Watching The Northman (A)Politically

Watching The Northman (A)Politically

The first time I heard someone suggest that artists should not have the urge to “think politically” when creating their work it was Oliver Stone responding to the notion that his 1994 film Natural Born Killers was irresponsible. The fear persisted that the film, a critique of mass consumer and media culture, could be treated literally by some fans and that copycat murders could emerge from those hoping to act out the painfully cool violence of Mickey and Mallory Knox. This was not entirely unfounded: this kind of thing haunted movies like A Clockwork Orange and led to its banning in Britain. The argument in defense of both films is that they are certainly not celebrating that violence, they are critiquing it in fact, but that fact does little to dissuade those who were inspired by the film to engage in their own acts of violence.

The point Stone was making was that an audience’s reaction is apart from the artist’s creation, and that the artist’s primary role is to be authentic to their vision and, through that commitment, create something thoroughly important and transcendent. His work on Natural Born Killers could not exist if he worried about tempering the images for fear of what someone could do with them; those extreme images were important to the emotive, frenetic experience he hoped to generate.

The question of audience reaction has been a centerpiece of the discourse around Robert Eggars’ new film The Norseman, which is a hyperreal (and hyper violent) nordic fable where a viking gets revenge on the chieftain who murdered his father and tried to dispatch himself as well. With viking and norse mythology being co-opted so completely by white nationalists, the question has emerged as to whether this movie should be seen as a potentially racist film or, even if not, that it will add fuel to the white nationalist fire.

As The Guardian reported as the film was released, there are plenty of fascists who are already claiming the film as their own. White nationalist Red Ice Media figure Lana Lokteff said “Scandinavians, White European people, do own Viking history/culture/mythology and no Europhobic lies,  propaganda and 'diversity' hires will change that.” Richard Spencer suggested that the movie was perhaps a “right-wing epic,” hailing it on his podcast.

Eggers is a substantial new filmmaker who has created a heavily stylized brand of tragic, anti-sentimental romanticism: there is a deeply unsettled atmosphere and moral conclusions, but still whipped up in myths, rumors, and mystical musings. With The Northman he was essentially giving the same treatment he did with the folktales that became The Witch, but in this case nordic mythology is divisive, contested ground.

Writing about white nationalism and nordic paganism has been a center of my work, both of my last books Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End it and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse discuss this, as do at least a dozen other articles. The fascist use of nordic paganism goes back as early as movements exist we would call fascist, using them as a way of reviving a kind of essentialized, mythic vision of a white warrior culture. Based on the writing’s of Carl Jung, particularly his essay “Wotan” where he suggested the Nazis were the revival of a pagan aryan archetypal god, racist nordic paganism is the idea that the ancient nordic myths belong to the psyche and genetic memory of people of “Northern European descent.” What is often referred to as “folkish heathenry,” they argue that this religion acts as a kind of aryan branded collective unconscious and that they must revive their natural ethnic religion. This ranges from folkish heathens who write in academic sounding journals and make meta-genetic arguments, such as the Journal of Heathen Studies or Runa, founded by ur-fascist mystic and musician Michael Moynihan, all the way to the violent neo-Nazis who brand their religion as “Wotanism” (since Wotan is an acronym for Will of the Aryan Nations). Nordic paganism has been a dominant thread in white nationalism, often used as a cultural signifier even for those who do not take it as a form of spirituality. Medievalism had a similar model, as 19th century romantic nationalists began to rebuild the history to exclude the actual cross-cultural movement and synthesis that actually occurred in the Middle Ages and replace it with a fantasy about racial homogeneity.

As antiracist medieval scholars like Dorothy Kim have noted, this is not due to an accurate reading of viking history. As with all fascist movements, they are calling to a mythic past that never really existed: in this case a white nation fighting for hegemony and against alien invaders. The religion is used as a way of defining their history as transcendent, and European New Right figure Alain de Benoist (who has been essential to the development of the alt-right and the identitarian movement in Europe) offered paganism as a method for reclaiming identity and building an alternative to modern cosmopolitan mass culture. The medieval period is something that fascists often try to stake their claim to, which they present as mono-racial, built on patriarchal codes of chivalry, and embedded with a natural elite in the form of the aristocracy. This is, to put it lightly, a manufactured view of the actual history, projecting backwards the violent fantasies they wished to make a reality. Both of these, the historiography and the religion, spun the history through their ideology, refracting truth into racist fantasy.

The defense of The Northman will likely be behind its “apolitical” intent, but that is a piece of the problem. “Apoliteic” is the model of  “meta-politics” introduced by figures like fascist “traditionalist” Julius Evola and the European New Right, who focus on radicalizing culture with certain values rather than practical community or political organizing. When white nationalists offer acclaim to the movie it is not because they think it is fascist agitprop, it is because they think it inculcates the audience with their values. This takes the agency away from the filmmaker to a point because it defines its success by reactions rather than intent, and if fascists can use it in their meta-political war then they can claim the point.

In the same books as I wrote about white nationalism and medievalism and nordic paganism, I wrote about people resisting it. For example, Heathens United Against Racism are a group of people who likewise worship the norse gods, but are anti-racist in orientation and believe this tradition should be open to all people regardless of ethnic or cultural background. The majority of people practicing norse heathenry are appalled by the racists in their midst, which has been evidenced by the large majority of them booting our “folkish” groups like the Asatru Folk Assembly from all heathen confederations.

