10 great Icelandic films

Deadpan sheep-farmer drama Rams, a prizewinner at Cannes 2015, is the latest proof of the vitality of modern Icelandic cinema. Here are 10 more recent greats from the land of fire and ice.

Sarah Lutton
Updated:

Rams (2014)

Rams (2014)

One of the most beautifully composed and affecting Icelandic films of recent years, Rams has deadpan humour, humility, stunning landscapes, sheep and snow… lots of sheep and lots of snow.

It’s the story of two aged sheep-farming brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who have each reared highly successful herds over time. Emotions run silent but deep between them; they have not spoken to one another in over 40 years, and the communication they do have is either wordless or via notes carried between them by a trusty sheepdog. Although Gummi is affable enough with his fellow farmers, it’s apparent that for the timeworn brothers their greatest love is for their flocks. And, when a case of the highly infectious disease scrapie is diagnosed in the area, catastrophe looms.

Writer-director Grímur Hákonarson’s beautifully crafted tale explores the vital relationship between landscape, cultivation and the vicissitudes of the sometimes brutal Icelandic weather, gloriously captured with widescreen cinematography that conveys a feeling of great stillness.

Although films have been made in Iceland since the early days of the silent era, the indigenous film industry was relatively slow to develop, especially when compared with other Nordic countries. One of the first silent feature films to be shot in Iceland was You and I (1918), a mountain-set romantic drama directed by renowned Swedish filmmaker Victor Sjöström. The first film directed by an Icelander in Iceland followed in 1924 (playwright Guðmundur Kamban’s Hadda Padda), though the first ‘officially’ recognised Icelandic feature wasn’t until 1949’s Between Mountain and Shore, a true-life drama of star-crossed lovers written and directed by Loftur Guðmundsson.

Film production continued to grow slowly over the following years, but it was with the establishment of the government-supported Icelandic Film Fund (IFF) in 1978 that the national film industry really began to become established. The next year saw three entirely Icelandic films go into production, and in January 1980 the first of them, Ágúst Gudmundsson’s Land and Sons, had its premiere. From the 1980s onwards, critics and international audiences began to take greater note of Icelandic films, and the fledgling but outward-facing Icelandic industry forged ever-stronger working relationships with international financing and co-production partners. 1992 marked another highpoint, when Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s Children of Nature received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Economic challenges and a reincarnation of the IFF saw the establishment of the Icelandic Film Centre in 2003. Icelandic cinema continues to grow in stature and diversity, with filmmakers such as Baltasar Kormákur, Dagur Kári, Valdís Óskarsdóttir, Ragnar Bragason, Rúnar Rúnarsson and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson garnering international recognition for their work. Iceland’s iconic and strange landscapes also remain popular with film and television crews. Recent productions shot in Iceland include TV’s Game of Thrones, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and Interstellar (2014).

Children of Nature (1991)

Director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson

Children of Nature (1991)

Thorgeir has grown too old to look after himself and his farm. He is less than welcome at his daughter and son-in-law’s urban apartment, and ends up dumped in a stultifying home for the elderly in Reykjavik. There he meets Stella, an old flame from his youth. The pull of the country is strong for them both, and they effect a breakout, steal a jeep and head off to remote north-western Iceland. The couple are not best equipped to deal with the haunting power of nature, but their lives are made all the more real by their perilous journey.

This frank and charming tale of old age and love of the countryside has many echoes with Rams, but here the story takes on an almost mythic status, raising questions about what value longer life has when you leave behind everything that has a meaning for you. Children of Nature is also notable in that it is the only Icelandic film to date to have been nominated for the best foreign film Academy Award (Baltasar Kormákur’s The Deep came close in 2012, making it as far as the January shortlist).

Cold Fever (1995)

Director Fridrik Thór Fridriksson

Cold Fever (1995)

After the success of Children of Nature, Fridrik Thór Fridriksson found support and sympathetic partners outside of Iceland. Working with veteran American indie producer Jim Stark (Down by Law, Night on Earth) and actor Lili Taylor he created this unique Jarmusch-esque road movie-comedy. It’s a film with an international flavour, but which is firmly rooted in an Icelandic world. On its release the film was jokingly advertised as “the best Icelandic-Japanese road movie of 1995”.

