The Reading Room

Realism and Liturgy: Robert Eggers’s The Northman

Robert Eggers’s newest film, The Northman, is a phenomenal movie…provided you know what you are in for. The film’s advertising, apparently, did not, selling it as another gritty and gray ‘realistic’ medieval movie. The film’s depiction of Norse religious worship, rites, weapons, locations, and armor are certainly as realistic as scholars can say. But on the other hand, the film features its protagonist battling a zombie in a burial mound in order to claim a magic sword that can only be drawn at night, all at the behest of his deceased father whose spirit manifests itself as a raven. What then, is the reality which this film seeks to portray?
The reality is that this film is a perfect recreation of a Norse heroic saga, an epic genre of literature that blends historical reality with Norse mythology, presenting the events of the narrative as if their gods and supernatural powers really are intervening in the lives of the heroes. Indeed, Eggers dives fully into this perspective in his story, presenting glimpses of the supernatural–such as Odin, the Valkyries carrying souls to Valhalla, and a climactic duel at the Gates of Hel–with as much gravitas as a serious Christian film presenting the miracles of Jesus Christ. There are moments in this film where Eggers leaves it ambiguous as to whether the protagonist is imagining and interposing his religious beliefs on reality or actually experiencing these events, but this ambiguity is more for the artistry of the filmmakers and the sake of the audience than for the characters themselves, for whom these mythic, supernatural elements are all very, very real.
The ‘real presence,’ so to speak, of the supernatural in this film is what really creates this dissonance between how the movie is advertised and how the movie actually presents itself. The gods and beliefs of a cold and forlorn people living hard, brutal lives are naturally also brutal and forlorn, and this movie does not shy away from this essence of the Norse myths at all. The film is a tale of slaughter and revenge, witches and vengeful spirits taken human form, the brutal finality of fate and the slight glimmer of hope that lies in the preservation of one’s legacy. In essence, it is a grimdark sword-and-sorcery fantasy epic, the perfect film for anyone desiring a new Conan movie–which is, of course, exactly what the Norse hero sagas are.
Eggers perfectly imagines what the original Norse revenge story, which eventually was transformed into Hamlet by Shakespeare’s hands after several retellings, might have originally looked like, telling the tale with great faithfulness to its original themes and beliefs. Indeed, the two movies that I find myself thinking of most when trying to describe The Northman are last year’s The Green Knight and The Passion. The former for the dark fantasy setting, the beautiful landscape shots, and the general faithfulness of the adaptation to the source material, from set-pieces to costumes to the elicited feelings of the bizarre and the contemplative; the latter for the candidness with which it presents the religious subject of its narrative. 
From the very beginning the film announces what it intends to be. Like the poems of the Poetic Edda and the epic poems of Homer the film begins with an invocation of the gods for inspiration. It invokes the chief god of the Norse, Odin, asking him to come down and aid in the telling of the story. In so doing, the film sets itself up as an epic poem brought to the silver screen. Throughout the film there are crucial moments when the characters tell their myths, acting out their religious stories as a way of worshiping their gods and participating in certain rituals and rites. In the invocation to Odin that begins the film, Eggers transforms his film from a mere retelling to a liturgy. The telling of the heroic revenge saga through the film becomes part of that same liturgy of worship. Just as the characters in the film act out stories at their funerals, feasts, and initiation rites, so do the actors act out certain roles to tell the story, taking on the roles of gods and heroes and heroines in order to pass on knowledge of the past. Thus Eggers makes even the narrative frame of the film become yet another realistic part of the story he is telling. The Northman is, then, a wholly realistic, historical movie–just not in the way it is advertised.