A HORSE’S CORPSE, CENTER FRAME. A still shot taken from directly above. We cut from summer to fall, winter, spring, summer again. Though the camera remains still, the corpse and earth buzz with activity: wind shudders the grass, rain falls in violent sheets, snow buries the body and drifts like an apparition. Crows and insects congregate around the corpse; the horse is still, but in each successive frame it has changed, decaying until it is just a pile of bones, flowers and grass springing from the earth where the body once was. Or rather, the body is still there, in the flowers and grass.
A human corpse, just right of center frame. Not from above this time, but seen from the side, at a great distance. We know it is a human corpse because of everything that’s come before, but given only this shot we would see it merely as a brown lump, a pile of dirt or a dunghill maybe, marring the landscape, a smudge obscuring the ocean and mountains behind it. We witness the same cycle of seasons, the same decay, now just beyond our sight.
The horse, the camera tells us, is a part of the land—the vertical shot flattens everything into the same two-dimensional plane. The animal’s absorption back into the earth is visual as well as metabolic. The human body, the camera tells us, is not: it is filmed against the land, the horizontal shot emphasizing its estrangement from the landscape, as if a gnat had found its way onto the lens.
This is Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason’s Godland. Originally released in 2022, it appeared in the US this June. The film reveals Pálmason to be one of few working directors making genuinely sublime cinema. I mean sublime in the real sense of the word—not beautiful, not good, but a cinema of vivifying, terrible, generative awe. For a formalist work about God’s silence and the tremendous crush of nature and the smallness of humanity in the face of both, the sublime is a fitting, maybe the only fitting, mode. The film follows Lucas, a Danish Lutheran priest, as he is dispatched to Iceland in the late nineteenth century with the purpose of building a modest church for one of the island’s small settlements. Before departing, he is warned that both the land and the people will be alien to him, and that he must adapt to their ways in order to successfully build the church and minister to his new flock. Instead of sailing directly to his destination, Lucas decides to disembark on Iceland’s southeastern coast and trek, along with a group of locals led by a guide called Ragnar and an unnamed translator, to his destination.
During the period in which the film takes place, Iceland was still a Danish colony, and the nationalist movement on the island would have just been starting. (The first words Ragnar says are “Danish devil”.) The colonial relationship between Denmark and Iceland provides much of the tension in the film: Lucas does not know Icelandic and must speak through an interpreter; though some of the Icelanders speak Danish, Lucas often cannot understand them, or pretends not to; the Danish settler on whose property Lucas builds the church jokes at Ragnar’s expense about the clumsy, peasant manners of Icelanders; the settler’s daughter longs to go back to Denmark, a home she barely remembers. The tension also manifests in the way Lucas responds to the land. Iceland is awe-inspiring but also hostile, and Lucas regards it with hostility in turn, an approach that will ultimately prove self-defeating. In a quiet way, the film participates in the familiar story of a Christian missionary embarking on a colonial mission only to be defeated by the alienness of the land and the passive opposition of the people.
Although the film plays within this set of tropes, it has a much different ambition. Aside from necessities, Lucas brings two items on his journey: a cumbersome wet-plate camera—an old method of large-format photography that involved preparing glass plates with an emulsion of light-sensitive silver halides—and a large wooden cross to be mounted on top of the completed church. A cross, especially a large wooden one, carries centuries of signification and requires no special treatment to draw our attention. But from the first frame, Pálmason clues us in to the importance of the camera. Because the film is shot in the same square aspect ratio as the wet-plate images Lucas creates, we are prompted toward a photographic way of regarding the landscape (a word that originally referred to an image of natural scenery, not the land itself, but as the mediation of images influenced language, land became landscape, an image of itself).
The cross and the camera, more than any person, are the two central objects of the film. Godland seems to argue that both are profane mediations, obstructions, between the Icelanders and God.
