Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason on his film Godland
Godland begins, like Fargo, with a title card announcing a spurious real-life inspiration for the film: in this case, a cache of seven wet-plate photographs, taken by a Danish priest in the 19th century, that are the first known pictures of South Iceland. The film purports to tell, or speculate upon, the circumstances under which these photographs were taken. This conceit is entirely made up, says the film’s director and writer Hlynur Pálmason, but was helpful during the film’s conception, as “a way for me to imagine what was going on behind the image.” I spoke to Hlynur (as typical for Icelanders, “Pálmason” is a patronymic, not a surname), at the Cannes Film Festival, where Godland, his third feature-length film following Winter Brothers (2017) and A White, White Day (2019), premiered in Un Certain Regard. “We did make the seven photographs,” he added. “We’ve only shown one, that’s the poster of the film, but we will reveal them slowly.”
The idea of a slow reveal is in keeping with Godland, a film whose slow, long camera movements explore the world at a premodern pace, as is Hlynur’s idea of imagining the story behind a single photograph. In the film, as in a wet-plate collodion photograph from the first decades of the medium, each elaborately conceived and executed shot is a discrete, standalone moment, within which an entire swirling history is, literally, crystallized. In Hlynur’s films, of which Godland is to date the most complete in its execution of his project, every image is deliberate, handmade, hard-won — precious.
The history of Iceland is a literary one: the island’s settlement, beginning in the 9th century, is concurrent with the beginning of its literary culture, in the form of remarkably accurate genealogies subsequently interwoven with the medieval Sagas. The visual history of Iceland is another matter: Godland is set not just at the dawn of photography, but before the serious advent of Icelandic painting, generally traced to the first Reykjavík exhibition by the Danish-educated landscape artist Þórarinn B. Þorláksson in 1900.
The film, then, is set in a murky time and place barely touched by modernity, of which photography is merely one of several linked signifiers. In it, a young, ambitious Danish priest called Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hob) is sent by his superiors to build a church in southeastern Iceland—where, even today, Route 1, the Icelandic Ring Road, is sometimes rendered impassable by glacial floods washing out the ashy plains on the shores of the North Atlantic. He is warned about the nation and its inhospitality: the hellish sulphur smell of the geothermal hot springs; the mind-numbing endlessness of the white summer nights; the many, many different words for rain his Icelandic translator recites to him, discouraging his appetite to learn any more of the language.
Hylnur imagines a nonexistent visual record with the film’s visual language (the unpeopled vistas he films, of course, look much the same as they did 200 years ago). The film is shot in a 1.33:1 academy ratio, with raw rounded corners, evocative of analog photography; long, static close-ups, framed-straight on, suggest the lengthy exposure time and expository posing of a 19th century portrait photograph, while slow pans could be taken from a tripod teetering over wet green moss or balanced on jagged basalt.1
As the priest, his translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson), his guide Ragnar (played by Iceland’s most respected international screen star, Ingvar Sigurðsson), and their traveling party make their way on horseback across the southeast of the country, each shot feels like an event, though not a “trick,” per the director. A long, dreamy pan down a waterfall as it tumbles dozens of feet off the side of a cliff, or, a la Godard’s Week-end, a 360-degree pan at a country wedding, capturing snippets from the afternoon’s revels between opening and closing on a man playing an accordion, certainly calls attention to itself as time-sculpting. But this style also feels more natural to the director, as a way to compile an entire world, than a sequence of events staged for the needs of classical continuity editing: “Let’s say there’s a wedding. Do you want to portray it by using one day and all kinds of shots, him reacting to this, him having fun — or do you want to reveal the area in one shot, say, ‘This is what’s going on, and let’s go on?’”
