Content Warning: Depictions of death, specifically: child death. Cannibalism, misogyny and grief are also described.
This article contains spoilers.
Although fairytales may solely exist within the nebulous realm of mythology, they can have a tremendous power over both the material world and our personal lives. Throughout history, fairytales have acted as stories that emphasize reassurance in grief, our shadow selves, the endurance of innocence, and the unfairness which can and does define life. Themes such as power, transformation and resurrection are frequently found among the miserable, evil, and unjust, often portrayed in juxtaposition.
The Juniper Tree is a film (written and directed by Nietzchka Keene), which captures the complicated spirit of the fairytale by which it’s based. Moments of magnificence and beauty are present in both the source material and the film, however, that never cancels out or transcends the proximity of the nightmare. The Juniper Tree not only entertains the worst thoughts and urges humans can have but pursues and showcases them in harrowing and heartbreaking cinematic quality. This is not a film for the sensitive or fainthearted and I would not encourage people who fit such sentiments to watch or seek it out. I do wish to highlight and analyze the challenging questions that arise upon viewing The Juniper Tree, concerning topics such as: motherhood, innocence, the perceived ideas of “dangerous” femininity as it corresponds to misogyny, magic seen as an expression of the “dangerous” feminine, and magic as a response to oppression, exploring the “divine” feminine.
The Juniper Tree observes two sisters, Margit (Björk Guðmundsdóttir) and Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir), exiled from their home following the untimely death and murder of their mother (Guðrún Gísladóttir), burned for witchcraft. The displacement they experience (in the world as well as within themselves) as they wander the backdrop of Iceland becomes evident as they only have each other and their magic: the history they carry, remember and practice.
Margit copes by questioning why the events unfolded as they did, while Katla manifests a lover, and new beginnings. Katla’s magic can be seen as either dangerous and selfish, or as her reclaiming autonomy in a world that does not love her. Margit (Björk) represents the innocent, naive side of femininity, while Katla counteracts as the ‘dangerous’ feminine. Of course, femininity is so much more complex and diverse than any of these tropes would suggest, infinitesimal in variation and more difficult to define than western society would have us believe. The Juniper Tree highlights our preconceived notions and biases of femininity and challenges them through difficult subjects.
Katla’s spells and manifestations soon bring her the weary traveler Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring) who is widowed. He falls under her spells and subliminal suggestions, succumbed to her “womanly” ways. Her seduction has worked; he soon invites the two sisters to live with him and his son, Jónas (Geirlaug Sunna Þormar) from his former partnership.
Katla finds love and affection in her relationship with Jóhann, but perhaps most importantly: a means to escape the violence and death characteristic of the past her mother lived and died in. Jóhann may also find love through Katla, yet he seems more interested in the warmth of the body beside him at night, in the distraction from loneliness. It is not a relationship founded on any sustainable interpersonal processes. Katla, for all of her foresight and abilities is unable to recognize this, and finds an enemy in his son who despises her. She comes to resent Jónas, but Margit makes a friend in him, bonding over their innate naïveté.
Margit has visions in which she sees her mother, beckoning to her, smiling atop a cliff, silhouetted against the night. A sense of generational pain, hardship and fulfillment is realized in her mother welcoming her, bestowing secrets that only the dead know. Is it truly her spirit or the imagination of a woman grieving? When Katla sees these spells and how they affect Margit (who stands frozen, her eyes widened), she interrogates her sister. Margit loses recollection soon after, becoming disoriented.
While under the influence of this curious child Margit begins to remember her visions and find solace in the illusory image of the mother who comes to her. She discovers the enormity of her magic, within it the ability to salve pain and trauma.
Scenes that take place at twilight: her mother with a void in her chest (like the tremendous gravity of a black hole) smiling and full of love, Margit’s hand disappearing into the darkness, swallowed by this space where a heart once was. In another scene, Margit takes Jónas to meet her mother who sings him to sleep and tells him stories; he may feel the presence of Margit’s mother but insists that he cannot see her, there’s no one there. Jónas’ mother appears to him occasionally, however, as a raven, he and Margit both have the notion of being protected beyond life and death, a beautiful comfort.
These supernatural moments in the film are chilling, awe-inspiring but overall more difficult to decipher. What does this symbology mean? Within the visual language of film, we are welcome to suspend disbelief and become immersed within the rich folklore of the narrative. Fairytales explored through cinematography are that much more effective: we are seeing the impossible and the unimaginable before our very eyes, illustrated frame by frame.
Magic distinctly belongs to the women in the film, a balm to heal the wounds and brutality inflicted by men. It’s also a divination tool used to pass or abuse time. In Katla’s case, vengeance is her driving motivation when it comes to the son she will never claim. Ultimately, magic or not, what would follow would be the action of her own free will.
