Icelandic movies have been exploring various genres with great success in recent years. These days, it’s not uncommon to come across a Nordic noir film from our small island or even find the occasional Icelandic comedy screening at your local cinema. But an Icelandic thriller? The idea was unheard of until just recently when it came to life through Operation Napoleon (Napóleonsskjölin), Óskar Þór Axelsson’s latest feature.
The boomerang effect
With a budget spanning over 6 million euro, local and international cast (Vivian Ólafsdóttir, Jack Fox, Iain Glen, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), scenes shot on a glacier and abroad, and expensive props, Operation Napoleon is believed to be the most expensive Icelandic film ever made.
The film is based on an eponymous best-selling book by Icelandic crime fiction writer Arnaldur Indriðason. In a fascinating series of events, Óskar Þór Axelsson had plans for the book before becoming a film director. “I read the book in the year 2000, or maybe 1999,” he recalls. “I had done some commercials at that point, but not movies. It was very hard in those years to get practice as a filmmaker. I called up the publisher and asked about the rights. The rights were taken, so I couldn’t do anything. Twenty years later, it came back to my table.”
The book tells the story of a German airplane crashing on a glacier in Iceland in 1945. As the book Operation Napoleon gained popularity across Europe and was translated into multiple languages, ownership of the film rights passed to various individuals throughout the years. According to Óskar, a German publisher acquired the rights in the early 2010s and had been working on it since then.
“We did a few revisions of the script, but the main idea was there when I came on board. It has happened pretty quickly,” says Óskar. “Other movies did not happen this quickly.”
Icelandic thriller odyssey
What was it about Arnaldur Indriðason’s book that initially piqued Óskar’s interest in Operation Napoleon? “You have to understand that 20 years ago, it was before all of these Icelandic crime books. Arnaldur was kind of the first one. Icelandic people weren’t used to reading these kinds of stories that take place here. I remember just reading it and being very excited — a fast-paced thriller that takes place in Reykjavík? I had never read anything like this,” he shares.
Óskar admits he drew inspiration from old action thrillers, in particular, movie adaptations of Alistair MacLean’s novels: “That’s what Arnaldur told me, he said this is an Alistair MacLean movie.”
The major difference between the film and the book is the fact that the film takes place in modern times — there’s no American military base in Iceland anymore, one can see familiar buildings in downtown Reykjavík and even Kringlan in the background. The story follows lawyer Kristín, entangled in a series of unforeseen circumstances, when her brother discovers the remains of a World War II plane atop the Vatnajökull glacier.
Riders on the snow
The most action-packed part of the film takes place on the glacier — here’s where another typical Icelandic angle manifests: a snowmobile chase and villains dressed in snowsuits. Despite the story taking place on Vatnajökull, Operation Napoleon was actually shot on Langjökull, Iceland’s second-largest glacier. “It’s more accessible and we found a really good location there,” Óskar explains, saying it’s very difficult to shoot on the glacier because of unpredictable weather, complicated logistics and safety procedures.
“Glacier days were by far the most expensive days,” says Óskar. The shooting of Operation Napoleon took place in April, when the glacier was sturdy enough to drive on, even though, just in a month, the weather deteriorated and complicated transportation and pick-up.
“We were actually quite lucky with the weather on the glacier,” Óskar admits. “It has the biggest potential to be a disaster.”
Óskar believes that setting the story in modern time rather than making a period film was the right decision. This way, the film touches upon themes that are more relevant today, such as melting glaciers and the place of the US in the world.
Experimenting with genres is not new for Óskar. His directorial portfolio includes crime film Black’s Game (Svartur á leik), the mystery drama series Stella Blómkvist and even a few episodes of the award-winning series Trapped (Ófærð).
“I love finding stories that I haven’t seen done here. This is the challenge that I really have loved doing,” Óskar admits. “We haven’t done a sci-fi film! I would love to do that.”
He believes it is the Icelandic story and setting that make Operation Napoleon truly special and emphasises that Iceland, being a storytelling nation, has many untold stories that are just waiting to be adapted for film. For Óskar, it feels almost like an obligation to bring these local narratives to the screen. “When I’m travelling, I try to read a work that takes place in that city, or see a movie that takes place in that city,” he shares. “Here [in Operation Napoleon], you actually have a movie that takes place all over — both in the city and on the glacier. If you’re travelling to Iceland, I think it’s kind of a fun way to start a trip by going to see the movie. This is what I love to do.”
With 112 minutes of captivating storyline set against a unique Icelandic backdrop, Operation Napoleon leaves viewers intrigued and eager for more. Will there be a sequel? “That might happen,” says Óskar.
Keep an eye on Bíó Paradís’ website for summer screening times of Operation Napoleon.
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