I’ve heard this described as the film you get if Director Robert Eggers was given 90 million dollars to make a Robert Eggers film.
Which of course is what did happen. More than just being an obvious observation however, this statement captures a key tension inherent within The Northman- the fact that this is a Robert Eggers film that needs to appeal to the masses. The real question then is, does his intentional and specific style leave this 90 million dollar film inaccessible, or on the other end does it sacrfice Egger’s authenticity and ingenuitity? Or does it find the magic number inbetween? I think Egger’s own process and willingness to adapt to a new world with studio demands and fresh new budgets successsfully carves that necessary path to reach that intended audience without alienating his fans. The story is more straight forward than The Witch and The Lighthouse, two films equally interested in history and mythology and deeply spiritual/religious questions, but he funnels the layered imagery, metaphor and commentary of those films into a meticulously researched historical setting and context. This is a film that immerses viewers in a world both familiar and foreign, bringing to life not merely what the medieval setting would have looked and felt like but how they would have perceived the world from their own vantage point. This means a world that will likley sit slightly uncomfortable for those of us in the West long conditioned away from a worldview that assumes a supernatural realtiy to be everybit as real as the material one. This is a world deeply interested in asking questions not about humanity’s relationship to one another, but to the gods and the spirits. Here the symbols and the metaphors bleed into the on the ground and at times all too real realities of the historical setting, filled as it is with chaos and brutality, Princely sucession and family rule based on real honor-shame aspiraitons. You might be forgiven for wondering if the world ever looked and functioned like it does in The Northman. I think the true punch of Egger’s vision and script comes when it leads us to question whether our world really loook and functions all that different today. The uncertainty of that question is what is meant to linger.
The history is centered on but not confined to the story of Amleth, most well known for inspiring Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Now just in case that inspires a little bit of anxiety for some (Shakespeare is not for everyone), its worth saying this film is not Shakespeare. We do get some of the basic construct of the Hamlet story, but what Egger’s is doing is taking the historical evidence for the story of Amleth, of which we have very little, and weaving that into an immersive world of storytelling traditions. As a bunch of different story’s kind of intersect what we get then is a striking portrait of the world that would have been engaged in the telling of these stories. This is where the astonishing level of detail comes rushing to the surface in full bloodied and full bodied form.
I do think Egger’s is also, in his own way, making very real call backs to his previous films. If you have never done this exercise, research and view the ways that The Witch and The Lighthouse are meant to function together as a cohesive narrative. The same thing is evident here with the movement based on this rise and this decent (which of course takes us to both hell and to heaven) and the richly symbolic colors (notice the movement from muted to the final sequences of blood red) mixing with the symbolism of creature and gods (the film begins with the Crow, which of course signifies Oden and Death itself). A final moment of transcendence punctuates an equally earthbound story, bringing history and myth together in a way that, hopefully, can break open our view of the world and our understanding of reality into something much, much bigger.
Thematically, this film uses some of those tragic Hamlet elements as a way into a world built and formed around particular views of justice. As I was watching this film my mind was being taken back to the story of Cain and Abel at multiple points. Not just with the family strife, although that is clearly in play here, but with the ways in which cycles of violence take root. This is not a story about heroes of old enacting justice in an eye for an eye fashion in a medieval world soaked in expectations of blood, shame and honor. There are no heroes to be found here. No truly redemptive characters. As the story goes we begin to gain portraits of people formed by the world around them and immersed in a way of thinking, seeing and being in the world in a way that would have been completely normal to them. You die in battle, you die avenging honor. You oppose the powers, but in so doing you evoke the enslaving nature of power to do your bidding. And this happens in relationship to the gods which express themselves within nature and in ways that bring blessings or curses. And just like the Cain and Abel story what we get is the problem of perpetual vengeance where justice can only be found by way of repayment for ones sins. As it says in the Genesis story, this is what fills the world with evil that cannot be atoned. A world where justice is declared by way of necessary punishment of course is just as familiar to us today, even if we feel we can detach it from such obvious displays of the barbaric. Here Egger’s is not making a judgement on the ancient world, nor is he isolating them as somehow less enlightened- truth be told they were far more enlightened than we are today in many ways. What he is doing is taking an unfamiliar world where such a question of justice is wrapped up in a world in very real relationship to the gods and making it familiar and universal, and its a really powerful approach to an age old story about revenge.
Of course, and this is certainly true for Christians, what this film needs to break the cycles of violence fueled by the patterns of necessary repayment is something that can ultimatley stop the repayment and not pay it forward. To face the judgement of the evils and atrocities that we see (and there are many on display in this film) and to condemn the evil (or in the Christian sense condemn the Powers of Sin and Death) while also liberating the people. This is perhaps most poignant for our current day given the way we see the Viking legacy sailing through the Rus region and slaying the Slavic peoples (we get some lovely old Ukrainian in the process). This is the point where it becomes clear that moralizing any of the vengeance on display in this film is not on The Northmans mind. What we need then is a voice declaring the full forgiveness of sins while also declaring that the Powers of Sin and Death have been defeated. In this, if we view this from the perspective of the cross, we can see Christ saying to the cycles and patterns of repayment begun with Cain and Abel that the blood stops with the Cross. Instead a new way of living, being, and seeing emerges, one in which the Kingdom of God takes root in the Kingdoms of this earth transforming how it is that we relate to god and to one another.
And yet, what Christ does is reveal the true reality that our appeals to justice in this world tend to cloud. This comes in the revealing of our imaging of capital letter Sin (the Powers), which of course leads to sinful expressions that ultimately lead to death. It also comes in the revealing of the imaging we have traded in the process, that of the image of God. This is where the relationship between God, humanity and creation can be healed, is by transforming our expectation of what it is that god is about and how it is that we are called to live in allegiance to gods way of being, seeing and thinking in this word. This is the true myth, as Tolkien would say, that breaks into a world full of stories of the gods and unify’s them in a singular expression of truth, one given to mystery, a mystery that then breaks through into the injustices again and again with the transforming power of love and forgivness. This is, surprisingly, how it is that new creation, that imagined world where true justice actually reigns, is bought about. Unforutnately both we, and the gods we shape in our own image, an image traded to image ourselves rather than the creator, tend towards the opposite. We see justice in terms of demands for judgment of ones enemy and we enact the gods will to fight on our behalf. When God shows up in Jesus, breaking into history as the full revelation of gods, and our, true image, we tend to reject it, rail against it, react against it, precisely because from our vantage point it feels injustice, as though such an expression remains ignorant of giving evildoers their due and declaring specific actions to be wrong. This is what we see in the film with the gods called upon to act according to their demands and ultimately the people taking the gods actions into their own hands to enact the sort of justice they desire. This is the enslavement such views of justice express. It cannot condemn evil because it justiifies evil in the process. Worse so it believes that it does so under the blessings of the gods that fight on our behalf. When it comes at others expense we see where The Northman threatens to lead this story, towards its own demise.
I won’t spoil where this film goes, but it’s not completely without redemptive notes. I think there is powerful clarity here lingering underneath the surface that points to a natural beauty, the power of new life, the inner longings for peace and restoration, the pain of injustice leading to deeper relationship with one another. But it also leaves no question about a world still enslaved to the same cycles, something we as viewers today would do well not to relegate to some relic of unenlightened history or fantastical superstions. When it comes to injustice we would do well to remember that it is not god who has abandoned the world, rather it is we who have abandoned the way of God in our demands that justice happen in the way we expect it to happen. Encountering the mystery, not in the way of blessings and curses but in the way of imaging, we can then see how this becomes idolatry, enslaving us to cycles of injustice rather than bringing us to the liberating message of peace and forgivness.