From Iceland — The Unforgiving Island: Hlynur Pálmason’s “Godland” explores an intense but conflicted journey to Iceland

The Unforgiving Island: Hlynur Pálmason’s “Godland” explores an intense but conflicted journey to Iceland

Published March 10, 2023

The Unforgiving Island: Hlynur Pálmason’s “Godland” explores an intense but conflicted journey to Iceland
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

Hlynur Pálmason postponed our interview at least four times. I knew he was busy travelling to festivals with his new movie, so when I found myself at one festival and saw “Godland + Director’s Q&A” in the programme I immediately texted Hlynur a hopeful “See you there.” His response came dryly: “I had to cancel the trip. Enjoy the festival.” As months went by, the film’s Icelandic premiere kept getting postponed and every time I mentioned the film to my editors, they rolled their eyes: “You, and your ‘Godland’ saga. It’s not gonna happen.”

I had started to lose hope. That is, until the day I found myself standing outside Hlynur’s home on the outskirts of Höfn. The weather was crisp and beautiful, and Hlynur’s kids were getting ready to go ice skating. I felt guilty for stealing their dad for an interview. Also, there was one problem — I still hadn’t seen the movie. 

A carpool with the director 

“Maybe that’s the whole interview. You haven’t seen the film,” smiles Hlynur as I hastily mention this point and apologise while we drive to one of the main filming locations. 

Hlynur’s third feature, “Godland” has certainly captured the world’s attention, receiving numerous awards and nominations, including Elliott Crosset Hove’s European Actor nomination at the European Film Awards. 

“I think it’s been a slow build for us. I’ve been working with audio and video since I was 13,” shares Hlynur. “I like things that grow slowly. We’re really happy that it’s been received so well.” 

“It’s not a mainstream film, but at the same time, it’s been doing things that none of my films have been doing,” he adds. “For example, in France, I think we’re up to 90,000 tickets sold.” That number has since grown to over 113,000.

As the car drives out onto the frozen ocean, Hlynur cautions: “It could break a little bit, but don’t worry.” Now startled, my photographer companion and I hold on tight to our seats. “It’s a very strange, but very beautiful place.” 

Godless wasteland

“Godland” explores Iceland’s colonial past through the eyes of a young Danish priest, who travels to the island to build a church and immediately finds himself facing the harsh environment and a language barrier.

“I was exploring the two countries that I know very well,” says Hlynur. “I grew up here in Hӧfn and then I moved to Denmark. I studied, had children and lived there for a long time. I wanted to look at and explore the history Denmark and Iceland have together.”

As we approach the film set, the magnificence of the scenery outside the car windows has us in a state of awe, but at the same time we’re fully aware of the uncompromising nature of the surrounding rugged mountains, powerful waves and harsh winds.

“We always said to ourselves — ‘We are slaves of the weather,’” Hlynur reminisces. “When planning a film, one of the most important things is that everything is planned with the locations and weather in mind. For example, if we’re shooting the first part of the film, I have to shoot it chronologically, and we have to have all of the actors accessible during the whole period.” He smiles: “This is very different from normal. When you make films, you get an actor for three days or something to shoot all of their scenes. I can’t work like that. I have to have them the whole time.” 

The church that trembled

We arrive at the set and Hlynur gives us a tour. “This is the church. It was built from the ground up and you sort of see that process in the film,” he says. As we step inside, the strong wind gives the church a good shake, making its walls tremble. 

Hlynur shows us around the merchant’s house that looks too good to be a prop. The crew also built a vegetable garden and chicken coop. “We actually transported my chickens here. I was a little bit afraid because there are foxes,” he says, pointing in the direction of the mountains. 

“It’s not a mainstream film, but it’s been doing things that none of my films have been doing.”

“I really like writing and filming at the same time,” Hlynur shares. “There’re a lot of scenes that take a long time to film, for example, there’s a scene with a horse rotting. I shot that for two years while I was writing the project.”

A tale of opposites

Despite a disclaimer explaining the film was inspired by seven photographs taken by a Danish priest, Hlynur says the story is entirely fictional. “A lot is taken from life itself, experiences and details from travelling journals.”

“I went back in time to explore these two countries and their relationships because we were under the Danish crown until 1918. I wanted to explore that period, but at the same time, I wasn’t focused on something specific,” he says. “Sometimes I was just thinking, ‘We have a young ambitious priest. What’s the opposite of that? Ragnar, the man of nature.’ I was basically just putting opposites together.”

These opposites can be seen throughout the film — the colours of the Danish flag against the Icelandic flag, the ongoing verbal battles in Danish and Icelandic, the juxtaposition of a  Danish hymn against the Icelandic landscape.

Family business

Reflecting on the importance of seeing beauty around you, Hlynur says: “I don’t think you always have to go so far. Sometimes you can see it in the people around you or just in your back garden.”

“It’s a very personal film. It’s not about my life, but it’s very personal. It’s so homemade,” he shares. “Even the extras in the film are people I know.” 

Hlynur’s daughter Ída Mekkín stars in the film and it’s not the first time his kids appear on screen. “It’s very natural for me to invite them into the process,” he explains. “My daughter has always enjoyed performing. She takes it very seriously. With the boys it’s a little bit different. They’re more just along for the ride.”

Hlynur agrees he has never been one of the dads who set a clear boundary between work and life. “I can write when my kids are crawling on my head,” he laughs. “I’ve always done it like that. When you make a film, the temper of the film very much reflects where you are in life, how you see and hear things.”

Three titles, one film

“Godland,” also known as “Volaða Land” in Icelandic and “Vanskabte Land” in Danish, has different meanings behind its titles. 

“The name ‘Volaða Land’ comes from a poem by Icelandic priest Matthías Jochumsson who studied for the priesthood in Copenhagen,” Hlynur explains. “He moved up north after he came from Denmark. He experienced a harsh winter in Akureyri when the whole fjord froze. During the next summer, it wasn’t warm enough, so the fjord stayed frozen. He wrote this hateful diatribe about Iceland — a very aggressive poem called ‘Volaða Land,’ which means violent, wretched, disfigured island.” 

According to Hlynur, the poem was published without the priest’s knowledge. Matthías faced public backlash and had to write another poem about the beauty of Iceland to restore his reputation.  

“That poem was a big inspiration for the film,” Hlynur admits. “The Danish translation of  ‘Volaða Land’ is ‘Vanskabte Land.’ It’s a very strange translation but a very beautiful one. It’s very expressive, almost more brutal than the original.” He continues: “The English title, ‘Godland,’ is very different from the original title. I always felt like if you put ‘Volaða Land,’ ‘Vanskabte Land,’ and ‘Godland’ together, they give you a good picture of the film.”

Disposable things

Back in the car and driving away from the set, we talk about the clamour of modern life, AI, and single-use objects. “Today, things are normally like this — disposable, very fast,” Hlynur says. “A lot of cinema and food is made that way. I think AI will make the personal and handmade [things] even more important, it will underline them.”

“I don’t have any socials. My phone is like this,” he points at the only two apps on his phone — for calls and messages. “I can’t even go on the internet. I really like being in my head, imagining things and thinking about things.” He admits that staying off-the-grid helps him to filter the outside noise. 

A month later, as I sit in an otherwise empty cinema for a special screening of “Godland,” I remind myself of this conversation. Despite the unpredictable weather conditions, challenging terrain and isolation of Iceland, the priest, worn out mentally and physically, is destined to stay here. And so is Hlynur. “I love it here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

“Godland” premieres (finally) in Bío Paradís and Smárabíó on March 10th.

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