Norse code: are white supremacists reading too much into The Northman?

Robert Eggers’ Viking blockbuster has already been hailed by white nationalists keen to exploit European mythology. Can Hollywood tell historical tales without unwittingly appealing to toxic ideologies?

At the London premiere of The Northman in early April, the director, Robert Eggers, explained on stage how he was seeking to reclaim Viking history from rightwing groups. Many of these groups thrive on myths of an imagined European past: a time before racial mixing or progressive politics, when men were mighty warriors and women were compliant child-bearers.

As Eggers told the Observer recently, such associations almost put him off making The Northman. “The macho stereotype of that history, along with, you know, the rightwing misappropriation of Viking culture, made me sort of allergic to it, and I just never wanted to go there.” Eggers has spoken of his scholarly research and commitment to getting Viking history right, down to the smallest details. But as rigorous and accomplished as The Northman is, it might in fact be the kind of movie the “alt-right” loves.

Robert Eggers at the Los Angeles premiere of The Northman
Robert Eggers at the Los Angeles premiere of the film this month. Photograph: NurPhoto; Rex/Shutterstock

The Northman’s 10th-century society appears to be uniformly white and firmly divided along patriarchal lines. Men do the ruling and killing; women do the scheming and baby-making. Its hero, played by Alexander Skarsgård, is not a million miles from the “macho stereotype” Eggers complained of – a brawny warrior who settles most disputes with a sword and without a shirt. Skarsgård’s love interest, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, could be the far-right male’s dream woman: beautiful, fair-haired, loyal to her man and committed to bearing his offspring. Even before the film’s release, far-right voices were giving their approval on the anonymous message board site 4chan: “Northman is a based [agreeable] movie, all white cast and shows pure raw masculinity.” “Robert Eggers. He is restoring pride in our people with his great films. The Northman is going to be epic… Hail Odin.”

On the face of it, some images of Skarsgård in The Northman – bare-chested, pumped-up with battle rage, wearing a wolf’s pelt as headgear – are uncomfortably close to those of Jake Angeli, AKA the “QAnon Shaman”, the abiding mascot of the 6 January assault on the US Capitol. On that day in Washington, Angeli was similarly topless and animal-adorned, his torso bearing tattoos of Nordic symbols now associated with white-supremacist movements, including a stylised Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer), Ygdrasil (the “world tree” of Norse mythology) and the Valknut (an ancient symbol of interlocking triangles).

The far right’s love of Nordic lore goes back to the Third Reich and beyond, – and the connection is stronger than ever. The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 was full of Nordic symbols on banners and shields. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who murdered 77 people in 2011, carved the names of Norse gods into his guns. The shooter at the 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, drew Norse insignia on his possessions and wrote “see you in Valhalla” on his Facebook page.

Jake Angeli inside the US Senate chamber on 6 January 2021
‘QAnon Shaman’ … Jake Angeli inside the US Senate chamber on 6 January 2021. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Eggers would doubtless be horrified to be associated with such movements, but The Northman illustrates how cinema can be misappropriated in ways its makers never intended. In the past two decades, the entire cultural landscape – and films about European history in particular – has been weaponised and politicised by the far right.

A guide to the far-right mindset was created on Stormfront, the notorious white-nationalist site, in 2001. A contributor named Yggdrasil (there is that Norse mythology again) began a thread on “content that we can watch repeatedly”, laying out guidelines and making and soliciting suggestions. The thread now runs to 154 pages.

Yggdrasil’s criteria for what qualifies as a good white-nationalist film include: “Positive portrayal of whites in defense against the depredations of liberalism, crime, and attack by alien races”; “Positive portrayal of heterosexual relationships and sex, marriage, procreation and child rearing”; “Portrayals of white males as intelligent, sensitive and strong – in positive leadership roles and or romantic leads”; and “Particularly intense portrayals of white female beauty, in non-degrading roles”. Disqualifying themes include homosexuality, racial mixing, negative portrayals of Christianity and portrayals of white people as inferior.

The Northman pretty much ticks all these boxes, but then so do many other movies. Indeed, if you are looking for a Hollywood movie to support white-supremacist beliefs, you don’t have to look very far.