Before continuing, because I think this will provide some context for what follows, I want to say that I am Jewish and an atheist. My knowledge of Christianity and my experience of the divine come secondhand. If I lean on Kierkegaard in the coming analysis, it is because he has given me the most convincing reading of both, but also because his work speaks directly to and through the struggles of this film. But—it’s strange—I turn to Kierkegaard also because he is Scandinavian, and there is something about Scandinavian films in which devout people wrestle with the absence or silence of God (Ordet, Winter Light, Breaking the Waves) that causes me to question whether I ought to believe. Again, I do not believe in God, nor do I wish to (in any event, that ship has sailed), but I want to feel that very Christian feeling of desire, the feeling of absence that animates all faith.
I recently traveled through the Balkans, where I developed a minor obsession with icons. I came across one repeated image that especially struck me, and I continually sought it out in churches and museums. In some icons of the Dormition of Mary, at the bottom of the image a man kneels before the casket, his hands freshly severed by the Archangel Michael. The angel’s sword is depicted mid-stroke, in an odd temporal simultaneity: no sooner does Michael begin his stroke than its outcome is realized. The man is the Jewish priest Jephonias, who, the story goes, out of spite and hatred for the Mother of God, attempted to overturn the casket and spill Mary’s body to the ground. Michael, invisibly intervening (though visible to us), removes his hands instead. Having witnessed the miracle of his own amputation, Jephonias accepts Christ as God, converts, and is healed.
When I first saw the image, I was unaware of the story, but I was instantly attracted. Upon researching the icon, the attraction became clear: Jephonias is me. He does not believe, yet he is drawn to the site of the divine, in this case a burial, an absence. Like Lucas, he desires the divine, and so he provokes a scene, a miracle. He asks for proof. The outcome is the very form of a faith that is at its core about the experience of lack. Earthly love is merely the fear of loss. Divine love fears no loss and feels no lack, because one can only love God once one has given up hope of grasping God, once one’s hope of access has been removed—quite literally in Jephonias’s case.
But I cannot feel the absence of what for me is a nonentity. Jephonias believed in a way I cannot, and he, like Lucas (as we shall see), was punished for demanding proof. Jephonias received his proof in the form of his punishment—the angel’s message was, “you can never grasp this.” And this injunction was, paradoxically, the birth of his faith. He learned that God is not in the body of Mary, nor in the body of Christ, nor in the angel’s sword: God is the suffering of God’s absence. The miracle is letting go.
Lucas will be granted this miracle, twice even, but he will not receive it.
As Lucas approaches Iceland by boat at the beginning of Godland, he takes a picture of the Icelandic crew ferrying him ashore. Through his interpreter, Lucas instructs the crew to be still, to “pretend as if they are dead.” The crew laughs, then falls silent. On the one hand, Lucas’s instruction is simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of his technology—the wet-plate process required photographers to manually remove the lens cap and expose the plate for a matter of seconds before shutting it again (consider that the average disposable camera has a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second). Any movement would blur the image. But Lucas’s instruction is also Pálmason’s way of pointing to the nature of photography as an art of death, a sort of reverse necromancy.
The essence of photography, Barthes tells us in Camera Lucida, “is that someone has seen the referent (even if it is a matter of objects) in the flesh and blood, or again in person.” This is what separates it from the other visual arts (except cinema, of which Godland also has a great deal to say). Photography attests above all to presence: “that has been.” But presence always presupposes its opposite: “that has been” also means “that will be no longer.” The photograph, Barthes writes, is the living image of a dead thing.
It is no accident that photography emerged as an art form and gained popularity during the nineteenth century, which saw the expansion of financial capital and the Industrial Revolution, with its globalized supply chains and intensifying commodity production. Photography’s essence may be the positivistic “that has been,” but it is also the notion of equivalency. The photographic image, in reifying the concept of “moments,” bestows specificity on whatever it depicts; it testifies not only to the existence but also the importance or individuality of its subject, if only for the photographer. But in affirming the subject’s individuality, the photograph also turns it into an aesthetic object, a thing. And it is this “thingness” that makes the image an equivalency. The camera emerges as a tool for making time, in its infinitude and unknowability, graspable on a human scale—of reducing time to interchangeable moments. Like money before it, photography flattens qualitatively different things—individual and irreducible events—into quantitatively identical items, interchangeable as pieces of evidence.
