Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman (2022). (Photo by Landmark Media)

It’s grim up north

Is the Northman alt-right propaganda? Perhaps, but it’s not the only one

Artillery Row

The Northman has been accused of serving as fuel for members of the far right, who have, apparently, been exulting in its blatant white nationalism, singing hymns to Odin and lifting foaming horns of mead to its honour. Well, with that kind of press, I had to go and see it. What a mistake. I was one bitterly disappointed southerner. Because as anyone who’s ever ventured beyond the Trent could have warned you, it’s grim up north.

I was deeply bored and heartily regretting wasting two hours

It started promisingly enough, in a golden hall with finely wrought drinking vessels, golden haired queens and vikings roaring praises to the gods. A young prince shouts greetings to his heavily bearded father. Hmm. There’s an awful LOT of shouting, but I suppose they’ll settle down. And then there’s more screaming and shouting, and quite a lot of violence following a predictable betrayal by a dark-haired uncle (one wonders why they bother with uncles at royal courts). The young prince departs in a boat and is found, 20 years and quite a lot of muscle mass later in the land of Rus (mediaeval Russia). 

He’s become a berserker, and soon enough is donning a bear skin while he and his fellow berserkers are dancing around a fire and shouting, and roaring, and screaming. Sigh. Now they’re attacking some poor defenceless slavs (topical, I suppose?), and 20 minutes of highly graphic violence later we’re staring at the gleaming blood stained muscles of a very grumpy looking Alexander Skarsgård. 

There’s a further 70 minutes or so of shouting, violence, screaming, violence, hearty viking roaring, violence and oh, did I mention there’s some quite gruesome, blood-splattering-on-the-walls, dismembered-limbs-flying-everywhere violence? 

I was deeply bored and heartily regretting wasting two hours of a very fine Saturday afternoon on this loud, bloody bit of historical porn. I’m not sure what it is, but the moment a film these days is set much before 1900, everyone has their cock out, blood is flowing like water, and the air is turned blue by schlocky ornate dialogue interspersed with a lot of “fucks”. 

It’s a pity too because when the speakers stopped blaring and the blood stopped dripping, the cinematography was admittedly lovely. The attempt to sincerely conjure a world of magic and Norse religion was the most interesting aspect of the film, but the director couldn’t seem to tear himself away from his prurient fascination with a Norse past that he appeared to regard as brutish and animalistic. The religion is all tiny little loincloths and howling like wolves and spilling lots of blood and having sweaty male visions in leather tents. I’m sure a lot of that went on, but was this really all there was to the Vikings?

Was it alt-right propaganda? Sure, why not. Despite its attempt at a certain magic realism, it was a cynical and nihilistic film obsessed with bloodshed, the amoral pursuit of revenge and grotesque bombasticism. It’s a sensibility that suits jaded liberal filmmakers of the Tarantino school as easily as it does the readership of Stormfront. You didn’t have to go very far to find alt-right tropes either, especially the weird obsession with bloodlines — at one point Skarsgård licks the bleeding neck of a frightfully blond Anya Taylor-Joy and receives a vision of his crowned offspring. Anya is bundled away to carry on the dynasty, and Skarsgård goes off to die gloriously in battle in a noisy, sweaty, naked fight on top of a volcano. SIGH. 

Which isn’t to say those pointing the finger at the film are any better film critics than the alt-right — Steve Rose, writing for the Guardian, offers up the deliciously moronic insight: “By this stage, in fact, film-makers ought to have realised that if the far right doesn’t hate your film, you might be doing something wrong.” Gosh. Gosh. If you don’t make your film an iridescent rainbow mess of liberal pap, you’re doing it wrong. And what, you may ask, are the brilliant transgressive works that are so needling the knuckle-draggers of the alt-right? Well, read on and find out:

Taika Waititi, who is of Māori and Jewish descent, took things even further with part three, Thor: Ragnarok. As well as casting Tessa Thompson, a woman of mixed African, Latino and European heritage as the ostensibly bisexual Norse warrior Valkyrie, Waititi’s film dealt with narratives of displacement, enslavement, colonialism and white-male fragility. Thor’s all-powerful hammer, Mjolnir, that beloved symbol of white supremacism, is casually disintegrated by Cate Blanchett’s Hela. She then proceeds to bring down the Norse realm of Asgard, figuratively and literally.

