Man against nature may unwittingly turn man against man. It’s a lesson conveyed in many survival movies, when humans are put to the ultimate test in conditions unbefitting to their skill sets. If they do manage to crawl back alive, their readaptation to society often proves more difficult than expected. If they haven’t learned to respect the only perceivable powers of the universe, how may they reconcile their fate in civilization?
In 2022, Robert Eggers’ film The Northman introduced some American audiences to the beastly geography and brutalist folklore of Scandinavia. In the same year, Iceland native Hlynur Pálmason took a slightly different approach to the local epic in his film, Godland.
Godland follows a 19th-century Danish priest, Lucas (an exceedingly ghastly Elliott Crossett Hove), who has been assigned to establish a church in one of the country’s colonized Icelandic towns. Rather than sailing directly to the town of his embankment, he opts to take the long journey across the rough terrain with the help of some locals.
Of course, Lucas is not well-equipped for the physical toll of such a trek, particularly with all of his heavy, wet-plate camera equipment strapped to his back. The film, which is based on seven recovered photographs taken by a priest (the first-ever images to depict the southeastern coast of Iceland), emphasizes the significance of capturing and preserving these sights as they were.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening hosted by the director, who entertained a post-film Q&A. The film’s “every-frame-a-painting” style is certainly reflective of his experience living among nature on the east coast, a seven-hour drive from the nation's capital, Reykjavik. Although his script was tightly planned (and had been in the works for 10 years), he mentioned that he took the liberty of filming every location and individual object present in the scene.
Beyond the characters and their interactions, if a moment of stillness – object or landscape – seemed meaningful, he would put it to film. In addressing such small moments as a fly fluttering around a character’s eye as they wake up, he elaborated, “small details add up into helping give you an experience of life.”
The first hour is more visually immersive and instinctual than the latter half, as we witness primarily the external journey of the priest among his surroundings. The tense relationship between the Dane and the locals is alluded to (particularly on a linguistic level), but the sheer beauty and intensity of the environment often take precedence from a viewer's perspective.
Pálmason takes his time with every shot, but in a way that is so spell-binding and consistently well-framed that it never drags. The audience, like Lucas, is simply taking everything in, even as he is increasingly harrowed by the expedition.
The second half of the film explores the team’s arrival at the town and the subsequent construction of the church. This is not exactly a straightforward process; the lead local guide on the journey, Ragnar (previous Pálmason collaborator Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), is also the lead on construction, and his relationship with Lucas continues to be strained. The care provided by a nearby settled Danish family only adds fuel to the fire, as the father also looks down on Icelandic people.
Lucas’ dependence on Ragnar is no longer a matter of life and death, so he grows more openly spiteful. Throw in some thematics about the concept of “homeland” during colonization and monotheistic religious doubts, and you have yourself an existential slow-burn à la rural, historical First Reformed (complete with a forbidden romance).
We were informed that the film was shot chronologically over a 50-day shooting schedule, which makes particular sense with how locations were utilized. Techniques like seasonal time-lapse and slow 360-degree camera turns add a quality of ephemerality, which is as close to the film’s thesis point as you are going to get: all living things’ two most significant moments are birth and death, and both are governed by nature.
Particularly with the time lapses, we get a better understanding of the dead's return to the earth. I appreciated the insight that, far and beyond the characters, the land that they inhabit has existed and will exist beyond. Thus, “the film not only has a present, but a past and maybe a future.”
Pálmason’s main draw to making the film, if not only the seven pictures that inspired it, was the idea of exploring the relationship between Denmark and its Icelandic colonies, which has seldom been portrayed. In these manmade hierarchies of person seeking power over person, we are cleverly reminded of who is really in control. Peace by death or by accepting what is; we’re all headed to the same place.
Godland is not currently available for streaming, but you can watch Pálmason’s earlier feature, A White White Day, on Mubi.