The choice is often a matter of rhythm. “When do we see a face in close-up, when do we see the first woman in the film, when do we see someone sing… When do we see the protagonist’s face, when do we reveal Ragnar’s face.” Thinking about this begins in the writing of the film, with the script as a sequence of scenes tacked to a wall, “and figuring out, Okay, we’ve been moving quite fast, cutting from face to face, let’s calm it down, have a pause where the audience can breathe.” For instance, when Lucas, en route to his destination, falls off his horse into the grass and seems, for a moment, to be dead, Hlynur and cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff orchestrate a complicated circular pan transitioning from extreme long shot to extreme close-up as the camera corkscrews towards Lucas, taking in various scenes from Icelandic nature before resting on the priest’s eerily still face. “You have this volcano, there are eels, there are birds; it’s difficult to make it work, and we put a lot of effort into making it work, but there’s something that happens — when a scene is not cut up, you almost stop breathing. In that scene, that was very important to us, that we moved into his rhythm of breathing and then it stops.” Hlynur and von Hausswolff work on “finding an effortless, simple approach to reveal things. For me, it’s always about building up towards an image.”
The condescension Lucas displays in his relationship with his guide Ragnar, despite his relative helplessness in nature, is predicated in part on colonial arrogance. The high-ranking priest who warns Lucas about Icelandic weather has a bowl of fresh fruit on his desk — a signifier of continental luxury inconceivable on an impoverished island in the North Atlantic. When Godland takes place, Iceland is still a territory of the Kingdom of Denmark — in fact, the 19th century saw the rise of the Icelandic independence movement, advocated for by Danish-educated Icelanders who were inspired by other European nationalist movements. But for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Denmark imposed a system of “monopoly trading” in which international trade flowed exclusively through representatives of the Danish crown in two dozen designated hubs in Iceland, ensuring that the island remained a remote, backwards outpost, which the modern world only entered through a few narrow apertures. Godland is attentive to a very few, handsome objects, particularly Lucas’s camera, which make interventions, transformative or not, on the forbidding landscape. Carrying his camera, plates, tripod and portable darkroom on his back like Christ lugging the cross, Lucas appears as if on a priestly “errand into the wilderness,” dragging modern Europe to this inhospitable place.
The image of a man dragging a camera into the wild also suggests the production of Godland itself. The movie was shot on 35mm — partly out of aesthetic preference, partly because it was easier than bringing up the necessary electrical equipment to places in Austur-Skaftafellssýsla inaccessible by roads. Hlynur and his crew traveled to many of the shooting locations on horseback. The slowness of many of Godland’s camera movements is perhaps a continuation of the arduous preparations necessary to create each shot, evoking the physically laborious process of laying down dolly tracks or operating a Steadicam over undulating rocky highland plains — or, perhaps, of Lucas’s difficulty in simply getting from Point A to Point B. The film’s sense of physical distance, of little dots of humanity spread out days away from each other, comes from the 19th century, not the 21st.
The film has a similarly archaic sense of time, particularly in time-lapse montages comprised, flip-book style, of shots taken over the passage of several seasons, tracking the decomposition of a dead horse, or a human corpse covered by rain and snow. Here is a perspective not often prioritized in cinema: a sense of geological time, with nature swallowing up mortal vanity. Even the relative permanence of a photograph is nothing compared to the slow erosion of igneous rock deposited in a lava flow 10,000 years ago, or the advance and recession of glaciers. As Hlynur says: “The weather shapes us.”
The pace and control of Hlynur’s filmmaking means Godland might be grouped by international festival-going critics under the rubric of “slow cinema.” But it’s maybe more accurate to call it “slow filmmaking,” in deference to his rather artisanal filmmaking practice. The film was shot around his home region, where he grew up and still lives, outside the town of Höfn í Hornafirði; the human corpse that the earth metabolises was shot over two years in a field where Hlynur goes with his family to pick mushrooms; the rotting horse was one of his father’s, shot over a year at his father’s farm, from which he also sourced the horses used in the film.2 Working with the family livestock, and the family, is, says Hlynur, “one of the ways I work with what surrounds me.”