Orcs as featured in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Dark-skinned, ugly and uncivilised … orcs in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Photograph: New Line Cinema/Allstar

Some of Stormfront’s film recommendations are predictable: The Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will, Braveheart, Zulu, a lot of Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Clint Eastwood. Few will be surprised to see The Lord of the Rings movies come highly recommended. Neither JRR Tolkien nor Peter Jackson consciously framed the fantasy epic as white-nationalist propaganda, but, as with Nordic mythology, it harks back to an imaginary Eurocentric realm in which the heroes are considered to be white-skinned (and were cast as such in the movies) and the chief enemies, the orcs, are characterised as dark-skinned, ugly and uncivilised.

Derek Black, the son of Stormfront’s founder, Don Black (a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader), even started a dedicated Lord of the Rings section on the website as a teenager. “I figured you could probably get people who liked such a super-white mythos – a few of them are probably gonna be turned on by white nationalism,” he told the New York Times in 2017 (Black renounced his white-nationalist beliefs in 2013).

More recent medieval sagas have been venerated by the far right for similar reasons. Game of Thrones, for example, also set up a dynamic of white, northern Europeans battling darker-skinned nomadic barbarians (the Dothraki), who come to be led by a pale-skinned, fair-haired woman. The far right heartily approved of Zack Snyder’s action epic 300, in which heroic, muscular, barely clothed Spartan warriors bravely repel an invading army of Persians. The contrast between these manly action heroes and the anonymous keyboard warriors who idolise them is difficult to ignore.

Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill
Far-right favourite? Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Photograph: Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Allstar

Other recommendations on Stormfront’s list are more surprising, such as Notting Hill. Few would have marked the Richard Curtis romcom as a key white-nationalist text, even if it was criticised at the time for excluding people of colour from its multicultural London neighbourhood. But, from the perspective of a white-nationalist blogger, Notting Hill is a story “in which the white victims of culture destruction … manage to extricate themselves and find happiness”.

In recent years, the far right has been more strident about movies it doesn’t like, which is almost everything. On social media and chatrooms such as 4chan and Reddit, far-right posters – overwhelmingly white and male – vilify Hollywood output, usually for being too inclusive, progressive or “woke”. Targets have included the all-female remake of Ghostbusters, the new Star Wars movies, Doctor Who and the Marvel films. As well as criticising, the far right has mounted coordinated attacks to lower these movies’ scores on reviews sites such as Rotten Tomatoes.

“There’s a definite element of: ‘The movies that we loved when we were kids are not as good any more,’ which is partly because you’re not a kid,” says Alan Finlayson, a professor of political and social theory at the University of East Anglia. He led a three-year research project on the far right and its use of digital platforms. From its point of view, says Finlayson, western culture is being continually corrupted, usually by an ill-defined power base (Jewish people, Marxists, liberals). “The paradox of these kind of groups is that, on the one hand, they are claiming they’re deeply attached to western culture and civilisation, but they also hate western culture and civilisation, because it’s awful and decadent and liberal. So they’ve got to kind of maintain these two things at the same time.”

Harry Potter is an example of that, says Finlayson’s colleague Rob Topinka, a senior lecturer at of Birkbeck, University of London. “Referring to Harry Potter fandom is a shorthand way of saying ‘mainstream liberal women’ and their kind of political thinking. But, at the same time, they call people who have been vaccinated ‘mudbloods’ and adopt the name ‘pureblood’ for themselves. So a lot of this is incoherent.”

The far right also engages in more in-depth forms of movie commentary, via YouTube videos and podcasts. Far-right figureheads Richard Spencer and Mark Brahmin host a podcast that conducts 90-minute analyses of movies such as Tenet, GoldenEye and Midsommar, parsing their supposedly hidden meanings, often through a male-chauvinist and antisemitic lens. Midsommar, which deals with Scandinavian folklore in the present day, did not go down well. Brahmin described it as “a deep insult against our people”.

The women-led 2016 remake of Ghostbusters, starring Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon.
Targeted … the women-led 2016 remake of Ghostbusters, starring Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon. Photograph: Hopper Stone/Columbia Pictures/Allstar

We could see these activities simply as extreme forms of film criticism, but Josh Vandiver, a lecturer at Ball State University in Indiana who studies rightwing appropriations of popular culture, prefers to describe them as metapolitics. “If politics is the occupation of territory, metapolitics is the occupation of culture,” he says. “They are, at some level, creating a community. They comment upon films; they try to interpret them. That’s what they do together, at least publicly. And we could contrast that to more traditional forms of political organising that the far right for decades has not seen itself as able to do: marching in the streets or organising political parties. So, instead, they spend all this time on metapolitics.”