Thus the photograph contains within it not only death in Barthes’s sense but also the death of a certain religious way of thinking—it is the tool of demystification par excellence. The camera can expand the human way of seeing beyond our natural capacities and, in so doing, reveal and explain previously inaccessible and mysterious aspects of existence. Photography is, in its essential positivism, the opposite of faith.
As so often in Scandinavian films about faith, Kierkegaard enters the scene. In
Practice in Christianity, Kierkegaard asks whether one can demonstrate that Christ is God through the history of his acts. He answers with an emphatic no. God, Kierkegaard asserts, is separated from humanity by an “infinite qualitative difference.” Christ’s history can be understood on human terms and can demonstrate his greatness as a man, but it has no bearing on whether he is indeed God. Such a statement does not require proof, indeed admits of no proof, but is instead a matter of faith: “one cannot know anything at all about Christ; he is the paradox, the object of faith, exists only for faith.” At stake for Kierkegaard (whose life was roughly contemporary with the events of the film) is a kind of apophatic theology opposed to the positivist currents of his time. If God is transcendent, we cannot know it except by negation, or through the affirmation of God’s unknowability. The logical endpoint of apophatic thought is to deny any knowledge of God whatsoever except that God is.
The camera, then, says something about our priest’s approach to God. Lucas’s use of the camera likens him to Kierkegaard’s hypothetical interlocutor who seeks to demonstrate the divinity of Christ through his deeds. The camera is only capable of expressing the visible qualities of things. It can make images of God’s creation, of the vastness of the ocean, of the magnitude of mountains, of the spark of life in a portrait-sitter’s eye, but these things teach us nothing about God. Kierkegaard goes further: “Faith’s claim is that this whole attempt is—blasphemy.”
But the priest is not a blasphemer, though he will sin gravely throughout the film. He is, rather, a man caught between the photographic way of seeing (“that has been”) and the silence of that fact. The camera becomes a way of speaking, or rather an invitation to the divine to speak through the images it creates, but God does not answer. God’s silence, his absence from the images Lucas makes, only intensifies Lucas’s desire. Desire, as Socrates tells us in The Symposium, is always born from lack—“one does not desire what one does not lack”—and thus at the core of all desire is the absence of the desired object. Desire is born and sustained only by absence, and the more strongly the absence is felt, the stronger the desire. Thus the impossible striving toward the missing object. The priest keenly feels this absence in the Icelandic landscape and so attempts to turn absence into presence—through the church, through the camera. But the demands of faith are different. If God is transcendent and inaccessible, then perhaps God is simply the name we give to the absence that is desire. Which would mean that attempts to grasp God, so to speak, are folly.
“Cut it in half,” Ragnar says when packing the horses for the journey. Pragmatic advice: the cross is heavy, clumsy, too large for the horses, and takes up valuable cargo space. Lucas gives him an incredulous stare, and the cross stays intact, lashed to the translator’s packhorse.
The camera and cross are both harbingers of literal death as well as the metaphorical kind. After Lucas takes the translator’s portrait, the party comes to a dangerous river. Ragnar insists that due to nearby volcanic activity the river is too wild to cross, and the party must wait at least three days, but Lucas is impatient. Ragnar reluctantly agrees to go on, and in the crossing the translator falls from his horse and is swept away by the current; the cross follows after.
We watch as the cross is carried out of sight. The land is speaking here. It says: Be patient. You do not need this. You cannot tame me with this cross. You cannot replace me. Be still. Listen. But Lucas cannot listen. We see the translator’s lifeless body on the riverbank, gently lapped by the water. We then cut to Lucas on an ice field—itself a vision of death in its emptiness—his camera ready to take another shot.
We return to Kierkegaard. In The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air he examines Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount:
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more than they? But who among you can add one cubit to your height, even though you worry about it? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. But I say to you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these.
