The Northman is one of those high concept, medieval sword and sorcery movies that unintentionally offers an insight into our present-day civilization— in which the unceasing advance of technology, the triumph of the algorithm, and the continued quantification of anything and everything through advanced statistics has been accompanied by a widespread and heterogenous cultural reengagement with the primitive, the pre-rational, the mystical, and the proto-civilizational. Something like this mix courses through pop-cultural phenomena like Game of Thrones, the burgeoning genre of intensively researched witch novels, the popularity of Yuval Noah Harari, the revival of psychedelics, the myriad varieties of mysticisms and apocalyptic visions, new and old, including Eastern religions, Hasidism, goddess cults, crystals, energetic healing, QAnon, and Scientology—American society now, as in Puritan and Anabaptist times, consisting of one big grab bag of cults. The Northman eagerly participates in some of the sillier versions of contemporary neo-primitivism (“My earth magic will aid your sword of fire” is an actual line in the movie and of course foreshadows sex), but also manages to be one of its more serious aesthetic achievements to date.
Conceived and directed by the American filmmaker Robert Eggers (whose directorial début The Witch peered into the mind of colonial New Englanders) the movie stages an ur-Hamlet, a version of the Amleth legend that circulated in various northern European oral and written forms for several centuries before finding its way to the artist conveniently known as Shakespeare. Up until quite recently—and since the late 18th century—Hamlet (the Shakespeare play) had been interpreted by Goethe, by Hegel, by Hazlitt, by Coleridge, and by Freud, among others, as a paradigmatic modern tragedy of ambivalence, a drama that stages the impossibility of right action. The play was not just another Revengers Tragedy in Thomas Kyd’s earlier Renaissance version, but, according to Laurence Olivier’s pithy, middlebrow, midcentury-modern gloss, “the tragedy of a man who can’t make up his mind.” Shakespeare introduces “conscience”—then nearly synonymous with “consciousness”—as a player in its own right, who responds to works of art (“the play’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the king”), and famously “makes cowards of us all.”
The causes of all this hesitation could be found in Hamlet’s world: still Christian but also secular, skeptical and self-questioning, the characters caught between impulse and thought, belief and evidence, desire and everything that comes between desire and its realization, which are mostly words (Hamlet is Shakespeare’s wordiest play). When Hamlet surprises Claudius at prayer, Claudius is talking (to himself and the audience) about how he cannot pray but only pretend to do so. This kind of prayer isn’t really an action, “words without thoughts never to heaven go,” but since Hamlet’s senses alone can’t distinguish between simulation and sincerity, he hesitates over this prime opportunity for vengeance, lest he send Claudius to heaven and so eternally reward him for killing his father.
At the equivalent moment in Eggers’ film, Amleth comes upon his uncle Fionir as he’s trying to ravish a slave girl, who escapes by smacking him in the face with her bloody menstrual rag. The woman’s blood reminds the hero of a witch’s prophecy foretelling he will face his uncle at “a lake of fire” and the time is not yet ripe for revenge. So much for ambivalence.
What interests Eggers, instead, in his revision, is something more literally “profound.” Claudius is saved by theological anxiety; Fionir by the more raw emotion of disgust. Throughout, the movie aims to recreate and also speak to these animal-brained emotions that power the occult—not just disgust but fear, hunger, lust, and bloodlust. Its focus is on how deep beliefs get instilled in us pre-consciously and thus generate an enchanted world of “true magic.”
The question for the cultural critic is why all this neo-primitivism, and why now? Once upon a time, the rewriting of a gory Norse tale and its transformation into a paradigmatic drama of modernity was seen as a crowning human achievement. Now, the un-Shakespearing of Hamlet—returning the drama to its primitive origins—is taken to be a kind of progress.