Hlynur makes his films through a process he likens more to a visual artist in the studio. “When I moved back to Iceland, I tried to find a way for us to survive and to make films. Right now, we’re working on a couple projects: some feature films, some video installations, some short films, some photography things. We drag them over a long period of time, working parallel, jumping from one to another. My daily life would be: I wake up, take the kids to school, then drive to my father’s neighbor’s farm. We have a 35mm camera, and built this kind of bridge over the horse. So I crawl up there and put on the camera and film. And in the process of doing that, I think about the film. I really enjoy this studio life. I go, I film, I think about it, so when I start writing it doesn’t feel like I’m inventing anything.” Speaking of his inspirations, he cites as many visual artists as filmmakers, and emphasizes process more than product: Sally Mann taking pictures of her family over many decades; Monet going out into his garden to paint his water lilies. “Roy Andersson built a studio; he lives on the top floor, and he eats breakfast, has coffee, and then he goes downstairs and works on the scene, almost like a painter in his studio. But my studio is the exterior. I was also inspired by Ingmar Bergman, this process of living somewhere and making films there. I think this is what I’m trying to do with my filmmaking, that it’s a daily routine instead of this very small window of crazy filming (and then editing and finishing and so on). For me it’s more like a couple-of-years process. I started working on Godland in 2014, and now it’s done. I drag it out.”
From Bergman, too, Hlynur might get his taste for (occasionally heavy-handed) symbolism, in stories emerging from deep, abstract contemplation. He speaks frequently about getting lost and exploring in the filmmaking process. He’s drawn less to plot than to musical elements of the story, capital-T Themes that can animate his shots with some kind of profound dialectical struggle. Even the title of the film is driven by multiple dualities. The original title is in both Icelandic and Danish: Volaða Land or Vanskabte Land, which are best translated as something like “Wretched Land” or “Miserable Place.” The phrase comes from a poem by Matthías Jochumsson, also the author of the Icelandic national anthem, who, having studied in Denmark, moved to Akureyri in North Iceland. As Hlynur explains: “His first winter, the whole fjord froze, and the next summer it was so thick, the ice, that it didn’t have time to melt, and then came another winter. He was like, why am I here, why did I move back? So he wrote this diatribe or a hate-poem for his country, called ‘Volaðaland.’” After a friend published the poem, “he got totally canceled by the government, they hated him for it, so he had to write a love poem to Iceland to balance it out.” Godland is, in its roundabout love-hate way, a patriotic film from its title down, exhibiting the same ironic pride in the land’s inhospitality (and in Ragnar’s rugged, cussed capability) as the successful tourism campaigns that rebranded the nation following the 2008 economic crisis and 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption.
Hlynur himself also studied in Denmark, at the national film school, and made Winter Brothers there before returning to Iceland; he considers himself “divided by two countries,” at home in both and neither, reading Icelandic books in Denmark and Danish books in Iceland. Thus his desire “to work with opposites. Let’s put this language against this language and see what happens, the misunderstanding, the miscommunication.” Mediated by both language and photography, Godland becomes a film about perceiving, and being perceived by, the Other. Lucas and Ragnar “are complete opposites, a young, ambitious, modern, idealist priest, and then a man of nature, born from the earth, almost a nature poet.” And so, threaded through these oppositions is the opposition between human civilisation and the natural world. This duality, too, Hlynur embodies through his mindful visual aesthetic, which packages Godland in the alternating grammars of portrait and landscape.
- This visual grammar also echoes the beginnings of Icelandic cinema more specifically: The first feature funded by the Icelandic Film Fund, Land and Sons, made in 1979, was praised abroad for a plainspoken, stately agrarian-poetic aesthetic necessitated by the fact that director Ágúst Guðmundsson shot on a loud old Arriflex camera placed under a blimp to enable sound recording, which made too much camera movement impractical, and had only three lenses available to choose from, mostly using either the 50mm or the 28mm.back
- His father keeps horses, as many rural Icelanders do; his daughter, Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir, who appears in the film, rides competitively (the film’s press kit says, “When she grows up she wants to be a horse trainer and a part-time actress.” The Icelandic film industry, like the prewar Hollywood in which the classic Western thrived, can call upon a roster of actors who grew up around horses and know how to handle them; Hlynur’s long takes allow viewers to appreciate that both Ída and Ingvar Sigurðsson are excellent horsemen).back