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 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 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 and 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 femininity’s innocent, naive side, 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 challenging subjects.
Katla’s spells and manifestations soon bring her a widow, the weary traveler Jóhann (Valdimar Örn Flygenring). He falls under her spells and subliminal suggestions, succumbs 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. Still, 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 her foresight, is unable to recognize this, finding 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. Generational pain, hardship, and fulfillment are symbolized in her mother welcoming her, bestowing secrets 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.
Under the influence of this curious child, Margit begins to remember her visions. She finds solace in the illusory image of the mother approaching her. She discovers the enormity of her magic, within it the ability to salve trauma and suffering.
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 as a raven. He and Margit both have the notion of being protected beyond life and death, a beautiful comfort.
Within the visual language of cinema, we are welcome to suspend disbelief and become immersed within the rich folklore of the narrative. Fairytales explored through cinematography are much more effective: we see 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 for 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 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 is 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 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 hopefulness and optimism, albeit sometimes the latter feels unfounded or hard-earned.
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 can 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, not to feel the lure of the domesticated life if this is not meant for them.
Katla did not have those freedoms, but she had self-control: from victimhood to perpetrator, 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 are rarely given the space to embody those traits without being questioned or portrayed as inherently immoral. The fact is: women committing atrocities by their want is simply just as damaging as when a man does the same. For there to be equality, there must be equal accountability.
By resisting oppression, both Katla and Margit engaged with the quality of the ‘divine feminine. Margit was attuned to the eternal spirit of their mother; Katla became a mother, though not the one she hoped to be and certainly not the one Jónas yearned for or needed. 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 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 the natural world and femininity (including all the variations and complexity that define it) while combating the exploitation and mistreatment of feminine people in both the ancient and modern world.
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, cope with the unbearable and imagine a better world. Isn’t that the power of language and the persisting narratives 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 communities we find ourselves in but within the cycle of life. The perishable is simply an opportunity for growth and renewal, beckoning new structures, societies, and selves.