I recently visited Iceland. As a foreigner, the landscape feels like stepping into a different universe – like peering through a looking glass to the earliest primordial days of the earth, where the molten land was still cooling and plants had just colonized the earth. No trees, only moss. I can easily visualize our distant Paleozoic ancestors gazing upon a world similar to this as they climbed up out of the ocean and onto the land.
Iceland has a population of just over 325,000, while its density is one person per 3.1 km. The vast tract of the central part of the country is uninhabited. A third of its population is congregated in the capital, Reykjavik. Leave the city limits and the population drops off rapidly – roads stretch off with sparse towns dotting the sides of the road.
This isolated feel combined with the unique landscape (and attractive tax incentives) have combined to make Iceland a popular destination for foreign film productions. Iceland is everywhere – the exotic looking landscape in particular makes it a popular choice for science fiction and fantasy. Game of Thrones, for example, uses the North of Iceland as a setting for part of its world while Thingvillir, a national park where the North American and European plates meet and the location of Iceland’s historical parliament, is meanwhile transformed under this gaze to the Vale of Westeros.
Iceland actively uses this rhetoric in its own promotion for the land to attract productions: “It’s like God was using this place to practice landscaping before building the rest of the world.” (“Film in Iceland”) The unique Icelandic landscape makes for a great export, both functioning to drive the economy with production and to attract tourism to the area.
However, the Icelandic landscape is used as little more than set dressing, saying nothing at all about the people and how they view their land. Local productions reveal how the Icelanders view their own land in a very different way.
Take Baltasar Kormákur’s 2006 film Jar City (Mýrin), a police thriller based on a novel by the same name. Upon first glance, this film’s murder mystery plot centered on genetics and crimes in the 70s may seem to have nothing to do with the Icelandic landscape. And yet, the landscape’s use in the film says much about how Iceland’s people view the landscape on a daily basis.
The film takes place in contemporary Reykjavik and in the lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula. Jar Cityuses the lunar landscape of Reykjanes to reinforce the sparse isolation of this land and its hardships – a common image in the film is of a single car traveling along empty roads through an empty rocky landscape. The car may arrive at a prison out in the lava fields, or a single house overlooking a graveyard.
Meanwhile, the central character of the film, Inspector Erlendur (played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) lives in an apartment complex in Reykjavik. The mountains can be glimpsed from the apartment while, inside his home, paintings of nature adorn his walls. The land is grappled with in a very real way. He lives in a landscape that is neither foreign nor exotic – just a part of life, as commonplace as the traditional sheep’s head meal he orders and devours from bus station diners.
Grappling directly with the Icelandic connection to the land is 1991′s Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar), directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. This is Iceland as Iceland, and a view of the natural landscape at its most affecting. The film tells the story of two senior citizens who escape from a nursing home in Reykjavik to return to the land, long since abandoned, where they grew up.
Children of Nature shows a dissonance between the “old” and the “new” views of the land. The elderly couple is as out of place within the contemporary world of Reykjavik as the way of life they grew up with is – the man, for instance, is kicked out of his daughter’s home because his granddaughter cannot relate to him. As the couple travels further outside the city and further back into the rural land of their childhood, the film becomes more magical and surreal. The landscape becomes rugged; the roads are no longer paved. The few people they encounter are working the land – farmers, miners, etc. The land even seems to resonate with their plight, covering their trail even as the authorities hunt them down. At one point, for example, their jeep vanishes in front of a pursuing police officer.
Icelandic productions reveal layers to a landscape that, while exotic and strange to foreign eyes, is grappled with on a daily basis by her people. The land is more than just set dressing: this land is home, with all the complications that implies.
Children of Nature. Dir. Triðrik Þór Friðriksson. Sena, 1991.
“Film in Iceland.” YouTube. Iceland Film Commission, 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 29 June 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY77BcCdEQE>
Jar City. Dir. Baltasar Kormákur. Blueeyes Productions, 2006.