Icelandic musician Björk is certainly best remembered by all film fans for her role in Von Trier’s cult “Dancer in the Dark”, but even before she became world famous, she appeared in one film. Although the American avant-garde filmmaker Nietzsche Keene shot this minimalist low-budget black-and-white medieval fantasy in Iceland as early as 1986, “The Juniper Tree” premiered only four years later at Sundance. This film is based on the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale of the same name, but it is not one of those fairy tales that are really read to children and “The Spruce Tree” is a much darker content in which the famous brothers deal with topics such as child abuse, murder, even cannibalism.
Here, Björk is a girl with supernatural powers, Margit, whose mother was stoned and then burned at the stake because she was considered a witch. Margit and her older sister Katla then ran away and while wandering around Iceland they came across the young widower Johann and his son Jonas. It is clear to us very quickly that both Margit and Katla inherited some supernatural, witch powers from their mother, but we also understand that they use it to survive. Katla will thus enchant Johann to fall in love with her and the sisters will move in with this family, but Jonas is not exactly thrilled with the idea that he got a surrogate mother and aunt. However, unlike the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale in which Katla is an evil witch who eats small children, Keen subverted and overturned the whole story here and recorded a poetic, hermetic and somewhat meditative fantasy about the position of women in the society of that time and their way of survival.
Although the film was shot in Iceland and all the actors are Icelanders, they speak English, and the famous and unsurpassed Icelandic wilderness plays an important role. As it is the time of the Middle Ages, the influences of ancient paganism and early Christianity are mixed, and it is a film of dark poetics and a slightly uneasy atmosphere that owes as much to the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s spiritualism as to David Lynch’s surrealism. However, all that remained a bit sketchy, too hermetic, cocooned and closed, so it is not surprising that “The Juniper Tree” has almost sunk into oblivion over the years.