Nietzchka Keene’s first film, entirely self-funded, is an elemental and poignant start to a sadly short career. Bjork’s participation in her debut film role would open Keene’s film up to a larger audience years after her death.
In medieval Iceland, Margit (Bjork) and Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) flee their home after their mother is burned as a witch. This leads them into the path of Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) and his young son Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar). The elder sister Katla pursues Jóhann for a husband, hoping to find some safety and security for herself and her sister, employing all her knowledge of magic to do so.
Shot in stark and at times oppressive black and white, the film follows the two women across an unforgiving but ruggedly beautiful landscape. Little houses on wind torn heaths are so very lonely, and black volcanic beaches are simultaneously filled with incredible magic and not quite knowable danger. The characters speak in English but with slight accents, wrong footing our sense of place slightly. Indeed the film is ambivalent in many ways; we are never given any hooks to secure in our mind a definite time, place or detailed history of the people involved. The result is a dream which has to be watched and accepted to absorb its meaning, rather than scrutinised.
The film’s treatment of magic is quite unique. Where there is often a temptation to frame the magic of women as wicked, or by turns awe inspiring, The Juniper Tree is doing something different. What we forget is that not so long ago magic was simply a system through which to view the world. It was a mechanism with which to manipulate our futures, in much the way we would employ science now. The film hits this note perfectly, encapsulating the reality of magic to humans of another age. Yet simultaneously it maintains the eerie reality of spirits, visions and powers of incantations through its drifting dream state.
Katla and Margit employ a number of folk magic techniques throughout the film. Most notably by Bjork’s character, a repetitive rhyming form of incantation. The director, Nietzchka Keene explained in an interview that these incantations were carefully constructed to reflect the rhymes present in the Icelandic Sagas. These word actions have an instant, improvised quality but this attention to structure means they mesh perfectly with the film’s backdrop and mood.
The film also has an interesting treatment of Christianity. Many of the characters actively use Christian prayer but this belief system sits in unusual harmony with other pagan practices, it is as though it has simply been assimilated as part of a larger holistic folk belief by the people practising it. This demonstrates another fascinating liminal space that the film is exploring, the grey area between paganism and the onset of Christianity.
We see both Margit and Jónas’ mothers in ghostly visions. In one notable scene Margit will ride past a woman in a glass coffin on the heath, but it doesn’t jut out at us like a nightmare – it is congruent with the fabric of the film and reality as it is being experienced by the characters. Is the magic real or is it imagined? Are the characters good people or evil? Is death really the end of all things? The Juniper Tree doesn’t strive to answer these questions in any definite terms. A relentless melancholy suffuses the whole, a constant feeling of loss that is hard to place. Perhaps it is simply the film’s meditation that all things are temporary, and humans throughout time have employed all sorts of beliefs and hopes to try and reason with that truth.
For me, the perfect summation of what The Juniper Tree achieves comes from another line from Elliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, not quoted in the fragment at the film’s onset. The famous poem weighs the difficulty of maintaining faith and is something of a memento mori.
“Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying”