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The Cinema of Iceland

Between Tradition and Liquid Modernity


Sebastian Jakub Konefał

The last decade was an exceptional period for the Icelandic cinema. The films produced during this time have won many prestigious awards at international festivals. Cinematic images of Iceland eclectically interlace myths, stereotypes and postmodern means of expression. At first glance, the local films obsessively repeat the same themes which might be incomprehensible for a foreign viewer. However, academic research on the most interesting motion pictures creates an opportunity to study the birth and development of small, but energetic and ambitious cinematography. Such an experience also allows analyzing problems related to the system of film production in this sparsely populated country and helps identify challenges during the process of introducing a local culture abroad. Finally, studying Icelandic cinema gives a chance to go on the audiovisual journey through the fascinating culture and unique landscapes.

The author of the book analyses popular topics and narrative strategies in Icelandic films. The research covers local versions of black comedies, road movies and crime stories as well as different figures connected with the motif of struggle between tradition and modernity.

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4 Of Fishermen and Their Ships: Marine Motifs, Cruel Nature and Zeitgeist



Icelandic texts of culture frequently refer to the fear and faith related to the miraculous and terrifying powers of the nature. Icelandic cinema also employs the antinomy of marvel and cruelty of the northern island, for instance, with the use of references to maritime symbols. The motif of an ocean voyage and the figure of a heroic fisherman constitute important elements of the local culture and as such can be often seen in Icelandic movies. Merging modernity with tradition, the fishing industry is an essential economic sector, treated in Iceland with much seriousness – for hundreds of years, fishermen kept Iceland alive (alongside with the farmers,186 favored, for instance, in the national discourse of the 19th century).

Paradoxically, however, Icelanders have been depreciating the social status of their seamen since the 15th century. In her book A Passage to Anthropology, the Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup proves that during that time the Icelandic system of social classification became disrupted. Iceland started to export fish on a massive scale already in the 14th century, but almost 100 years later, due to the plague which decimated the population, the local fishermen were forced to start working on the shore.187 “Fishing continued, of course, out of sheer necessity” – she writes – ←115 | 116→“but fishermen vanished from the records. They became subsumed under the general category of vinnuhjú (servants) defined by their position within a bú (household), headed by a landowner or a well-to-do tenant on Church or...

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