Godland, Hlynur Palmason

Icelandic Drama ‘Godland’ Puts What We Give Meaning in Perspective

Presented in a square frame with rounded edges, with audio-visual majesty, and silent narrative confidence, Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s drama Godland is a seminal experience.

Hlynur Pálmason
7 April 2023 (UK)

Should “manifest destiny” be real, then Hlynur Pálmason’s striking third feature released in 2022, Godland (Vanskabte land), has the presence to be considered a seminal film. Presented in a square frame with rounded edges, with audio-visual majesty, and silent narrative confidence, it’s an impressive film.

The Icelandic director quietly introduces himself as a distinct voice, even if his latest film has the visual and thematic spirit of Nordic directors Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. Pálmason’s sophomore feature, 2019’s A White, White Day (Hvítur, Hvítur Dagur), subverted the expectations of the crime or detective film with his philosophical inclinations that are growing bolder.

Godland is inspired by seven wet plate photographs found in a wooden box, the first photographs of the southeast coast taken by a Danish priest. The story concerns Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a 19th Century Danish Lutheran priest tasked with establishing a parish on the remote Icelandic coast.

Spurred on by the belief in his spiritual purpose, Lucas stubbornly insists they take the most arduous cross-country route, to the annoyance of his guide, Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurðsson). On the journey, he uses wet plate photography to capture the landscape’s visual beauty. Lucas’ recklessness costs the life of his trusted companion and translator (Hilmar Guðjónsson), and he finds his own confidence faltering. He must be dragged part of the way after injuring himself from falling from his horse. Arriving at their destination a broken man, it’s thanks to Ragnar’s indomitable spirit that the church’s construction is completed before winter sets in.

Driven by Pálmason’s meditative reflections on human nature against the backdrop of what one character calls the “unforgiving island”, the director eludes offering concrete meaning. Instead, his emotionally and intellectually abstract film encourages the audience to decide what Godland means for them. 

Lucas and Ragnar’s quiet and tense adversarial relationship underpins Godland’s plot. The director effortlessly introduces this tension through their contrasting personas – Ragnar is rugged and pragmatic, while Lucas is more delicate and driven by spiritual devotion or blind faith. Instinctively sensing this inherent conflict between the pair, the audience sees Ragnar as symbolic of nature and Lucas as the assumed superiority of humans. While Ragnar works with nature, respecting its power, Lucas sees it as something to be conquered. The journey and the task are his personal test in the wilderness, similar not only to the adversity confronting the Apostles but also to Christ’s trial in the desert. 

Pálmason exercises his Hitchcockian muscles in Godland, using the Master of Suspense’s famous analogy about how the suspense comes from the audience knowing there’s a bomb, but there must not be an explosion. Here, the volatile relationship is the bomb – the question is not if but when these two men will come to blows. 

It’s essential that Pálmason utilises this emotional provocation to ensure the audience doesn’t lose its patience with the story’s pace, but it also serves a useful thematic purpose. Despite struggling to find common ground, Ragnar tries to build a rapport with Lucas, who responds indifferently, blaming Ragnar’s poor Danish. The director isn’t intending to attack religion, but Lucas’ indifference can be read as a critique of religious intolerance that also touches upon themes of power dynamics in colonisation and cultural expansion.   

When Lucas arrives at his destination, he stays with Carl (Jacob Lohmann) and his two daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). Intriguingly, his relationship with the sisters is affable – a replacement for the connection he once shared with his translator.

Ida poses on a horse as he sets up to photograph her. He rides with Anna, teaches her about photography, and creates a romantic connection. Lucas is an outsider to the rest of the congregation, lingering around their lives like a ghostly presence. When he refuses to marry one couple because the church is unfinished, Carl tells him he’s a strange one. 

This stark contrast points to confusion within Lucas’ soul – his devotion to God conflicts with his sexuality. There’s a subtle inference of a homoerotic connection with his translator, and Lucas and Anna lay together out of sight in the church. Beneath its surface, there’s a potential reading of Godland as a queer story – is Lucas gay or bi-sexual? Pálmason, however, keeps this factor ambiguous, creating only non-committal possibilities. His intention to mimic life as we experience it by showing only fragmented details of a larger story is captivating.  

There are shots in cinema that are synonymous with a film and its director. The shot through the open doorway of Carl sitting on the porch is reminiscent of John Ford’sThe Searchers (1956). Indeed, there’s cause to frame Godland as a Western, but unlike the economic drive of the westward expansion in America, in 19th Century Iceland, it’s driven by the spiritual. Yet, as in the American Western, the myth of the landscape can cast the characters as small and fleeting, and the propensity for violence is the source of personal and social power. 

Despite his abstract and ambiguous approach, towards the end of the film, Pálmason cannot help but signpost a central theme – a trope of the Western film. Carl says to Lucas, “I have no ambition to be a man of great knowledge. The older I get, the more I realise that I know what I know and that what I think is not very important. I’m convinced that we are all very small and fleeting.” 

Pálmason and his cinematographer, Maria von Hausswolff’s approach to the camera’s point-of-view is essential in conveying this idea. They allow their camera’s gaze the freedom to stray from the action and explore what’s happening outside of the traditional frame. In one scene, the camera pans away from the small caravan of travellers, taking in what is insignificant until it rejoins the group. 

Pálmason observes nature with his camera, from the modest grass reeds and animal carcass’ decomposing to nature’s awe-inspiring waterfalls and a volcano. Despite the characters being at a safe distance, Lucas looks upon the far-off horizon, unsettled by the fiery red sky. The director even strays to explore up close the sublime majesty of the molten lava and uses the montage to splice through time, ending Lucas and Ragnar’s arduous journey offscreen.  

This filming method is one example of the poetry and lyricism that Pálmason and his editor, Julius Krebs Damsbo, orchestrate. It would be remiss not to mention Alex Zhang Hungtai’s haunting and ethereal score, whose percussion orchestral beats reconnect the onscreen world with our primal and ancestral kinship with nature. Coupled with the visual, it reminds us how insignificant and fleeting we are– even our spiritual belief may be a façade or delusion to deceive us in our existential crisis.

We are primitively programmed to survive. The image of individual and communal survival is not necessarily pretty, even if Pálmason so sumptuously shows we’re fleeting by our own hand or by that of the natural order of things. 

RATING 9 / 10