Hirata, a Japanese businessman, travels to the remote area of Iceland where his parents died seven years ago to perform a traditional burial ritual. Of course it’s no easy trip, and on top of the obvious trials presented by the language barrier, Hirata encounters one mishap after another – involving exploding icebergs, boiled sheep heads, Icelandic country & western bands and hijacked American hitchhikers. There’s a real heart to this offbeat story of a young man who goes on a very difficult journey and ends up finding out something important about himself.

101 Reykjavik (2000)

Director Baltasar Kormákur

101 Reykjavík (2000)

Hlynur is a 28-year-old slacker. He still lives at his mother’s house (in Reykjavik postcode 101) and can’t seem to commit to either work or relationships. His head is turned by his mother’s vivacious flamenco teacher Lola (Pedro Almodóvar favourite Victoria Abril), who has a lot more than just a teacherly interest in his mum. Emotions, expectations and presumptions are all thrown into chaos.

Director, writer, producer, actor and all-round wunderkind Baltasar Kormákur’s feature debut 101 Reykjavik made a great splash on its debut in 2000. It was very much a film of the new millennium, one which championed Reykjavik’s newfound status as one of the go-to music and party destinations, and also celebrated metropolitan Iceland’s multicultural and liberal-minded sensibilities (Reykjavik is home to over 60% of Iceland’s population). A knockout score composed by Blur’s Damon Albarn and Einar Örn Benediktsson of The Sugarcubes further adds to the appeal of this offbeat comedy.

Stormy Weather (2003)

Director Sólveig Anspach

Stormy Weather (2003)

Although Icelandic-French writer-director Sólveig Anspach spent much of her creative life living and working in France, she often included Icelandic characters in her scripts and made several significant films in her native Iceland. After making a short documentary about the Icelandic archipelago where she was born (Les Îles Vestmannaeyar, 1990) early in her career, Anspach returned to that location to shoot the feature Stormy Weather, beginning her collaboration with Didda Jónsdóttir. The phenomenal, untrained actor Jónsdóttir was to collaborate with Anspach on another three of her Iceland-inflected films (the final film, L’Effet aquatique, was completed after Anspach’s death and will be released in France later this year).

Stormy Weather focuses on the relationship between French psychologist Cora (Élodie Bouchez) and her mysterious and troubled patient Loa (Jónsdóttir) who is repatriated from France to Iceland. Herself deeply affected by the landscape and the realities of rural Icelandic life, Cora begins to see subtle changes in Loa’s behaviour, and questions many of the scientific absolutes she held dear. (Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s 2000 film Angels of the Universe offers another equally compelling take on mental illness, and also features an absolutely sensational performance from Iceland’s finest actor, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson.)

Nói albinói (2003)

Director Dagur Kári

Nói albinói (2003)

Dagur Kári’s debut feature is as fresh and quirky as they come. The casting of the unearthly looking Tómas Lemarquis as the teenage protagonist Noi is inspired. His curious strangeness and compelling demeanour perfectly encapsulate the whole misfit mood of this film. Noi is a rebel but is more-or-less imprisoned by his own apathy in Iceland’s western fjords. He’s got a bad attitude towards practically everything, and is a hair’s breadth from being expelled from school.

Days drift by (beautifully punctuated by a lo-fi soundtrack from Kári’s band Slowblow), and although a visiting school psychologist pronounces Noi a genius, it’s far from clear if he will ever actually be bothered to do anything. The arrival of beautiful newcomer Íris at the local petrol station ignites a spark in Noi’s off-kilter universe. Noi hatches some pretty out there escape plans, but Mother Nature may have other ideas…

Tómas Lemarquis will soon be seen in a truly otherworldly role, as the superhuman mutant Caliban in Bryan Singer’s next instalment of the X-Men franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse.

Screaming Masterpiece (2005)

Director Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon

Screaming Masterpiece (2005)

Musicians and bands from Iceland have continued to make a significant impact on contemporary pop and indie music culture since the 1980s. From The Sugarcubes and Björk, through Sigur Rós, Slowblow and múm to Ghostigital and Quarashi (with some significant collaborations with heavyweights such as David Byrne and Damon Albarn along the way), the profile seems vastly disproportionate to the size of the nation.

Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon’s documentary provides some historical backstory and makes an attempt to explain this abundance of talent, but its focus is squarely on the music itself with a plethora of outstanding and diverse performances. There are also some clips from Fridrik Thór Fridiksson’s excellent 1982 documentary Rock in Reykjavik, including some very early performance footage of Björk. This earlier film is also highly recommended, but sadly not currently available in the UK.