Eggers attempts an anthropology of vanished Viking culture that also acts as an investigation into what New Age types would call “the warrior archetype.” The first hints of his method are subtle. After a false-start, kitsch opening—a volcano and a voice over “prologue” uttered in growled, Nordic-accented consonants— the filmmaker cuts to a black screen and hits the audience with the disorienting, dissonant blasts of a Viking horn that we soon learn announces the return of the king from his raids. This use of period sound—the movie has no other soundtrack—is almost a straight steal from one of cinema’s great folklorists, the dissident Soviet director Sergei Paradjanov and his Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, which begins a dreamlike retelling of an old Ukrainian Hutsul legend with the equally mind-bending notes of a Carpathian Alpenhorn.
Paradjanov’s oeuvre was devoted to the preservation of various minority traditions threatened by the Soviet drive to mass produce a modern communist collective subject. The sociopolitical stakes of Eggers anthropological interests are less clear, even as he adapts elements of Paradjanov’s pioneering folkloric filming style. The Northman‘s main actions are a series of rituals—intercut with moments of intense violence. We see young Amleth, crucially a pre-pubescent boy instead of Shakespeare’s sulky university student, go through a manhood initiation at a forest shrine with his father. This involves acting like dogs, ingesting a psychedelic potion, farting and belching to prove one is a man and not a beast, all under the supervision of an Odin priest. The warrior code of familial loyalty and vengeance newly inscribed in him, he then witnesses his father’s brutal murder at the hands of the uncle, the massacre of the old king’s loyal household, and watches his mother carried off as war booty. He barely escapes himself, rowing out into the mists of a fjord with a single mantra to keep him going, “I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you Fionir.”
The beat of the oars gives way to the beat of drums and chants, as Amleth, now a young man, has been adopted by a group of Berserkers, Viking warriors who transform themselves into Wolf Men, on the eve of battle. What the soliloquy was to Shakespeare, the ceremony is for Eggers, and he devotes as much screen time to it as the sacking of the ninth-century Russian village that follows.
Here, something that we might call “conscience,” in the modern sense, appears to intervene. While his Wolf Men colleagues are busy raping women and rounding up the young boys of the town to lock them in a barn and burn them all to death, Amleth can only watch. The camera tracks the fate of one young boy, in particular, who’s meant to remind us of young Amleth and might even be played by the same actor. After the atrocity, Amleth leaves the Viking feast and wanders in the ruined village until he comes to the burnt husk of the barn. There he apparently has a visionary encounter, shot in black and white, with a native Rus witch who restores his “last teardrop,” taken from him during the initiation ceremony with his father. She also reminds him of his destiny to avenge his father and kill his uncle.
The fate of the anonymous village boy and his fellows becomes the reawakening trigger of what we have almost too casually learned to call “trauma.” It’s also the moment that Aristotle believed to be a constitutive part of tragedy, known as “recognition” (anagnorisis). The scene offers a chilling reminder of how uncanny and haunting trauma really can be, at a visceral level. Felt as “too real,” it can only be experienced through estrangement and disassociation. By trying to show us how trauma feels from the inside, however, the witch scene also activates a particular kind of cognitive dissonance for the audience, situating us both inside and outside the events on screen. The dissonance occurs because most of us retain just enough of the late 18th-century concept known as sympathy. We understand that Amleth has just been complicit also in murdering the child he was and the rape of women who might have been his own mother. Whatever our emotions are for the victims in this scene, we can also extend that sorrow to the perpetrator.
But there’s a gulf between how the audience sees and understands this moment and how The Northman shows it to us. The sympathy we feel is secondary and also beside the point. Eggers tries to go beyond mere dramatic irony (where the viewer knows more than the actor) and leads us into a dissonant “historical” irony that puts the audience’s assumptions at risk. Instead of mourning the child he was, of being able to feel for the victims of his own Berserker blood lust, the return of the tear only offers Amleth a partial rehumanization; it restores memory and a knowledge of his purpose but not anything like what a contemporary audience would understand to be “self recognition.” His “human self” is restored but only to the extent that it remains tied to the old code imprinted in each oar stroke, each beat of the drum.
