The Northman wolf

The Northman

There is something anthropological about Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Northman. This shouldn’t be a surprise. His previous two features, The VVitch and The Lighthouse, are steeped in period-accurate detail from the production design to the vernacular and speech patterns of its characters. Most importantly, Eggers’ films demonstrate with great seriousness and intensity how its characters understand the world. Their spirituality and religiosity are part of them in a way that is not common to Modern humanity. Eggers shows us the world as they knew it and as they believed it to be.

In The Northman—a retelling of a revenge saga about a viking prince named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a saga which directly inspired Shakespeare—this means we see valkyries, revenants, witches, Odin, berserkers and the like, because encountering these beings would have been an expected part of viking life. Did they encounter these supernatural entities? The did only in the stories they told, but these stories created their imaginary world and motivated their way of life. The spiritually-saturated person talks about the spiritual realm as matter-of-factly as they do the natural one. We see what we have the eyes of faith to see. The Northman lets us see with viking eyes for a couple of hours. I see, and I shudder.

We tend to fantasize about the warrior life, to imagine ourselves as these heroes of old, as the stories’ original hearers would have done to some degree. But Eggers’ film doesn’t let us look past the sheer brutality of the viking way of life. They live in dirt made mud by their spilt blood. Everyone’s life is reckoned inconsequential. The best they can hope for is to die in combat raging against the futility of their lives.

The Northman is starkly violent. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much bodily mutilation on screen. These people are so submerged in their mystic perception of the world that they have zero regard for anyone’s bodily existence.

Curiously, The Northman’s frankness about the desecration of people by people does not correspond to a similar forthrightness about people engaged in sexual activity. The film shoves eviscerated entrails in the audience’s face, but it shies away from showing a bare breast. I found myself cycling through the justifications I used to make for this odd tic of American filmmaking—combat violence is inherently public, so it should be shown, while sexuality is inherently private, so it should not be shown—but I don’t really agree with that perspective anymore. The kind of violence that most plagues our world is domestic violence, and that’s about as private as can be, and sexuality is not merely a private affair but, ideally, a symbol and begetter of community. I am inclined these days to think that if we are mature enough to see people strike at each other in hate, we are also mature enough to see them caress each other in love.

An integral part of any Norse saga is that the characters tell stories within the story via prophecies and omens. They live into the stories they tell about themselves. True to its sources, this dynamic is explicitly at work in The Northman. We may not have our eyes set on the gates of Valhalla these days and be willing to do what it takes to earn purchase there, but we do still live into the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works and our place in it. It’s a reminder to see and hear these stories with clear eyes and ears, to question, in this case, why we are okay with violence and not with sexuality, to consider what the Western embrace of violent myths like this one says about us and the things we want to see come to be in the world and how we might achieve them. Shakespeare positioned Amleth’s tale as a tragedy. The Northman is centered on Amleth’s perspective of his story, so tragic though much of it is, this is not a tragedy in the end. Which story do we want to tell, which is another way of asking, what kind of world do we want to create?

There is something anthropological about Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Northman. This shouldn’t be a surprise. His previous two features, The VVitch and The Lighthouse, are steeped in period-accurate detail from the production design to the vernacular and speech patterns of its characters. Most importantly, Eggers’ films demonstrate with great seriousness and intensity how its characters understand the world. Their spirituality and religiosity are part of them in a way that is not common to Modern humanity. Eggers shows us the world as they knew it and as they believed it to be.

In The Northman—a retelling of a revenge saga about a viking prince named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a saga which directly inspired Shakespeare—this means we see valkyries, revenants, witches, Odin, berserkers and the like, because encountering these beings would have been an expected part of viking life. Did they encounter these supernatural entities? The did only in the stories they told, but these stories created their imaginary world and motivated their way of life. The spiritually-saturated person talks about the spiritual realm as matter-of-factly as they do the natural one. We see what we have the eyes of faith to see. The Northman lets us see with viking eyes for a couple of hours. I see, and I shudder.

We tend to fantasize about the warrior life, to imagine ourselves as these heroes of old, as the stories’ original hearers would have done to some degree. But Eggers’ film doesn’t let us look past the sheer brutality of the viking way of life. They live in dirt made mud by their spilt blood. Everyone’s life is reckoned inconsequential. The best they can hope for is to die in combat raging against the futility of their lives.

The Northman is starkly violent. I don’t know when I’ve seen so much bodily mutilation on screen. These people are so submerged in their mystic perception of the world that they have zero regard for anyone’s bodily existence.

Curiously, The Northman’s frankness about the desecration of people by people does not correspond to a similar forthrightness about people engaged in sexual activity. The film shoves eviscerated entrails in the audience’s face, but it shies away from showing a bare breast. I found myself cycling through the justifications I used to make for this odd tic of American filmmaking—combat violence is inherently public, so it should be shown, while sexuality is inherently private, so it should not be shown—but I don’t really agree with that perspective anymore. The kind of violence that most plagues our world is domestic violence, and that’s about as private as can be, and sexuality is not merely a private affair but, ideally, a symbol and begetter of community. I am inclined these days to think that if we are mature enough to see people strike at each other in hate, we are also mature enough to see them caress each other in love.

An integral part of any Norse saga is that the characters tell stories within the story via prophecies and omens. They live into the stories they tell about themselves. True to its sources, this dynamic is explicitly at work in The Northman. We may not have our eyes set on the gates of Valhalla these days and be willing to do what it takes to earn purchase there, but we do still live into the stories we tell ourselves about how the world works and our place in it. It’s a reminder to see and hear these stories with clear eyes and ears, to question, in this case, why we are okay with violence and not with sexuality, to consider what the Western embrace of violent myths like this one says about us and the things we want to see come to be in the world and how we might achieve them. Shakespeare positioned Amleth’s tale as a tragedy. The Northman is centered on Amleth’s perspective of his story, so tragic though much of it is, this is not a tragedy in the end. Which story do we want to tell, which is another way of asking, what kind of world do we want to create?

Portrait of Fuller Seminary alum Elijah Davidson

Elijah Davidson is Co-Director of Brehm Film and Senior Film Critic. Subscribe to his weekly email series that guides you through film history, Come & See, and find more of his work at elijahdavidson.com.

Everything Everywhere All at Once asks a question that is easy for us to answer: What is the meaning of life?