Director Robert Eggers’s historical realities get a budget upgrade
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With The Northman – already famous for its historical accuracy – writer-director Robert Eggers strives to give his audience a vision of Viking-hood that is finally free of horn-helmeted kitsch and far-right revisionism.
Reviewers, probably seeking to explain some amount of audience ambivalence, have argued that the characters are not made to be likable. That’s true enough. But neither are they crueler than necessary to be believably of their time (CE 895) – at least those with whom we’re meant to identify: the deposed prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), son of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and Olga of the Birch Forest (Eggers favorite Anya Taylor-Joy). Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, meanwhile, score a primordial soundtrack of Norse chants, horns, dirge-like strings, and martial drums that usher us immediately into a visceral world of deep woe.
Amleth has lived, in his words, a kind of death-in-life – witnessing, as a boy, his father butchered by his choleric uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang); forced to use violence to save himself, slicing off the nose of his uncle’s manservant (thereafter known as “Finnr the Nose-Stub”), Amleth henceforth takes up a nasty and brutish life. He rows away from the burning kingdom chanting a three-part mantra: “I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”
If Amleth does not fulfill the precepts of his filial mission, the chant trifecta (Father, Mother, Uncle), he will have no life worthy of the name. He will languish in shame. His father explicitly tells him so, anticipating his own violent death (not so unusual, as death in battle was the only sure way to Valholl, or Odin’s hall of dead warriors). This is deathly serious, the only lodestar of Amleth’s dark world. It is as all-enveloping as religion, though there is religion, too, the rituals of which are reproduced to the full extent of present knowledge and filled in with varying degrees of PhD guesswork. We’re made to experience all of it, in minute detail.
This is the heart of Eggers’s style: historical figures are not acculturated to the present; the present, the audience, is acculturated to them. We are not to be convinced of their world but of their unerring belief in it, and the stark immediacy of that subjective reality. As Eggers says, “There were no Viking atheists.”
We find Amleth years later sharpened and hardened into a remorseless object of pure slaughter. He is a towering, muscle-bound berserker – a man who, via Norse belief, enters into a hypnotic bloodlust and joins battle wearing a wolfskin. These men are Ulfheðnar, wont to move on their hands and knees, snap their teeth, and howl. He lives by his killing, and he kills and lives well. They pillage a Slavic settlement in the Land of the Rus, and Amleth, last seen catching snowflakes on his tongue, rips a man’s throat out with his teeth. Made to look as one continuous shot, the cast and crew have made clear it was hell to film. But the final product is difficult to shake.
It’s a festival of death, but also, after all, a commercial enterprise, so the aftermath is somewhat perfunctory. Amleth sits chewing his cud, eerily indifferent to the agonies of the remaining villagers. Another berserker stares at the ground, his arms and legs trembling with adrenaline. The conquered are apportioned, branded, and sold up to different northern kingdoms, while those deemed unsatisfactory are burned alive most gruesomely. Slaver: this is, for the time, a perfectly enviable profession. It shouldn’t be lost on the viewer that for much of human history, and even to the present day, commerce and blind cruelty were one and the same. It is a pitiless world, devilish in its extremities, and in this case, presented memorably and without judgment.
And yet there is also humor. But you know the proviso: it’s neither, in our fashion, irony-bathed nor self-referential. However, when a Northman, to his comrades’ mirth, thoughtlessly sites two arrows in a couple of hapless peasants paddling along a river, I guffawed in my seat. Sorry – gratuitous murder seems to have a comic aspect in any age. But in this one, life is especially cheap.
Amleth is eventually reminded of his avenging duty by a blind seeress (played, unforgettably, by Björk), and he jumps a ship to Iceland posing as a slave, where he learns that the ashes of his uncle’s stolen kingdom have re-formed into a “nightmare.” But not his – theirs.
Iceland is a land of windswept cairns and desolation. Northern Ireland is very convincing in this role. Fjölnir’s modest longhouse is adorned with the royal family tapestries from Amleth’s much grander childhood. But if their existence is meager, it is ordered. Amleth arrives to disorder it, allying with another slave, Olga, who was taken captive in the berserker raid he helped perpetrate. At their hands, Fjölnir’s biblical undoing is the engine of the second act, augmented by elaborate (and expensive-looking) special effects treatments of Viking myth.
But in classic Eggers form, the truth of this fantastic imagery is not self-evident – Yggdrasil, shrieking Valkyries, and even the stair to Valholl are given only proximate to a character’s intense bodily shock: grievous injury, fervid rites and religious ecstasy, the visual upwelling of the unconscious mind, and even, in a few cases, hallucinogenic substances. These are the raw materials of old world belief, Eggers tells us. The line is blurred, but it is there, and requires of the viewer no great suspension of disbelief – most of the time. Some scenes, especially where the supernatural agency of animals is involved, stretch credulity beyond what can be explained by an overly active imagination. But a causative physical alibi, an external trigger, is almost always at hand.
One critic griped that the audience is offered “no synesthesia.” This is a bizarre choice of word; synesthesia, or literally experiencing one sense through another, is explicit in the film. Several times, Amleth applies his hands to another’s wound, only to be momentarily raptured into a vision of a tree (an analog of Yggdrasil, the mythical world tree) strewn with the skeletal forms of his ancestors; and, in a later vision, his twins with Olga. I suppose the critic meant it to mean, there was not enough languorous smoking in bed, drinking lukewarm coffee, or musing, “We harm ourselves, but only so as to continue living.”
