It’s strange to think that refugees and economic migrants used to come to Iceland in search of a better life not from Eastern Europe or the Middle East, but from Germany. Stranger still is the fact that this wasn’t such a long time ago, and many of them are still alive today.
This is the subject of the documentary ‘Eisheimat’, which translated literally from German is “Icehome,” though the film’s Icelandic title is the rather warmer ‘Á nýjum stað’ (“In a New Place”). In the late 1940s, ads were placed for women in Germany to come work on Icelandic farms. The old country was still in ruins, many of the men had been killed or were in POW camps in Siberia, and Germans weren’t much liked in most places in Europe. So quite a few took up the call, having little idea where or what Iceland was.
Some of the qualms of new arrivals in Iceland are familiar. They miss fresh vegetables and the sight of trees. Others are of an entirely different order. Some women found that along with farming duties they were expected to warm the farmer’s bed. A single mother of two found this fate the least bad option available. The two eventually got married, though hubby was too drunk at the courthouse to sign her name. Another managed to stay sober for the duration, only for the newlyweds to head straight back to the farm after the ceremony, change clothes and start shoveling cow dung that same afternoon. Most found little solace in marriage, being left at home to tend the children and animals while the men went out to meet other men. Or other women, in the case of the farmer who managed to have an affair while his wife was in labour.
The German girls were more willing to participate in that traditional custom, the “sveitaball” (“country dance”), which at least was an opportunity to cut a rug, even though the men would inevitably start fistfights with one another. At least one of them managed to find love in such inauspicious surroundings. She, at least, seems happy in her old age. And yet none of the others interviewed in the film decided to leave.
No pixie dust
There is something almost voyeuristic about watching these women talk about former slights, while their husbands sit beside them, decrepit and uncomprehending of the German being spoken. The camera goes out of its way to portray them in an unflattering light—we get long scenes of old men on old man scooters. Perhaps this is their just desserts, and a punishment befitting the social media era. Their own fault for living so long.
In any case, this is a fascinating tidbit of Icelandic history, and director Heike Fink has done well to document it before it’s too late. It is also sobering to finally get a documentary from abroad that does not portray Iceland sprinkled with the usual pixie dust. We can only hope that Icelanders, and Icelandic men in particular, have improved somewhat since the period under consideration.
And yet, the most common qualm of all is that the foreign workers were underpaid, and some are still awaiting payment, some 70 years later. The nationalities change, but the story remains the same. We can only hope that the stories now being acted out will reflect more favourably on the country when they are brought to light. And do our best to make sure this will in fact be the case.
‘Eisheimat’ is shown in Bíó Paradís on Hverfisgata 54. The language is German, and the subtitles Icelandic.