Jar City (2006)

Director Baltasar Kormákur

Jar City (2006)

A dark, dirty and iconic adaptation of Arnaldur Indridason’s bestselling crime novel, Jar City sees timeworn Detective Erlendur (another magnificent performance from Ingvar E. Sigurðsson) investigating what he considers to be a typically “messy and pointless” Reykjavik murder. But, as coincidences and bodies pile up, Erlendur soon realises that there’s something much more sinister going on. Add into the mix a desperate father mourning the loss of his daughter from a rare genetic condition and a rather shady commercial databank facility, which controversially holds genetic information on all of Iceland’s population, and the scene is set for one hell of an intricately tangled case.

Jar City was the third instalment of Indridason’s Erlendur series, which played a great part in establishing what became known as the ‘Nordic noir’ genre. As one of the most gifted emerging Icelandic directors, Baltasar Kormákur was well placed to transpose Indridason’s unique vision on to the big screen. And Kormákur’s mastery of mood, multi-layered storytelling and focus on the minutiae of police procedure ensure that this is not only a great adaptation but also one of the finest crime dramas in recent years. Kormákur has gone on to become one of Iceland’s most successful directors, forging a career in Hollywood (most recently with his 2015 action/adventure blockbuster Everest), as well as continuing to make films in Iceland. His outstanding Icelandic feature, The Deep (2012), an intimate disaster movie set at sea is also highly recommended.

The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela (2008)

Director Olaf de Fleur

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008)

Raquela, a transsexual living in the Philippines dreams of being with a heterosexual western man. She works as a prostitute and spends her spare time surfing the internet for her Prince Charming. When she lands a job performing in front of a webcam for a porn website, her natural talent sees her become an internet sensation. Raquela meets Valerie, Iceland’s only transsexual on the internet and before long, with Valerie’s help, she finds herself in Iceland. Michael the New York-based owner of the porn website gets in touch and invites her to a rendezvous in Paris. Will Raquela’s dreams finally come true and will Michael turn out to be ‘the one’?

This unique film has elements of biography, documentary and romantic fiction. Both Raquela Rios and Valerie Grand Einarsson effectively play themselves (or at least versions of themselves) and many of their real-life experiences and aspirations are recreated here. Although The Amazing Truth about Queen Raquela may not be the most original of tales, it is told with great sensitivity and the sweetest of hearts. The film understandably won the Teddy Award for best LGBT-themed feature film at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008.

Volcano (2011)

Director Rúnar Rúnarsson

Volcano (2011)

Depressive and curmudgeonly by nature, and at odds with the world, his family and himself, recently retired Hannes (Theodór Júlíusson, who also plays Kiddi in Rams) has few pleasures in life. A loner at heart, he enjoys the solitary pleasures of smoking and solo jaunts in his decrepit boat. He is condescended to by his adult children and hardly notices his attentive but submissive wife Anna. But when Anna’s health dramatically fails, Hannes is forced to face acute emotional, physical and ethical challenges.

Debut director Rúnar Rúnarsson confronts difficult issues in a direct, powerful and unsentimental way, but his careful and sensitive storytelling ensures that his main protagonist always retains our empathy. At once naturalistic but also quietly poetic, Rúnarsson captures the stark and eerie beauty of the landscape, which not only serves as an arena for the action but also offers its visual counterpart. And Júlíusson’s quietly majestic performance brings a very physical resonance to Hannes. Like the volcanic island from which he harks, he is a powerful spirit prone to both simmering silence and dramatic eruption.

Of Horses and Men (2013)

Director Benedikt Erlingsson

Of Horses and Men (2013)

Of Horses and Men has achieved some level of cult status since its prize-winning debut at the San Sebastián Film Festival in 2013. It’s a darkly comic and seductively strange film that slyly weaves some serious questions into a series of idiosyncratic tales of love and death between man, woman and horse (with pretty much every permutation you can imagine) in a remote Icelandic community.

The human protagonists are smallholders and horse breeders who take a certain curtain-twitching interest in each other’s business. Their lives are deeply intertwined with those of their horses. And, although the film is not strictly told from the beasts’ points of view, they are the ever-present (mostly) silent spectators. Director Benedikt Erlingsson’s repeated focus on the horses’ demeanours, faces and ever-reflective eyes suggests their profound contemplation of the curious and at times barbaric behaviour of the men around them. And for those with a taste for the visceral there’s even a life-saving scene, which is surely a homage to The Empire Strikes Back (and now has further echoes in The Revenant).

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