10/10 Godland, the Danish/Icelandic masterpiece that rounded major 2022 festivals and immediately raised writer/director Hlynur Pálmason into an international filmmaker to watch, is one of those movies that’s barley worth analyzing because it’s so obviously perfect on the surface. It’s not particularly revolutionary, there’s nothing this film is saying that hasn’t been said before, but it’s stated simply, inescapably and powerfully, a film that makes the mere act of living on this planet seem like a bittersweet but futile act with ruinous emotional consequences.
Iceland, 1860s- Lutheran priest Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is tasked with traveling to Iceland to build and a church and maintain a ministry. Lucas only speaks Danish and seems unable to learn Icelandic, leaving him able to converse only with the translator and none of the Icelandic-speaking laborers who make the voyage with them, and when they arrive on the island, he clashes immediately and constantly with their guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson).
The film opens with text stating that it is inspired by the box of seven wet plate photographs taken by a Danish priest which are the first recorded images of Iceland’s southern coast, but this is part of the fiction. No such ambrotypes exist.
Godland is about a colonizing photographer carrying a backpack-sized wet plate camera and the portable darkroom it requires across Iceland in the 1860s and was shot by a group of filmmakers, led by an Iceland native who studied at the National Film School of Denmark, dragging Arricams and 35mm Kodak film around a small fishing town called Höfn in the summer of 2021. The church was erected during the 40-day shoot and features in scenes at various stages of construction. Both in front of and behind both Lucas’ and Pálmason’s cameras, it is the first-person history of Denmark’s failure to colonize the distant island and mankind’s failure to colonize nature with religion.
The opposing poles are right next to each other, just as up-front as everything else about the movie. Lucas and Ragnar in the narrative, “God” and “land” in the title, Danish and Icelandic languages – both the Danish Vanskabte Land and the Icelandic Volaða land are given as the film’s title in both the opening and closing credits.
Of course the gorgeous landscapes look different captured naturally onto 35mm filmstock, but the wet plate process is also crucial to cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s compositions. Lucas will frequently prepare his subjects to sit still for nine-second exposures, which are usually filmed for the entire nine seconds, and as the story goes on, we’ll start to see nine-second pauses in the action, as if the characters are posing for Lucas’ camera instead of the Arricam, to express their shock or indecision.
In Godland we see the maturation and the flipside of A24 as aesthetic – Janus Films has the U.S. distribution rights, but the “smart horror” genre with a heavy emphasis on nature associated with A24 that has swept the globe in the past several years is a clear influence. There’s a direct artistic line from The Witch to Godland. Both films concern religious men going out into the wilderness and failing to build the kind of shelter they need, with real farming considerations incorporated into the film and the absence of technology driving the conflict.
The scenes of nature that were at first merely a preindustrial setting, in this emergent subgenre, become primordial. The Witch’s forests aren’t neutral, merely untouched by man, they’re hostile, a gateway into a wild world untouched by Christianity where no law, or more accurately a law that none of the characters understand, holds sway. In Godland, Iceland isn’t just this uniquely harsh and beautiful environment, it’s an alien world that Lucas must bring God into. The entire island is as hostile as the lava flowing from Hekla, the all-consuming ooze of creation flowing along imperceptible imperfections in the ground that you only notice as lava rolls over it, slowly giving up its heat and solidifying into new rock.
Obviously there’s a ton of climate change subtext inherent merely in shooting this preindustrial land that appears completely foreign to 2023 eyes. Climate is the animating factor of the film – Lucas has to complete the church before winter. Looking out at these plains that, in the narrative, have not even begun to choke on the smoke of human activity and seeing that they still look this way more than a century and a half after the film is set drives home the indifference of nature, which is a central theme of the film, but it becomes something else. Something angry, but not bothered enough to rise up as a hurricane or earthquake. Like lava, it simmers noticeably and is more than willing to kill you if you’re in the way, but it won’t change direction to come after you as it rolls slowly about its business.
It’s a man-versus-nature film, but where such stories usually include God as a manifestation of nature, in Godland, Jehovah is firmly on team “man.” It is the priest, God’s own emissary, who carries all of the technology, and God is just another invention he is using to conquer this land.
One of the most distinctive things about Iceland is there are almost no trees. The glaciers and volcanoes make the land naturally hostile to the plants, and the Vikings cut down what forests were there a millennium ago. This has defined Icelandic architecture and kept its wilds so photographically unique, even when these destructive forces aren’t in the frame. Every piece of wood in Godland, from the wooden box of Lucas’ camera to every plank of his wooden church, is itself a colonizer, alien to this country.
In the final scene, we see Lucas in his elaborate Lutheran ruff that he must have carried with him, kept clean and withheld until the church was completed, inside this completely wooden environment. Guilt calls him outside where he slips and falls and is completely covered in mud, consumed by the earth on which he does not belong.
In the outro we watch the majesty of nature consume the main characters’ corpses in jump cuts, what seems to be one single, breathtaking shot spanning several years. I leave the film shaken and troubled, stirred with emotions I don’t quite know what to do about.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at email@example.com.