Godland: a snapshot of Denmark’s treatment of Iceland as a colony in the 19th century

Hlynur Palmason, “Volaða land / Vanskabte Land / Godland” (2022)

Its plot looks simple enough, and it follows in the path of similar films such as Bruce Beresford’s 1991 film “Black Robe”, yet “Godland” confronts other issues, such as Denmark’s exploitation of Iceland when the latter was the former’s colony, and how this relationship affects people’s connections with one another and with nature, that are not found in other films about missionaries or priests venturing into strange lands to convert pagans or establish new church buildings. Sometime in the 19th century, a Danish pastor, Father Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is given the task of building a church in a remote rural parish established by Danish settlers in Iceland. Taking camera equipment with him to document his journey and work, Lucas travels by ship and boat with a translator and several Icelandic workers. On arrival, Lucas and his translator meet the taciturn Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who will be their guide on their journey to the settlement. The three travel with Ragnar’s dog, several labourers and a string of Icelandic ponies carrying their luggage, a huge cross and Lucas’s camera equipment. In the course of their journey, Lucas takes photos of the translator, their Icelandic companions and the landscapes they pass through. The group come across a deep river and, despite Ragnar’s warnings and protests, Lucas orders that they all proceed to cross it. They do so, but the translator and the large cross fall off the horses, the cross is swept away and the translator drowns. His body is buried in a makeshift grave next to the river. The group continue on their way but the trip across the Icelandic countryside – a country of rugged mountains and plateaux, spectacular plunging waterfalls, rock sculptures and active volcanoes – is arduous and the summer weather is cold and rainy. Grief-stricken and socially isolated, Lucas withdraws into himself, becomes depressed and collapses from exhaustion.

When he comes to, Lucas finds himself resting in the home of Danish settler Carl (Jacob Lohmann) and his daughters Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) in the settlement where the church is to be built. The pastor is nursed back to health, and he resumes taking photographs of people and the country. While the church is being built by people in the settlement, they use it to celebrate significant occasions such as a wedding, though Lucas refuses to marry the couple in a half-built church. He befriends Ida and is attracted to Anna who reciprocates his attention, mainly because she sees him as a ticket to leave her boring farm life and return to Denmark, though her father distrusts the Danish pastor. Eventually the tension and distrust that have built up between Ragnar and Lucas spills into open hostility when Lucas refuses Ragnar’s request for a photograph of himself and insults the guide, and the guide returns fire by admitting to having killed Lucas’s horse. Lucas also draws more suspicion from Carl when he and Anna become closer.

The film brings into sharp focus the mutual hostility that once existed between the Danes and Icelanders, due to Denmark’s colonial exploitation of Iceland – the Danish crown gave Danish merchants monopoly rights to trade with Iceland, which monopoly the merchants milked mercilessly, leaving Icelanders impoverished as a result – and the social hierarchy in which Danes lorded over Icelanders. Though Lucas is advised by his superiors in Denmark to adapt to the Icelandic environment, Lucas does nothing of the sort and looks down on Ragnar and other Icelanders even after they have saved his life. Even his obsession with taking photos of the Icelanders and the Icelandic environment may be seen as sinister, in that these pictures may be the pastor’s way of controlling them and his surroundings by reducing them to a level he can understand and perhaps manipulate. The Icelanders he travels with have every reason to want to harm him due to the way he rebuffs their company, yet they treat him with deference and even find help for him when he falls sick. The eventual irony is that (spoiler alert) the one person who does get rid of him happens to be a Dane.

The natural environment with its breathtaking landscapes and unforgiving climate is a major character in its own right and gives the film its distinctly dour atmosphere and style. The animals used in the film are also significant in illustrating how the landscape itself treats all living beings as equal – even foreign pastors are treated the same as horses once they have passed away – and humans’ social arrangements and hierarchies count for nothing on an island where humans have had to work hard and improvise with few resources at hand to survive.

The plot may be slow and the characters are not especially complicated though Sigurðsson puts in an excellent performance as the taciturn Ragnar who unexpectedly reveals a vulnerable side later in the film – but through such a simple, almost stereotypical narrative, viewers gain some insights into a period of Danish and Icelandic history that perhaps Danes themselves wish to forget or gloss over, and which Icelanders themselves may still remain aggrieved about.