something that wasn’t made by a fascist doesn’t mean we should just let them have that piece of culture, community, or society. That only makes things worse.

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