No. These are people steeled and desensitized by ever-present danger, given to neither ennui nor lavish expression except where primary emotions like grief, rage, and vengeance are involved. “That cub that bit off your nose has grown, and the wolf hungers for the rest of you,” adult Amleth tells Finnr the Nose-Stub, before slowly murdering him. The script is replete with such esoteric vows, which are delightful in their variety and eloquence.
And yet, when Amleth tells Olga he has never, since childhood, felt close to anyone, we could be hearing the words of any person, from any era, whose life has been disfigured by violence and trauma, and who chose – rightly or wrongly, the question of justified aggression does not often arise in antiquity – to indulge pure aggression; to be the harmer rather than the harmed. It is simple formulations like these, spoken candidly, that drive much of the emotional fare, and which one is apt to overlook by fixating on the bloodshed or the historical minutia.
That Amleth and Olga, of such different antecedents and priors of belief, can unite briefly but ecstatically is something of a miracle in such a forlorn stage of human civilization, and yet it also speaks to the past as a historian might: as a place of constant change, whose true potentiality often beggars what we previously thought possible. After all, the infamously dogmatic Amleth does not recoil from Olga’s “forest magic,” i.e., hallucinogenic mushrooms, but finds further confirmation of a mystical worldview. “What are your earth gods saying?” he asks her in a moment of urgency. He is a dour, but interesting Viking.
Yes, there is a surfeit of gore throughout the film, though I’ve found that the most insightful reviews dwell not long on it, even if they appreciate it. The most ambivalent reviews seem to discuss it to the near exclusion of everything else. To be clear: as one whose tastes are often typically male, I reveled in the violence. But Robert Eggers is not Michael Bay. Much of the film’s art is found in looking past, or through, the bloodletting, to peer into the claustrophobic joinery of a dark age mindset, where one can find the film’s humbling message: humanity, whose vast possibilities include all of this, includes you, too.
There is a beautifully allusive moment where crucial information is purveyed by the dead fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe), whose spirit is channeled by an Icelandic he-witch. Is it resurrection or ventriloquism? Is this Heimir speaking from the beyond, or is it a combination of Amleth’s willingness, parlor tricks, and the solid deductive reasoning of an able fortune-teller? The answer is irrelevant, and in any event, poor Heimir (subjected to the loss of his tongue, eyes, and ears before being executed) is our Yorick.1 We come to know him well early in the film, and he knew his king and queen well. Here is his skull. Remember your friend, Amleth? A bawdy joke he tells at Queen Gudrún’s (Nicole Kidman) expense in the opening minutes of the film turns out to speak to the film’s central betrayal. It’s an old trope used well, the wise fool who speaks in riddles.
Eggers, in his way, even gives Amleth justice. As the lights of his consciousness flicker out, his uncle’s sword buried in his chest, he receives visions of his Olga and her twins – one, the girl, is destined to wear a crown. He sees the way to Valholl and is exhorted by his absent love to “make [his] passage.” Fjölnir, however, is denied any such blissful departure, because Amleth decapitates him. No final visions. He is simply switched off. According to their ways, he too should be dining in Valholl, but we get no visual reassurance proximate to that belief. Then we wonder if the beliefs are just that, the work of our heads. Eggers holds this in tension throughout the film – as he did in The Witch and The Lighthouse – and it is the center of his art. Though not one to go over to the occult himself, he is an apostle of omnipotent, deterministic human belief – self-fulfilling prophecy.
In my theater’s showing, the instant that Fjölnir lost his head in the climactic volcano battle, an elderly woman left her seat, lingering at the door a moment before exiting. I suppose she resolved to stay just long enough to see how it all ended. Perhaps she was exasperated by the gore. But she would miss Amleth’s ascension to Valholl, the film’s narrative linchpin. Does it surprise you that a film, in 2022, could end with the object of audience sympathy receiving his storybook closure, crossing seamlessly into the afterlife, and make good on it? And yet that’s the least of Eggers’s departures.
Characters are bound, even overpowered by the logic of their world, in some ways quite literally. No one, for instance, can budge Amleth’s sword from its scabbard while the sun remains in the sky (it is the “night blade,” after all) – though, for all anyone really knows, it’s just a sword. Other times, when presented with the opportunity to kill Fjölnir a bit ahead of the preordained schedule, Amleth wrestles with unsheathing it. It’s not for us to say whether he cannot, or would not. In any event, he does not transgress the higher laws of his society.
Amleth often remarks that it would be foolhardy to attempt to escape his given fate, to choose, as Olga insists, to forgo vengeance, make his own destiny, and maybe see his children grow. His fateful decision to pursue vengeance above all demonstrates, in one reading, his inability to imagine a life outside of the rigid social arrangements of Norse society that have comprised his life since boyhood, even as the credibility of those arrangements suffers blows with the more he learns about his past. In another reading, his life ended the only way it possibly could have – with brutal, bloody revenge, in everlasting accordance with the tenets of the world that reared him.
“What things they believed in those days!” Yes. Of what things we convince ourselves.
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All images are screenshots courtesy of Focus Features’ YouTube trailer.
- Move the “h” in Amleth to the front and you will know where Eggers and Shakespeare find common inspiration. [↩]