It would be easy to blame the far right alone for this situation, but it has been given plenty to work with by Hollywood and academia. By and large, films – and the histories from which they draw – have been overwhelmingly controlled by people of white, European descent, whose own blind spots might well play into the far right’s hands. Especially when it comes to matters of race.

After the Charlottesville rally in 2017, Dorothy Kim, an Asian American medieval literature lecturer at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, argued that “medieval studies is intimately entwined with white supremacy and has been so for a long time”. Academics had not done enough to counter myths that medieval Europe was a bastion of racial purity, said Kim, who was attacked by academics and the far right as a result. These myths were largely established by 19th-century historians with nationalist agendas, but more recent research reveals that societies such as those in Viking-era Scandinavia were in fact multicultural and multiracial.

Dev Patel in 2020’s The Green Knight.
Reinvigorating Arthur … Dev Patel in 2020’s The Green Knight. Photograph: A24/Allstar

These people were travellers. They ranged far across Europe and the Arctic and they engaged and mixed with neighbouring cultures. While they were highly gendered societies, a recent Finnish study also found evidence of “gender-transgressing or gender-mixing practices, often of an openly sexual quality”, among such societies. Eggers himself pointed to recent DNA analysis of the remains of a high-ranking Viking warrior found in Sweden, which identified them as female. (Apparently, she is briefly included in The Northman, but viewers may struggle to spot her.)

The far right’s love of medievalism was never about historical accuracy, says Kim; it was always about constructing narratives. “Invoking the medieval past has now become a more generalised sign of the alt-right,” she says, pointing to recent far-right terrorists and their scattershot allusions to Nordic lore. “The point is not the specifics of the historical detail or what certain medieval things may mean to certain subgroups. Instead, the point is to gather them all for the maximum amount of attention, to plant as many flags to say: ‘I am a white supremacist,’ and to activate other white-supremacist terrorists globally.”

When it comes to movies such as The Northman, considerations of accuracy or research are red herrings, Kim says. Ultimately, these are creative choices. “What I am interested in is how to make their vision of the medieval past and, in this case, the medieval Scandinavian past, not some sort of catnip for white supremacists to use for future violent attacks.”

Is such a goal achievable? Hollywood can create counternarratives without betraying the history or mythology. Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, has made a point of casting non-white actors to play elves and dwarves. Going slightly deeper, David Lowery’s atmospheric The Green Knight, released last year, reinvigorated Arthurian legend – a space as traditionally all-white as Viking history – by casting the British-Asian actor Dev Patel as Gawain. (To his credit, Guy Ritchie did something similar, albeit to less acclaim, in his multicultural King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.)

‘The far right is going to hate it’ … watch the trailer for Thor: Love and Thunder.

In terms of Norse mythology, look at Marvel’s handling of its Thor movies. Kenneth Branagh’s opening instalment was attacked in 2011 for casting Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall. As Elba said at the time: “Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?” White-supremacist groups attempted to organise a boycott of Thor, but it had no significant impact on the movie’s box office takings.

Taika Waititi, who is of Māori and Jewish descent, took things even further with part three, Thor: Ragnarok. As well as casting Tessa Thompson, a woman of mixed African, Latino and European heritage as the ostensibly bisexual Norse warrior Valkyrie, Waititi’s film dealt with narratives of displacement, enslavement, colonialism and white-male fragility. Thor’s all-powerful hammer, Mjolnir, that beloved symbol of white supremacism, is casually disintegrated by Cate Blanchett’s Hela. She then proceeds to bring down the Norse realm of Asgard, figuratively and literally.

“Look at these lies,” she says, stripping away a ceiling fresco to reveal an older one beneath, detailing how her father, Odin, built Asgard through violent conquest. “Proud to have it, ashamed of how he got it.” Judging by the trailer for the next instalment, Thor: Love and Thunder, Waititi is continuing down this road. There are hints of homoeroticism, while somehow Natalie Portman now wields Mjolnir. The far right is going to hate it.

In an ideal world, film-makers wouldn’t have to give a moment’s thought to how their films might be co-opted by these groups; we could simply enjoy a movie such as The Northman as a piece of rousing, skilfully made entertainment. The fact that it is no longer possible to do so could be seen as a victory of sorts for the far right, but failing to consider the stories we tell from first principles could be part of the problem that created them in the first place. By this stage, in fact, film-makers ought to have realised that if the far right doesn’t hate your film, you might be doing something wrong.

• This article was amended on 22 April 2022 to clarify details about the heritages of Tessa Thompson and Dev Patel, the latter of whom was born in the UK, not India.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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