The Northman: Vikings, Nazis, and Historical Accuracy

Movies Features Robert Eggers
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The Northman: Vikings, Nazis, and Historical Accuracy

The Northman is director Robert Eggers’ biggest film to date, and its commitment to a form of historical accuracy contributes to its success while also providing fodder for the worst instincts of some people that really like Viking imagery. Vikings captivate the public as simultaneously exotic and familiar, conquerors and barbarians, idealized noble savages, pure-blood white conquering raiders—rather than traders with ties to different geographic spaces and ethnic groups. They’re typically portrayed as violent, which makes for entertaining spectacle. They have religious beliefs we find strange and enticing, making them prime fodder for comic book superheroes and videogame characters. White supremacists in the U.S. and elsewhere have seized onto the imagery and iconography of Viking warriors as part of a fascistic appeal to pure bloodlines and social Darwinism, taking after Hitler’s own adoption of Wagner’s operas (and writings) and drawing on the 19th century pre-Weimar Volkisch movement. At the same time, Vikings are legitimately fascinating, and bad people liking a good thing doesn’t usually make that thing less good, though it can cloud perceptions. Understanding history is an ongoing political process of making meaning, and what constitutes historical accuracy changes over time. While Nazis might fancy The Northman, its attempt at historically accurate Vikings leads to a compelling aesthetic with a much broader appeal.

In the case of The Northman, one might say there is something primal that makes us love stories of betrayed kings reclaiming their kingdoms. The Northman is based on the 13th century tale Life of Amleth, one of the stories Hamlet was based on, a founding legend for Danish history from Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum and the Chronicon Lethrense. The Northman is a revenge story, which appeals to us as an expression of presumed moral righteousness that’s frequently shone through the lens of spectacular violence. The Virgin Spring. Unforgiven. Kill Bill. John Wick. A person had something taken from them, they’re willing to kill to take it back. When trafficking in stories of deposed royalty, these tales allow audiences to project themselves into a place of power. With The Northman specifically, vengeance is violence tied up in the familiar majestic language of honor, here wrapped in the garb of Old Norse language and psychedelic mysticism.

We see these ideas and this style throughout media. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a videogame that applies a Nordic/Viking aesthetic (including the horned helmets that Minnesota’s NFL team took from Wagner’s operas) to tell a story of nativism and independence. It’s a story familiar to anyone that’s been an audience to a tale of the Wild West: The advanced guard of a creeping empire (here pilgrims, there ranchers, over yonder Nords) loses their independence to said empire (British royalty, U.S. businessmen, the Third Empire of Cyrodiil). Those who were once migrants develop a culture of frontiersman and settlers, remaking themselves to fit the place they’ve taken, before being brought low by those that sent them to take it. The Viking aesthetic is there to bestow prestige and intrigue to the familiar—though, in this case, the familiar was the Elder Scrolls series’ impressive open-world fantasy. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the 2018 God of War are more recent examples of videogames getting into this culture fad. Admittedly, I was initially skeptical of the aesthetic and connected it with the rise of the far right in the U.S., and the willingness of videogame companies to ignore those implications to make money. While I doubt Ubisoft or Santa Monica Studios are concerned about racists liking their videogames, the facts are that Assassin’s Creed had already handled [Ptolemaic] Egypt and Ancient Greece, and God of War chose Scandinavia over Egypt when doing their own move from Greece. At least, arguably, the former more accurately or more frequently depicts gender dynamics among the Norsemen that were more complicated than the stereotypical depiction of them as patriarchal, pillaging rapists leaves room for.

More directly similar to The Northman is the Netflix series The Last Kingdom, which begins with a boy robbed of the lands of his birthright after Vikings kill his father. He is then raised by Vikings who are betrayed by some extended kinsmen and returns to reclaim his ancestral home from his uncle. Unlike The Northman, though, Uhtred (Alexander Dreymond) is torn between two cultures. Uhtred also doesn’t get the sweet visions and magical realism that Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) gets, though he does briefly get Succession’s Tom Wambsgans as his father. Vikings and its successor series Vikings: Valhalla draw on the Icelandic sagas The Tale of Ragnar Lodbrok and The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons in addition to The Northman’s own Gesta Danorum. The first series begins in the dawn of the Viking era in the late eighth century, while the second begins in its 11th century twilight. Alan Sepinwall said the show “relies on the inherent appeal of the era,” but what is that “inherent appeal?”

