Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America

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April 7, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

A raiding vessel, brimming with armor-clad Norsemen, docks on a Newfoundland beachhead one-thousand years ago. The party is met by native resistance, a clash which results in the decimation of the Vikings. We don’t see the aforementioned, only its aftermath. We are first introduced to Orn (played by the film’s director) and Volnard, the sole survivors of the conflict, as they send their immolating comrades floating to Valhalla. Severed from their clan, these two must trek back to the camp that launched them with little guidance and likely many a native obstacle along the way.

First-time director Tony Stone filmed in Labrador, Newfoundland and parts of the U.S. and he takes a documentary approach to this historical drama about the first Europeans to explore North American soil. The cameras are mostly handheld, up-close and flitting as they follow the protagonists. Interspersed at irregular intervals are a myriad of wide-angle shots of the virginal landscape lensed with painterly symmetry and exaggerated color. There is very little dialogue or psychoanalysis, but an awful lot of eating, scraping, building, belching and defecating, each given equal treatment. Like the environment the camera lens is pitiless, achieving a nature-documentary feel in many scenes. This is bare-bones filmmaking and it lends something primitive. And perhaps it doesn’t clarify the issues at hand, but it makes for a more worthwhile viewing experience.

The first three chapters of the film are consumed by the warriors’ survival efforts: building shelter, fishing, scavenging. But things get a little more interesting when Orn and Volnard happen upon a Christian mission in the woods. Inhabiting a modest structure buttressing a large wooden cross are two Irish monks. Orn hastily charges in, giving chase to one of the monks who is ultimately cut down. The other hides and Volnard discovers him, but lets him flee because he speaks the Norse tongue. In an ominous and symbolic act the warriors set fire to the makeshift church and Stone makes sure to give us a lasting image of the cross being eaten by flame. This is a triumphant moment for the pair, but it also signals a change. Shortly afterward Orn is captured by a native tribe, whom the Norsemen refer to as Skaeling, leaving Volnard to continue the trek alone. Interestingly, Orn escapes his captivity simply by waking from his drug-slumber and walking out of the camp. We can consider the possibility that Orn’s interloping bacterium has already slain the Skaeling for him.

Stone is commenting upon the monolithic assumptions of culture, particularly the unwillingness to admit the participation of outside influence in one’s religion or myth-creation. For Stone these are tragic circumstances. When Volnard comes upon the surviving monk they strike up a friendship, discussing the leather-bound tome the monk clutches to his breast among other things. You probably won’t find the inclusion of Irish missionaries in the Viking stories, and Stone ensures it. When Orn later catches up with the unlikely pair, he hastens to kill the monk. A chance at something syncretic has been lost to history because of hasty violence. Volnard is not pleased and finally slays his dangerous comrade. The film closes like a dream, with Volnard marching through the snow to his death. Stone allows us to contemplate the fate of his body which wasn’t cut down in battle and won’t be thrown up in flame, but eventually swallowed by the earth.

We hear music by Popol Vuh, Morbid Angel and Brian Eno among others, but it’s Burzum’s dark ambient masterpiece ‘Tomhet’ that serves as the main theme, and Stone managed to realize visually every shuddering nuance of the composition. There is a long sequence at the beginning of Orn and Volnard building a shelter to the loud syncopation of biting axes. The sound of metal on wood, the sound of the synthetic severing the natural in twain, becomes a constant thematic presence. And the sounds in this film are incredible. All the sonic motifs of Norwegian folk metal come to the fore and are made visceral. One indulgence is a shot headlining chapter three that has Orn clutching an axe and anachronistically head-banging on a fallen tree, apparently in sync to the death metal playing on the soundtrack. Fortunately, it isn’t drawn-out and doesn’t disturb the ebb and flow of the narrative.

This film was made for a particular and perhaps peculiar audience, but Stone has created something that will be psychedelic for some, cathartic for others and provocative for many. It is stripped to it’s essential elements, far from didactic or conclusive about the questions it raises. Consider the irony of the sub-title—The Norse Discovery of America—for Stone leaves no Europeans alive to tell the tale. The screenplay was supposedly culled from a primary account which, like many a bloodstained chronicle, we can almost assuredly guess was secondary at the very least. But this film deals in allegory and Stone isn’t so much concerned with reconstructing an historic event, but gleaning something from the forebears with which to paint his own mythopoeic canvas.

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