The original Hamlet was hung up on a modern question about truth: If your father’s ghost appears to you and tells you to avenge him, what other proofs are required before carrying out that wish. The Northman, however, dwells comfortably within our postmodern cynicism about truths and rights. In her only real speaking moment in the film, Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother, Gudrun, delivers a powerful rebuke to Amleth as he tries to “save her”; she reveals that she was already a captured war bride and Amleth the product of a rape. So she too has a vengeance story of her own. Society is only a sham of organized bloodthirsty interests in competition with each other for preeminence. The only division that matters is between who wields power and who is dominated. Almost everyone in this world is a kind of revanchist who nurtures a deeply held grievance, and deep down we are all just following one or another kind of predatory animal script. Man is wolf to man and sometimes woman is too.
This is Hamlet by way of Jung and Mircea Eliade, champions of the archetypal over the individual. Prince Amleth’s tragedy here is not that of a modern, ambivalent self but of someone upon whom the actions and rituals of his time have been all-too-deeply imprinted. Amleth is either “not fully human”—a wolf-warrior, monster automaton—or the warrior prince who must make himself a literal slave in his uncle’s house to achieve a foretold end. The program either runs in an endless error loop of savagery or terminates according to a pre-written script with violence harnessed and rightly aimed.
The result is something like ancient Greek classical tragedy more than the Renaissance version: Amleth can no more avoid revenge than Oedipus can avoid solving the riddle of who’s responsible for the pollution at Thebes. The tragedy arises from people acting in accordance with their inscribed purpose within a defective social order. What looks like tragedy to us from the outside might feel like something different from the inside—consider, for example, the sacrifice of Isaac from the standpoint of the true believer, as both a supreme test of faith and an ordeal.
Eggers is trying to switch one kind of interiority—Hamlet’s debates with himself—for another. What is it like to fully inhabit the spirit of a Viking fated to avenge? The madness of this Amleth, as opposed to his modern Shakespearean counterpart, comes from accepting his role too well, not because things are sicklied over with the pale cast of thought.
As the movie switches to Iceland, where the uncle has moved his household, Eggers gives us more rituals—another psychedelic shaman, a primitive “hurling” match, a springtime orgy, a Viking funeral, alongside generous helpings of Icelandic natural scenery. Once the movie drags towards its bloody conclusion, Eggers risks an anachronism for the sake of dramatic tension legible to contemporary audiences—a love interest. The Ophelia story is an artifact of the modern (i.e., Shakespearean) version. In this case, Amleth falls in love with one of the Russian slave girls he stows away with to Fionir’s homestead in Iceland, she of the “earth magic,” and also of the menstrual rag. The feminine archetype comes in to offer a different code, that of survival and human flourishing. She holds the antidote to the poison between Amleth’s ears; but can he accept it?
Unlike the case with Paradjanov’s anthropological films, which tried to translate how traditional cultures told their own stories into the modern medium of cinema, there’s no intention here to preserve or revive pagan Nordic folkways. Neither is Eggers suggesting we should or can become authentic Northmen in order to resist the suffocating conformity of a majority culture, after the manner of the neo-Nazi right or versions of the pro-indigenous left. Indeed, the psychology offered in The Northman conforms in all sorts of ways with the closest thing we have to a majority norm—the Silicon Valley view of how minds work. We are just infinitely suggestible bots, running software written for us at a level below spoken language—codes made up of genes and primal experiences.
The movie additionally crystallizes something about our contemporary techno-barbarism. As recent events have shown—from the school shootings in Texas, the atrocities at Bucha, the Bataclan atrocity in Paris, the mass shootings in Buffalo and the Pittsburgh and Texas synagogues (also the crimes of that present-day Northman, Anders Breivik)—just about anyone can be conditioned to believe they are under existential threat from a host of outside forces and come to style themselves an avenger, a lonely warrior on a predestined mission. This is not a matter of people believing what they want to believe, but about how ready we are to believe what we are told, provided the telling has sufficient force or algorithmic stickiness. What we want then changes on account of these beliefs we receive at a level beneath conscious thought. Technology can create this hypnotic state as much, if not more easily, than any shamanism. And they may even work together.
Marco Roth is Tablet’s Book Critic at Large