From Iceland — Adventures In Wander-Land: The Mind And Mystery Of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

Adventures In Wander-Land: The Mind And Mystery Of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

Published August 16, 2019

Adventures In Wander-Land: The Mind And Mystery Of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson
Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s house sits on the edge of the city, dividing the land, sea and opinions. Somewhere between sprawling junk heap and decaying spaceship, it’s hard to believe the structure was built rather than formed through weird forces of magnetism and magic.

Hrafn is a controversial figure—he’s a childhood friend of Davíð Oddsson, the former prime minister of Iceland and co-called architect of last decade’s economic collapse; he even directed movies scripted by Davíð while he was still in office. Over the years, Hrafn’s political links, strong opinions, and personal life have gained him a level of notoriety throughout the country, perhaps even more so than his art.

‘When The Raven Flies,’ Hrafn’s most well-known film, is currently being screened as part of a summer series of classic Icelandic films at Bíó Paradís. Created in 1984, it is considered an Icelandic masterpiece. Ostensibly, this is what we are here to talk about.


Art house living

But conversations with Hrafn are rarely so linear. Within a few sentences of being asked about the film, he has somehow covered Germanic languages, drag culture, and symbolism. Midway through discussing religion and individualism, he leaps up, his energetic air belaying the presence of the cane he uses to support himself. “Let me show you my art department,” he grins.

He gestures towards a wall a few steps away covered in pictures, paintings and figurines. In all honesty, the ‘art department’ isn’t much different than any other wall there—all possible surfaces of the house, including the ceilings, are thoroughly covered with knick-knacks. Pointing at various items, Hrafn passionately talks us through children’s paintings, love notes, and even an image of a “depressed Jesus.”

It’s hard to imagine what the house looked like before Hrafn’s sprawling and heterogeneous collection took over. “I’ve been the owner for about 40 years,” he tells me, “but for the first 10 it was only used for making decorations. Slowly I moved into the set. It grew like a coral reef; one thing came after another.”

Cycle of change

Items from the accumulated detritus constantly catch Hrafn’s attention as we pass them, perpetually sending him wheeling off in different directions.

“The house grew like a coral reef; one thing came after another.”

“There is a strange interest in this film,” he muses upon taking notice of a poster for ‘When the Raven Flies.’ “This rock and roll group wrote new music and had screenings in 2014.” The group in question, the not-insignificant Sólstafir, has performed their new soundtrack multiple times. I ask Hrafn about this reworking and he glows with positivity: “It was fantastic because it adds something to the film. They saw something I hadn’t noticed.” He continues, “Young people see something different and in a way I’m very happy with that because for me it means that the film still has some message.” He laughs, shaking off his pensive tone: “Anyway, it’s not dead! It didn’t die before me!”

But making the film was not an easy process for the artist. “It was an enormous pain. It was made with no money and I had to do everything. I was the decorator, the script writer, the director, the producer—I was completely alone. I don’t know how I could make it. Some kind of madness comes into your life and you have to survive and live with the madness for a while.”

With accolades continuing to roll in, the longevity of the work is undeniable. But, 30 years later, how does Hrafn feel about the film? What legacy does it hold for him?

“I feel very strange [in contrast to] the man who made that film. The changes you have in life, you change so much. You are a child; you are a teenager; you are at university. One day you are working and one day you get old. I don’t know the man who made these films anymore. I’m not even sure I would say hello to him if I met him on the street,” Hrafn walks ahead, out an open door. “This cycle of changing is so fantastic.”

Hrafn plant

A walk on the wild side

There’s a distinct sense of being on a different planet, or in another time as we exit the house and look out over the jagged coastline. The garden is a feral knot of wild plants and rusted structures. Most notable are the numerous specimens of Giant Hogweed towering over everything. “I love these plants,” Hrafn says, passionately. “They have this power, they grow out of the earth in a few weeks. In two or three months they become four metres high. Imagine that! Four metres in one summer.” He shakes his head in wondrous disbelief.

“I feel very strange to the man who made that film. I don’t know him anymore.”

Giant Hogweed is an invasive species in Iceland. It contains sap that is horribly phototoxic if touched, causing blisters and permanent scarring. Often, the victims of the plant’s advanced defense system are playful children, enchanted by the flora’s elephantine proportions. But Hrafn is completely undeterred by this danger. “I don’t believe that you get hurt by them,” he declares fiercely. “I think it’s a fantasy. It’s like saying you get hurt by roses—of course you can hurt yourself with roses. You can hurt yourself with anything.”

 Hrafn Gunnlaugsson

“I want to disappear”

By this point in the conversation we have circumnavigated the whole house, the wild and meandering path providing a symbolic backdrop to the surreal metaphysical journey Hrafn has taken us on. Hrafn is still talking in his stream-of-consciousness way, and has found his way to the subject of religion.

“In all these religions,” he ponders, “we are taught about eternal life.” Stopping to think, silhouetted against the backdrop of the Giant Hogweed, a beatific smile spreads across his face. “The greatest punishment I can imagine myself is eternal life. I want to disappear. Your life should finish like a good movie.”

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