It is in wildness: Vikings are not typically imagined as orderly or ornate as the Romans, the Greeks or the fantasy version of Arthurian and post-Arthurian England, though many of these depictions contest that preconception. It is in foreignness: These are English-language shows calling to Scandinavian history. It is also in heritage: That Scandinavian history crosses over with that of the English. Perhaps it is also in whiteness: Misconceptions about the racial and cultural characteristics of these places drawn from 18th to 20th century nation-building leads them to be unified with an imaginary shared cultural past, reflecting a modern racial ideology that didn’t exist in those historical settings.

What tends to be lost in depictions of premodern Europe is historical ethnic diversity—the plethora of racial groups in al-Andalus in one era, in Sicily and Venice in others; the spread of soldiers from African and Asian lands through Western and Northern Europe by way of the Roman Empire. And, to our point here, the ethnic diversity of Vikings, even if that diversity wasn’t as clear a matter of skin tones. Because movements like the Volkisch and the Nazis were so pivotal in shaping the popular perception of the Vikings, they remain icons among white supremacists, though medievalists and pagans alike are actively resisting those associations and reclaiming Vikings. And, to throw it back to the videogames, the trailer for the second Nordic God of War featured a Black woman, and its studio didn’t back down when the worst gamers on the internet got angry. Robert Eggers himself said that “Nazi misappropriation of Viking culture cemented my disinterest as an adult,” before a trip to Iceland and a dive into the Icelandic sagas brought him around.

That said, The Northman is not more obligated by its geography to show ethnic and gender diversity than any other film, but these ideas hang in the story more than might be immediately apparent. I’m pretty sure one of the early soldiers we see on horseback after Amleth helps conquer Olga’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) village—the leader who yells they want strong slaves, not weak ones—is a woman. Promised in the prophecy Amleth gets from the Seeress (Bjork) in the village is that part of his purpose is to sire a daughter, a “maiden king.” That village is situated in what is now referred to as Kievan (or Kyivan) Rus’, a northeastern European confederation of contested Scandinavian and Slavic ethnic composition in its ruling class who later conquered and incorporated the Turkic Khazar people, and which had visitors from as far as Baghdad and traded as far as the Byzantine Empire. (In a scene soon after, Amleth’s comrades mention slaves going to Constantinople.) Of course, the ongoing academic consternation about the ethnic roots of the Rus’ are connected to competing nationalisms across Northern and Eastern Europe. It is important for audiences to realize that the real places these stories draw from are as complicated as nation-states and geopolitics today, and while The Northman doesn’t focus on detailing and unpacking all of that, it similarly doesn’t flatten history in a manner that befits Nazis. It always seems unnecessary to mention that narrative film does not perfectly represent history because it seldom tries, and it’s difficult to pull off when it makes the attempt. But it becomes necessary to mention that when you recall how few people have the time or inclination to read history books in their spare time.

The Northman is a capital-M Movie; it’s beautiful to look at, a triumph of both cinematography and visual effects. It’s got brutal action, captivating drama and intense romance. Scenes that could be ridiculous are played so seriously and effectively that the audience never falls out of earnest agreement with the film. The use of Norse-alphabet title cards and pre-war rituals; the use of psychedelics by shamans; the ambiguous nature of its magic and mysticism, dream sequences and fantasies; the fact that in its middle parts, The Northman feels like a horror movie where you’re following the monster—all of these make it an effective and engaging film. It’s a great example of historical fiction that grounds a legend without losing its magic. But the key word is “fiction.” Only in time will we know whether it is a great example of cultural mythmaking. While it’s likely Nazis will enjoy the aesthetic of Nordic brutality, historical texture and narrative complexity remain. Just because Nazis like a thing doesn’t mean we have to let them have it.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.