The Marvel movies. Yes, the garish many-headed cancer blotting out all other cinema and offering up a never-ending faecal river of eye-wateringly vapid three hour mashups of incomprehensible comic book references, bad quips and childishly bad CGI, is the cultural champion of progressivism today. Rather fitting, but it’s amazing how willing they are to own up to it. 

The new daily fare of cinema is violence

But haven’t we all rather lost sight of something here? Just what is the defining quality of totalitarianism? Is it racism, sexism, homophobia? No, and it never has been. Totalitarian states are defined by their willingness to blot out human reason and morality, utterly suborn the individual to the state, and legitimate every extreme of violence in the name of ideology. It’s the worship of the political efficiency of coercive violence and the nihilistic abandonment of moral constraints that most exemplified the very worst fascist and communist movements. 

And violence has stormed onto our screens. The old radicals behind the camera wanted to put sex on screen — hippie idealism and new age spirituality sought to embrace eroticism as an alternative to hierarchical power. But today sex is off the menu (and anyway ubiquitously and grotesquely displayed across the internet). No, the new daily fare of cinema is violence. 

That’s very obvious when it comes to films like the Northman where women and children are coldly cut down in graphic detail. What may be less evident is the violence that inheres in the comic book offerings of franchises like Marvel and Star Wars. Fascist movements didn’t simply display raw, uncensored violence. It was implied and encoded in the shrill, booming speeches of Hitler; the tramp of marching boots; the aggressive colours, proportions and language of propaganda posters; and most of all in the screeching of the megaphone and the loudspeaker. 

As well as placing them on street corners, speakers were used in early models of the concentration camps, most famously in Dachau, where speakers would constantly blare “patriotic” music and propaganda, destroying any moments of peace prisoners might have had. The fascist “voice” was an amplified one. Fascists were heavily influenced by the Italian Futurist movement which advocated for a kind of early transhumanism, and the revolution of every area of human affairs with a technology that in scale, speed and sound would sublimely exceed the human scale. 

Older (but not much older) historical action films like Gladiator had plenty of noise and violence, but they had proper pacing — violence was followed by moments of peace and reflection. The main character (Maximus Decimus Meridius) finds himself caught up in conflict but his true desire is for the tranquillity of his family farm — a vision of domestic and civil peace reflective of Virgil’s Georgics. It’s the nobility of the protagonist that gives drama and meaning to the violence of the film. 

The worst violence in the Northman was not the often gratuitous gore; it was in the pacing, the amplified sound, the hammer blows of constant stimulation that worked like a jolting electric current. That violence is something it has in common with more popular action films like, in fact, Marvel’s Thor, or the Star Wars sequels. These latter may not splatter much gore around, but the contrasting bombardments of sound, colour and motion reflect a new sinister turn in modern cinema. 

More than just crude, this shift to violent theme park-like overstimulation (not to mention the also very theme park-like nausea generated by the constantly mobile camera) reflects an authoritarian sensibility. Audiences are rendered as passive recipients of achingly simple messages, rather than active, imaginative participants in a beautifully made film. This isn’t a question of elitism (not that there’s anything wrong with elitism); this marks a significant departure even from the popular films of 10-20 years ago, whether that’s Gladiator, the Matrix, Shrek, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter

The move to ever greater simplification and a world of people easily controlled by crude stimulations is predicted in dystopian fiction as in Brave New World, in which the “feelies” offer up a cinematic experience that includes touch as well as sight and sound. The subject is generally pornographic; even less is left to the imagination than before. The calls to “action” in violent fascist propaganda are really calls to passivity, to move to the rhythm of the fascist march as surely as the libertine consumer dances to the crude beat of pop music in the club. 

This is cinema that merges film and advertisement, audience and product; cinema that seeks to numb and bludgeon the viewer into passive acquiescence; cinema totally given over to consumption, profiteering and the closed logic of “progressive” ideology. So, yes, the Northman failed to escape the gravitational pull of fascist film-making, but Marvel very much got there first.

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