You cannot reduce a religious tradition, a historical interest, a musical genre, or anything of the sort simply to those who want to exploit it for their destructive politics. Just as there are racists erecting statues of Odin, there are those with banners of Thor trying to fight back the racist mob. The neofolk genre is so thoroughly filled with white nationalists that many people considered it a lost musical form, until groups of antiracist, antifascist, and often queer-led bands decided to fight them out. (This led to my webzine A Blaze Ansuz, where I interview antifascist neofolk bands.) This is what we call a “contested space,” where racists stake their claim and others in that space refuse to allow their hegemony. This is a battle of meta-politics, one where we refuse to let fascists have any ground whatsoever.

But this battle requires us to never make the assumption that something simply belongs to the fascists, particularly when it comes to history, religion, or art. To differentiate we have to get to the heart of what the fascist viking fantasies actually are, rather than just the surface level aesthetics. White nationalists are obsessed with this concept in the nordic paganry of Innangardh and Utangardh, which translates roughly to “inner tribe” and “outsider.” The Innangardh they imagine as their kin, their ethnic tribal fantasy, and Utangardh are non-kin to be defended against. Just as with all fascist concepts, this is an invention, not how those terms were historically understood, but this is how they transmute them. Since nordic gods were seen as related to the people who worshiped them, their ancestors, they see this all in identitarian terms: groups fighting against others for preservation of their peoplehood. So this tends to be the defining feature of a white nationalist re-interpretation of heathenry or vikings, and is usually a story about fighting back an invader who looks unlike themselves.

The best example of this is not from nordic paganism, but a related type of hyper-romantic pagan re-imagining. The movie 300 positions the noble spartans against a non-white invading army, who has alien and evil customs and must be destroyed if their integrity as a people is to be protected. The movie was based on a comic by Frank Miller, who at the time had become an obsessive post-9/11 Islamophobe and whose comic is complete with incredibly racist depictions of non-white people entering Europe from the South. Zach Snyder, who directed the movie, promised that he had no political motive in creating it, and while we have no reason to believe he is lying, the politics of the movie are laid bare.

In that case, thinking politically may have been a necessity as the movie fueled Golden Dawn in Greece as they accelerated the organization's anti-refugee campaigns. The question is less than if Snyder intended to make a racist parable since his source material clearly did. In the case of Eggers, The Northman does not go this direction, and instead creates a fable about how generational trauma, and particularly its reflections in toxic masculinity, can keep us trapped in a world of violence and suffering.

Eggers was clearly concerned over whether or not white nationalists would take his work as inspiration, though not concerned enough to change the trajectory of the film. It would be safe to say that the movie does not reflect most of the tropes that are associated with fascist versions of viking revivalism, such as “defending the borders,” and instead tries to use the characters as archetypes in a moral study. The film is, however, hardly a piece of historically accurate depictions, and instead takes all of the most wild and lurid rumors about viking history and weaves them together as an opportunistic piece of sensationalism. That may not even be a criticism: the film is engaging in this way, if being more based on fiction than history. It brought to mind Brian Wood’s Northlanders comic book series, particularly the story arc named “Metal” which told a revenge story of its own and revived the simplistic, though emotionally volatile, use of viking imagery in black metal. This brings its own kind of baggage, so it's up to the artist to figure out how to use the material responsibly.

In the case of viking and nordic history, the creators are holding a loaded weapon. They may not want to think politically since they don’t feel responsible for what racists do with their materials. But our current situation is what it is: those people are there and looking for inspiration. This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be allowed a viking epic, they can be as fun as the rest, but it does mean that the idea that Eggers doesn’t have to “think politically” is not entirely viable.

The question of audience reaction may not even be a political one, but one of efficacy. When Fight Club came out and became a cult sensation, there were toxic reactions to it that persist today as men try to live out their Tyler Durden fantasies of uninhibited and iconoclastic masculinity. But the film itself brought those elements into critique, just as the book did, so, as many defenders said, joke’s on the men who take it wrong: they are the object of critique, not its proliferators. The problem is, as Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, most audience goers were not going to have an erudite conversation about gender roles and consumerism: they instead were going to get in a fight. This was, in part, on the artists who made these pieces, they had not created a critique that could be accessed by the audience as a critique. Instead, it was read by so many as advocacy. So the question remains: is the movie even successful? If so many people get it so wrong, what has it accomplished?

The Northman is not a masterpiece, largely because in its efforts to tell a story of archetypes and grand myths, it fails to deliver characters, subtlety and moral nuance. A better movie can weave in these layers to the larger fairy tale, and instead Eggers opts for the fantastical rather than the personal. That’s not to say it isn’t successful in part of what it accomplishes, but whether or not it has really hit the mark its director seems to intend for it will depend, in part, on the reactions from audiences. If white nationalists and “men’s rights” advocates around the world are claiming it for their own, are reading vast narratives into it, then did the film actually offer the critique the director seems to believe the film stands as? Did it work?

Just as we should never assume that a movie like The Northman belongs to white nationalists, and it does not seem to reflect those politics, we can still set expectations for those playing with fire. Thinking a little bit politically can help, at least to be a more clear and concise filmmaker. If you want to discuss the trauma we are all processing through, then ensuring that your film cannot be used to inspire further trauma is a good start.