From the birds and the lilies we must first learn to keep silent: “To pray is not to listen to oneself speak but is to become silent and to remain silent, to wait until the one praying hears God.” This silence is not simply an abstention from speech but an inner silence, the silencing of all thought, desire, and even thanksgiving. Photography is a simulacrum of the type of attention necessary for prayer. It makes meaningful for humanity whatever falls under its scrutiny. It is an act of taking (through attention) as opposed to an act of receiving or giving (through prayer). For Kierkegaard, to pray is first and foremost not to notice. The key is for not noticing to become a form of prayer. The key is not to desire, and in this lack of desire to feel the divine more fully. To pray is to empty the soul so that there can be room for God and only for God.
This command reverberates throughout Godland, but Lucas cannot heed it. After the translator is killed, Lucas is struck silent; he can speak but no longer communicate. Instead of speaking with his party, he begins speaking with God. While camped on the ice field, increasingly ill from exposure, he prays. He despairs at his own silence, and God’s silence. Which is to say: Lucas has not fallen silent. Immediately after this dark night of the soul, we see him speaking to his horse. He asks, “What is your secret? Why don’t you talk? Were you sent down from above?”
“The bird keeps silent and waits,” Kierkegaard writes. “It knows, or rather it fully and firmly believes, that everything takes place at its appointed time.” Lucas’s impatience before the river, his inability to believe, led to the death of his translator, the loss of his voice, the loss of his cross—the emblem of his attachment to his earthly religion. This, we can see, was the first miracle, the first swing of the Archangel Michael’s sword, but Lucas, in his arrogance and lack of faith, could not receive it.
The river incident reveals that the Icelanders have an immediate relationship to the land. (Pálmason, who filmed much of Godland in the area where he grew up, seems to share this.) Their faith is both immanent and transcendent, felt in the air and water, and stems from silence. Ragnar begins his days with a series of stretches and breathing exercises which he performs barefoot in the soggy moss, taking the cold morning air upon his bare chest and back. He wades into a river to set a makeshift net, knowing with certainty that it will be full of fish come morning. He soothes restive horses with firm words and pats. Lucas’s photographic relationship to the land and God is the antithesis of Ragnar’s tactile relationship. Lucas’s camera reduces nature to images, to symbols, subsuming faith by the camera and the cross in his quest for proof. In the very opening of the film, just before the first title card, we watch as Lucas takes a portrait of a church elder back home in Denmark. The man sits in pomp, dressed in aristocratic clothing, framed before crudely painted blue waves. We then cut to Lucas in the boat, on the real sea, with real waves as the backdrop. The falsity of the first backdrop is the same falsity that leads Lucas to see the land as an image, a thing for human use, instead of a thing-in-itself. The real sea, by contrast, makes him ill.
In the middle of the film is a caesura. The priest is ill; he faints, falls silent, and hears all around him the birds, the volcano, the wind, the silence. We see an eel in the moss. Then we cut away. Now the camera is underwater, and we see the feet of two girls wading and digging for shellfish. The camera emerges to a scene wet with a soft light. The two girls nap. The awful sublimity of what came before is followed by a scene of such immense beauty that you cannot help but exhale in a shudder of pleasure. The girls are the daughters of the aforementioned Danish settler. Lucas has been saved and revived by Ragnar and has made it to his destination. He now has the gaunt look of an ascetic—hollow eyes and cheeks and a stare that seems to ask, “Is this heaven? Have I died?” Lucas’s physical journey has ended, but his spiritual struggle continues. He has failed to receive the miracles offered, and the tragedy implicit in the film’s second half is that the Icelanders, previously so taciturn and unwavering before the landscape and their daily tasks within it, fall as a result of the priest’s bringing the cross and his inability to submit to the demands of faith.
As he begins work on the church, signs emerge that he is not up to the task of priesthood. A wedding is to take place in the church while it’s under construction, but Lucas walks away, telling the settler that he will not bless the marriage in a half-built church. At the party afterward, Lucas is pressured to wrestle Ragnar in a friendly game that quickly turns desperately violent, revealing all the hatred and jealousy piled up between the two men, between Lucas and Iceland, Ragnar and Denmark.