She becomes pregnant with Jóhann’s child, and starts acting with more hostility towards Jónas. He is the unwanted factor in the equation, the object keeping her from her happiness. Jóhann seems to want to keep the peace, not eager to side with his lover over his child. This sparks an insatiable jealousy and fire within Katla. Meanwhile Jónas is convinced his evil new mother is a ‘witch.’ The situation continues to escalate until it reaches a horrifying climax: while Jóhann is away, Katla lures Jónas to a cliff where she convinces him to descend to his death. He dies thinking he’ll be protected by his mother, by the birds and the fantasy that if anything were to endanger him, he could fly away to safety, paradise. The last glorious imagining of a vulnerable child who deserved this sanctuary, yet received abandonment, coldness and death. The gruesome act performed by a woman who was not a stranger to violence but would partake in the most unforgivable violence.
The aspect that makes both the original Brothers Grimms’ story and The Juniper Tree immortal is the ending, as it often is in fairytales. Margit realizes the reprehensible act, overcome with tears and grief during a disturbing ritual where Katla feeds Jóhann his own son, Jónas’ limbs boiled in a stew. Cut to an image of Jónas underwater, layered with the enchanting and primal voice of Björk. After Margit visits the grave she knows Jónas’ mother to be buried in, a juniper tree has sprouted overnight, a raven resting among its branches. She runs to Jóhann to explain that a raven is singing to Jónas, that her sister did not mean to harm his son. Katla runs away as her final act of self-preservation.
Margit recites a poem for Jónas:
Once there was a boy, Whose mother was a bird, She loved him very much, But she could not stay among people, And one day she returned, To the land of the birds. The boy's father grew used to her being gone, But her little son wept so much, That finally she heard him from far away, And flew back to comfort him, "I will take you with me" she said, "And teach you what I know. But you cannot stay among the birds, And must return to take care of your father." And when the boy came back From the land of the birds, His father did not know him. His skin had changed and become feathers, And his fingers had turned into wings, And he knew what the birds know.
Her monologue is a respite from death and the cruelty of the world. Hearing the heartbreaking birdsong and reinterpreting it through her voice, she partakes in an ancient incantation manifesting a world where humanity and nature can coexist, innocence does not corrupt, where women are not hunted in a patriarchal society. Her longing is so noble, so blameless. The stark reality of The Juniper Tree is always aligned with a hopefulness and optimism, albeit sometimes the latter feels unfounded or hard-earned.
One does not need to understand the dynamics of Medieval Europe or Scandinavia to comprehend or sympathize with the characters of the film and their ongoing plight. The timelessness and endurance of the film is established through challenging narratives that we have been fascinated by since antiquity. The evil stepmother of lore is turned survivor, the demure mystic has so much more depth and versatility, but ultimately her magic does not save those needed to be saved.
In analyzing Katla, notions of “motherhood” and “motherly” traits are confronted. The idea that every woman has an ability to suddenly become a mother, regardless of the trauma they’ve faced throughout their lives is a rather unnecessary and harmful position to believe, yet one frequently espoused by our society. Women should have the freedom and safety to decide such things for themselves, to not feel the lure of the domesticated life if this is simply not meant for them. Katla did not have those freedoms but she did have self control: from victimhood to perpetrator, from survivor to murderess. Regardless of magic and the threat of abuse and violence which threatened her, she perpetuated love, hurt, pain from the strength of her own free will.
The exploration of the ‘dangerous’ feminine is also that of action. The seductress, the unwanted mother, the murderous mystique of the femme fatale are all tropes of a woman following her desire, as narcissistic, self-preserving or selfish that can be. Women have rarely been given the space to embody those traits without it being questioned or portrayed as inherently immoral. The fact is: women committing atrocities by their own want is simply just as damaging as when a man does the same. For there to be equality, there must be equal accountability as well as an understanding of where the oppressed are coming from.
By resisting oppression, both Katla and Margit engaged with the permeant quality of the ‘divine’ feminine. Margit was attuned to the lasting spirit of their mother, Katla became a mother, though not the one she hoped to be and certainly not the one Jónas yearned for. Margit and Katla were familiar with the language of grief and loss, reclaiming their power through various ways, coalescing into unforgettable tragic events. A life defined by tragedy is often followed by tragedy without end, if not in the initial sufferer than in those in the vicinity, always begetting itself. Is Katla responsible for her condemnable act? Yes, of course. The world that made her, however, is partially responsible as well.
The divine feminine investigates nature; femininity as it is (including all the variations and complexity which define it) while combating the exploitation and mistreatment of feminine people in both the ancient and modern world. It is an answer but not a solution. It is a salve but not a cure.
In The Juniper Tree, magic never transports the characters to a more endurable reality, it does not transcend or save. Magic is merely a means to embrace our own free will, to cope with the unbearable and imagine a better world. Isn’t that the power of language and the persisting narratives and folklore deep-rooted in our culture and subconscious? Through her film, which would be one of the few legacies she left behind (suffering an early death) Nietzchka Keene does it justice. Seen through her lens, she presents the immemorial and the perishable; not only within the cycle of life but within the communities we find ourselves in. The perishable is simply an opportunity for growth and renewal, beckoning new structures, societies and selves.