Original release: March 5th, 2010
Running time: 93 minutes
Country of origin: Denmark / UK
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Ewan Stewart, Gary Lewis
Valhalla Rising is a film of singular intent. Films that are constructed in this manner are often mistrusted, they don’t notice the viewer, they don’t care and they sure as hell don’t wait for them to catch up. They exist it seems solely for themselves, self-contained. The beginning of the film is only the beginning for us; the protagonists have lived full lives up until the point they interject with us. Valhalla Rising rushes over heathen mountains, across poisonous seas, to unknowable new worlds, but what is most hellishly obvious is that the film is rushing toward its doom.
As double bills are often a fine area of discussion, this is a double bill review, a complementary offering with my previous article on Marketa Lazarova. While one is meandering, epileptic epic and the other a lean purposeful film, they have terrifying similarities and would make a great double bill for a night in, using your last bit of power before the world turns on its axis and we’re plunged into a feral, feudal darkness.
Valhalla Rising is the bones of our civilization; like Marketa Lazarova it is the crude and rudimentary ancestry of all of us, cognitively, spiritually, we recognise ourselves in form, the drive of faith and our mistrust of anything we don’t understand. It may be the raw and exposed truth of what we now hide behind manners, rhetoric, technology and the separation of man from nature that Christianity blotted from our collective mind. They share that rare feat of altering our concepts of viewing a film as ‘a series of actors performing the traditions and events of the time’ and ‘watching a document of the time’. Or at very least accepting that the actors are re-enacting more than performing, in the sense that it has within the discipline a serious consideration for the psychological and cultural gulf between now and then.
Both films though, most obviously share a serious exploration of the lines drawn between faiths and more importantly the similarities that still now exist when Christianity drove Paganism from the Old World. Valhalla Rising takes this concept a step further by in the second half of the film, moving this clash to the New World, and revealing a land that did not care for either. A precursor for centuries of the conflicts to come.
Valhalla Rising’s Christian soldiers are consumed unmercifully by the land that they absurdly try to claim, slaughtered beyond the sight of the Holy See, reminding us that no matter our advancement there is always something beyond our grasp, the creation of greater unknowns to reveal lesser knowns, the great truths that mocked Georg Cantor. One character, after disappearing for several days in the wilderness, even reappears as some raving shaman. His former comrades look on him as some savage, but we are aware from our omnipotent position that he hasn’t regressed, merely moved sideward.
Laid out with the simplicity of folklore, the film charts the journey of the supernaturally violent One Eye from the gladiatorial plaything of various Norse chieftains to pagan witness of Christianity’s first forays into the Americas, while all the time experiencing seer like visions of his future, and eventual demise. Director Nicolas Winding Refn spoke of being influenced by science fiction while making the film and this becomes apparent during these scenes.
One Eye is joined on this journey by a young boy, a survivor, we come to understand by the film’s end, but what could have been depicted as teacher / pupil, father / son relationship between the two, a way even of giving One Eye more emotional depth, is instead played out in a more deliberate fashion. One Eye takes the boy along as a witness, a mouth and eyes to document his story. He will survive – and at times One Eye makes violently sure of this – and he will tell the tale of this man who walked the fine line between cultures, between Pagan and Christian, between savage and civilized, between old and new worlds, while belonging to none.
A man witness to the end of one culture and start of a new, a creature heading toward extinction, but immortal in the same way as Achilles or Beowulf, an archetypal figure of our stories and songs (he is after all in this film). In a perverse way Valhalla Rising is another take on the familiar tale of a simple person witnessing historic events, like Forrest Gump, or Being There; but One Eye is not a simpleton, he is simple in the fact that he is good at one thing and that is killing. One Eye is not alone as the films central character; the land he inhabits joins him.
The use of landscape as character recalls Malick; fog bound mountains, still seas, black peat bog are used as symbols, both in isolation and in syntactical combination, for the characters’ place in a world where we have yet to manipulate and control every aspect of our environment. The characters are prey still, yet most are in denial as the Christian mindset of man’s lordship over nature develops in the Dark Age mind. Again like Marketa Lazarova, Valhalla Rising transforms its environment into almost abstract levels of symbolisation. Complex relating images (One Eye’s face appearing over a rock face for example) that not only rely on the multiple layers of our communal cultural understanding, but also on our personnel understandings of cinema and landscape.
The grim portrayal of environment and natural phenomena recalls an Old Testament depiction of cruelty; these men are desperate and subject to punishment from a hostile world because they are sinful. Even the silent and unspoilt beauty of the New World, though foolishly entered as some garden of Eden to the invaders, welcomes them with murder from a lone arrow shot from its depths, then leads to starvation and madness, and we realise the silence of the virginal land is the same as the silence of death.
Ben has been in love with cinema from a young age having been introduced to the classic cinema of Capra and Hitchcock by his father and the ‘other’ classic cinema of Carpenter and Cronenberg by Alex Cox late night on Channel 4.
In 2009 with formal training that equated to watching Mean Streets a lot, he co-founded Anti/Type Films. Since then he has written, produced and directed more than a dozen short films and documentaries, as well as writing and performing several scores. It means he gets to travel, which he likes.