Despite their mutual enmity, Ragnar makes two requests of Lucas: he wants to know how to become “a man of God,” and he wants to have his portrait taken. Lucas mocks his first request, haughtily pretending not to understand his Danish, before telling him: “You start by giving yourself. You have to give yourself…and follow his words, pray to him, listen.” “How do I listen?” Ragnar asks. Echoing Kierkegaard, Lucas replies: “It’s not just about hearing. It’s more of a feeling.” As the settler’s younger daughter translates, Lucas sits distractedly sealing a letter, refusing to look Ragnar in the eyes until the final line: “You must forget yourself and submit to God by serving him.” One gets the impression that Lucas himself is unsure of this advice, offering it less than sincerely as a way to deter Ragnar and inflate his own sense of importance.
We cut to a shot of the edifice of the church’s triangular roof under construction, a mountain towering over the beams. The church is a small, pitiful simulation of the mountain’s power, but when the roof is completed, the mountain will be invisible from this angle, subsumed by man’s work.
Ragnar’s second request is, predictably, his undoing. Ragnar approaches Lucas as he is packing up his camera gear on a seaside outcrop and asks him if, after all this traveling, he might have a portrait taken to bring home to his family. Lucas angrily refuses, finally making explicit the undercurrent of jealousy and condescension and disgust with which he has treated Ragnar throughout their journey. Ragnar is the living emblem of the nature that Lucas so detests, and so this final refusal is directed both at Ragnar and Iceland more broadly, a way of capitulating without losing any of the arrogance that made the capitulation inevitable. You—Ragnar, Iceland—Lucas seems to say, are not even worthy of my mastery. He viciously insults Ragnar, whose impassivity drives the priest further into his rage. When Ragnar admits to killing Lucas’s horse, Lucas attacks him, breaking his camera and murdering Ragnar by smashing his head into a rock. The camera brings death. Ragnar, the atavistic Icelander, has been undone by his desire for the cross and the camera, which have disrupted his relationship with the land and himself. Again, the colonial reading is unmissable: the colonizer brings ruin upon himself, but even more so upon the colonized. Lucas was already spiritually corrupt and stunted; he had only his body to lose. Ragnar had his soul as well.
After the destruction of the camera, Lucas is finally without means of creating or demanding proof. This is the second miracle. And yet he will not receive it. He returns to the settlement to preside at his first service at the newly opened church. The pews are full, Lucas is dressed in his vestments, and after a brief organ prelude, he begins. Or rather, he attempts to begin, but each time he starts to speak, he is interrupted by the crying of a baby or the barking of a dog, Ragnar’s dog, in fact. Lucas stumbles out of the church to silence the dog, a sign of his guilt, yes, but also a divine intervention. As he approaches the dog, he slips and falls, and his vestments and face are covered in a thick layer of mud. The earth mortifies and profanes him but also exhorts him: his clerical robes are a pale imitation of the very stuff of this world. This is a final test: he fails. He cannot fall silent, he remains against the land, against the world. The title of the film suggests that God and land are inextricable, but Lucas cannot live in that land. There is Godland—God as and within the natural world—and there is, for the priest, God-land—God contra land.
And so, when faith finally stares him in the face, when he is forced to abandon the camera, entreated to abandon the cross, to regard his sins, to fall silent before God, he flees. And for this he is punished, murdered by the settler on whose land the church was built. He is killed in revenge, it is implied, for his sexual relationship with the man’s older daughter, but also for his shameful weakness, and most of all for his belief in his ability to master nature and the divine alike. Just before fatally stabbing Lucas in the gut, the settler says, “I’m convinced that we are all very small and fleeting”—a truth Lucas could not abide. This is God’s final offering to the priest, the removal of all mediation: now he will see what, if anything, lies beyond.
Image: Elliott Crosset Hove in Godland. Hlynur Pálmason, director. Image courtesy of Janus Films.
Jake Romm is a writer based in Brooklyn and the associate editor of Protean. He can be reached on Twitter at @jake_romm.