This is how Icelandic filmmaker Hrafn Gunnlaugsson described the opening scene of what will probably be his last film, one that remains entirely in his head, and one that bears the unmistakable qualities of nearly his entire body of work.
Gunnlaugsson can take credit for being the only Icelandic filmmaker to create a new genre – the Viking Western (sometimes confusingly called the “Cod Western”). After two adequately received films, Óðal feðranna (Father’s Estate) in 1980 and Okkar á milli (Inter Nos) in 1982, he released Hrafninn Flýgur (When the Raven Flies) in 1984, the first film in the Viking Trilogy (followed by Í skugga hrafnsins [In the Shadow of the Raven] and Hvíti víkingurinn [The White Viking]).
When the Raven Flies takes place in 9th century Iceland and explores the themes that would appear in all his seminal works: betrayal, revenge, and madness. The film received critical acclaim around the world, drawing comparisons to Peckinpah and Kurosawa, and is still largely considered his best work.
The plot of the movie centres around Gestur, a young boy in Ireland who witnesses Vikings killing his parents and kidnapping his sister. Swearing to seek revenge, he travels to Iceland as a grown man to hunt and kill the men who tore his family apart. What unfolds is a cunning tale, which bears striking resemblance to Man with No Name Westerns such as Nevada Smith and Hang ‘Em High, a comparison that Gunnlaugsson sees himself.
“I think the similarity between the westerns and my movies is that in both cases, we’re talking about a pioneer society in unsettled lands,” he says. “It’s easy to draw parallels and it’s impossible to tell a pioneer story without looking to the westerns.”
I am speaking with Gunnlaugsson at his home, a small but eclectic estate replete with pagan idols and hidden rooms. Viewing his films on DVD in modern Reykjavík, I can’t help asking why the Viking Age in Iceland holds such a fascination for him.
“I grew up in the islands of Breiðafjörður in 1952,” Gunnlaugsson explains while pacing the room, hardly sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time during the course of the interview. “Back then there was no electricity, and the seamen used to use the fat of seals and whales to keep themselves warm. The ships used to dock inside of caves. I used to think to myself, ‘If I came here first, how would I survive?’ I was brought up by my grandmother. She used to tell me these Viking stories to get me to fall asleep. As I grew up, my father helped me read them. I lived in a world of Vikings when most kids were thinking of Batman. To me they were more real than Donald Duck.”
Yet when Gunnlaugsson saw his first Viking movies, he was disappointed, to say the least.
“If you see older Viking films,” he says, “you notice that they’re more or less like a Wagner opera – people wearing horn helmets with chicken feathers, Valkyries with spears and enormous tits, screaming.”
Gunnlaugsson set out to create the first authentic Viking film. To do this, he drew from the Icelandic sagas.
“It probably wasn’t until Sturla Thordarson wrote Sturlungusaga that we begin to see through the romance to the reality,” he explains, “which was that the axe “Rimmugí” would not sing. Those times were more cruel and primitive than the romantic way of seeing them, the swords were like clubs. The Vikings who came to Iceland were political fugitives. Take Ingólfur Árnasson, for example, who had killed many people in Norway. I wanted to make a film that would portray Vikings more authentically.”
It would take Gunnlaugsson ten years to complete the shooting of When the Raven Flies, recruiting the help of costume designer Karl Júliússon, whose attention to authenticity in the Viking costumes he made prompted Gunnlaugsson to tell him in no uncertain terms, “You have to work with me and make a Viking film.”
At the same time, Gunnlaugsson admits that When the Raven Flies takes artisitic liberties.
“This storyline was a fairy tale,” he says, laughing. “The storyline has nothing to do with that time, it was made to work in a movie, just as spaghetti westerns have little to do with the actual west. They’re entertaining. Why pretend otherwise? When the Raven Flies is my approach to this time as an artist. I’m not sure it’s the right one – maybe someone else would approach it differently.”
His individual approach to such a sacred cow to the Icelanders as the Viking Age gained Gunnlaugsson some backlash among the historical orthodox. Yet Gunnlaugsson remains philosophical about any negative reactions When the Raven Flies caused.
“I think an artist can be thankful for any controversy they cause,” he says, smiling. “You have to show things in a different light, sometimes even in a dim light. It creates a discussion to give people a different perspective.”
A less explored inspiration behind When the Raven Flies is Gunnlaugsson’s political beliefs.
“I’ve always been an anarchist,” he declares unflinchingly, “I think it’s an Icelandic contradiction that you can have more freedom with more supervision. When the Raven Flies was a sort of nostalgia to a time when there was nobody controlling anything.”
Gunnlaugsson remains sceptical at best of government, referring at one point to the Icelandic government as having a “hippy mentality,” resistant to change, adding, “I knew all those guys when they had long hair and were smoking hash.” Yet at the same time, he seems to believe that the Icelandic government is still probably the best of all possible worlds, warts and all.
“The difference between Iceland and Norway is,” he says with a sly smile, “in Norway things are forbidden if they’re not allowed, but in Iceland things are allowed if they’re not forbidden.”
But Gunnlaugsson quickly changes the subject from politics, a subject, like his longtime friendship with Foreign Minsiter Davíð Oddsson, that he doesn’t seem comfortable discussing. Suddenly bounding into the other room to look for a video copy of When the Raven Flies, he shouts his thoughts on Myrkahöfðinginn, a movie based on the writings of minister and paranoid witch hunter Jón Magnússon.
Magnússon travelled to a remote village in the West Fjörds in 1644 to put the fear of God into the people there, burning two men for witchcraft in the process. Remarkably, Jón Magnússon recorded everything that he thought transpired there into the tome Píslasaga (The Martyr’s Saga), things which included visitations from various demons and even the Devil himself.
“I think Freud would have changed his opinion about schizophrenia if he had had the opportunity to read [Píslasaga],” says Gunnlaugsson. “To me, his mission was a little bit like the mission of Osama bin Laden – like bin Laden, Magnússon thought he was saving people from the eternal flames of hell by burning them for a short time in an earthly fire. They share this similar mentality of trying to save the world by destroying it, saving it from a worse fate in hell.”
The film itself is often unintentionally funny, as Magnússon falls in love with Þuríður, a young girl in the village whose brother and father are in fact the two men Magnússon burned for witchcraft. His own lust torments him, confusing him to alternate between tearfully declaring his love for her one moment, and calling her “Satan’s whore” the next. In the climatic moment of the film, Magnússon is shot in the crotch while attempting to rape Þuríður.
In a squirmingly graphic scene, she removes the bullet herself – along with Magnússon’s testicles, which she then feeds to a dog. Naturally, I wanted to know what the testicles were made of.
“We used real testicles,” says Gunnlaugsson then, perhaps thinking about how that might be interpreted, “The testicles of a young horse, that is.”
Despite the creation of a genre that has made Gunnlaugsson a movie legend in this country and others, the “last film” he described earlier on will probably never see the screen.
“I’m finished with film,” he sighs heavily. “It’s too big a wheel to turn, trying to get money, finding the time and so on. You can drown in the machinery.”
These days, Gunnlaugsson focuses on travel as an outlet, saying that it gives him “inspiration and peace,” as well as a sense of perspective.
“When I went to India and saw how people were surviving there, all my problems were suddenly a joke,” he says. “I’m very thankful for being an Icelander. The more I see the world, the more I see what I have to be thankful for.”
In the end, though, Gunnlaugsson will probably never escape his true nature. Contradicting his comment on travel, he hinted that he might indeed return to the camera: “I’m not looking for fame. I’m looking to tell a story. I’m a storyteller. That’s my passion.”