Icelandic Vikings found America in the ninth century, but as Oscar Wilde said, they had the good taste to lose it again. A thousand years later, in World War II, the Americans occupied Iceland, but they were so set on not losing it again that they kept a military base there, long after the war ended. They moved out of the capital, though, leaving behind barracks for the benefit of homeless Icelanders…(1)

—Preface to Devil’s Island

These words preface Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s (2) film Djöflaeyjan (Devil’s Island, 1996), and suggest to audiences the historical and political context upon which its narrative is built. However, this translation, provided in the English subtitles, differs from the original Icelandic in a few notable ways. Firstly, the original text lacks the clauses “in the ninth century” and “a thousand years later.” Furthermore, the Icelandic text states, “they kept a military base here,” and that the barracks are left “as available housing for people.” These suggest that the original film expects its audience to have a certain degree of understanding regarding Icelandic history and politics not necessarily present in foreign audiences. Indeed, even aspects originally taken for granted in this introductory comment must be clarified by the subtitles. The change from “here” to “there” is significant because it is indicative of the shift occurring when Devil’s Island is viewed by those unfamiliar with Iceland’s political issues. Without an understanding of the socio-political backbone behind the film, this “bittersweet tale of Iceland at the dawn of its independence” (3) becomes for foreign critics “a sprawling, muddy family epic.” (4) It is thus not surprising that Devil’s Island was not received well abroad, despite its rousing success in Icelandic theatres, where it outperformed Independence Day (1996) as the top grossing film for Icelandic theatres in 1996. (5) As Macnab writes in his review, “The film, a huge box office hit in Iceland, clearly has resonances for local audiences which outsiders struggle to grasp.” (6)

Friðriksson articulated his political intent when he explained the film saying that “there were thousands who lived in the barracks that the Americans left behind, which the authorities are so ashamed of that they do not even show it at the Reykjavík Museum.” (7) He then proclaimed at Berlin’s 1997 International Film Festival, “This is my birth of a nation,” (8) a challenge to audiences to consider the political origins, and one that few foreigners could tackle with the relatively limited knowledge of Icelandic politics abroad. In this essay, these political dimensions will be explained and explored so as to provide a better understanding of Devil’s Island.

A brief history of Iceland’s independence and the issue of the US Military Base

Vikings originally settled Iceland around 870. In the year 930 they established the first parliamentary government, which lasted until the country fell under the power of the Danish-Norwegian kings in 1262. It would take the Icelandic people nearly 700 years of struggle before they finally regained independence on June 17, 1944.

During World War II, Iceland was occupied by the British in 1940, and then handed off to the Americans the following year. America established the US Naval Air Station at Keflavík, located just southeast of the nation’s capital city, Reykjavík. After the war, the Americans remained in Keflavík, despite earlier promises, “and even requested that the [Icelandic] government agree to leasing three military bases in Iceland for the next ninety-nine years.” (9) This request was swiftly denied. In 1949, Iceland was subsequently pressured into co-founding NATO, though not without “a clear stipulation to the effect that foreign troops were not to be stationed in Iceland in peacetime.” (10) Of course, this stipulation was of no use to Icelanders during the Korean War. These early years were in many ways the most tumultuous politically, with numerous governmental scandals revolving around the base.

By 1950, the political issue had taken on a more cultural tone, with Icelanders decrying the American soldiers’ courtship of Icelandic women and “the most serious problem” (11) of the establishment of a television station run by the US military which was soon broadcast to approximately three-fourths of the population. It would not be until 1966 when RÚV (Ríkisútvarpið, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service) would finally premiere the first Icelandic television channel, Sjónvarpið. Still, the cultural influence of American television remained a hot point for Icelanders. Magnússon writes:

“Three years after Icelandic television had started, a sociological survey conducted among school children in the ten to twelve age bracket had shown an alarming trend. The children in Keflavík … knew next to nothing about their own society, but a great deal about American society and leading American personalities.” (12)

In the early ‘70s, the leftist coalition of the Icelandic government made the base a hot political issue once again when it used America’s lack of involvement in the second cod war (13) as an excuse to challenge the US-Icelandic Defence Agreement of 1951. This agreement provided for the air base on the condition that it was for the protection of the Icelandic people, a condition that the ruling coalition felt was not being upheld by America’s inaction during the conflict with England. (14) However, after tensions dissipated following the end of the second cod war and the subsequent election of a more American-friendly coalition, direct political pressure against the military base largely subsided.

Still, the issue remained a matter of cultural importance, and was frequently discussed as to how it might affect Icelandic independence. Magnússon argues:

“If Iceland really became dependent on direct American financial contributions in the form of annual payments for the base, it would soon be apparent that our [Icelandic] political and cultural independence would be in jeopardy, to say the least.” (15)

He goes on to cite anti-base comments made by Iceland’s beloved author and Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, as well as renowned medieval Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson’s criticism of the idea of a possible Norwegian-run base circa 1000. Magnússon provides these comments as examples that “the interference of foreign military powers has been a steady preoccupation of the Icelanders from the very beginning.” (16)

Indeed, the base issue remained a central concern for Icelanders until America’s decision in 2006 to abandon the base. For example, Ingimundarson provides a list of fifteen other highly significant writings on the base issue, all but three of which are in Icelandic. (17) This suggests that the issue is primarily of domestic concern and supports Magnússon’s claim that there is a “relative inability of foreigners to see the Keflavík issue in the context of Iceland’s long struggle for independence, and not merely as a link in the chain of NATO defence.” (18) Furthermore, the base has continued to be of some concern even after America’s decision to abandon it, with a new debate regarding a private military organization and deserving a scholastic treatment in its own right. (19) This stands as testament to the lasting influence of the army base as a complex and serious issue in Icelandic socio-political life.

A synopsis of the major events in Devil’s Island

The plot of Devil’s Island is set in the period sometime shortly after the founding of the US military television station in 1955 and follows the lives of those living in the abandoned army barracks. The narrative opens with a wedding between an American soldier named Charlie Brown (20) and Gógó (21), an Icelandic woman. During the wedding, her son Baddi (22) and his friend Grjóni steal a pistol from a soldier’s car and hide it in Grjóni’s house. Baddi’s shy brother, Danni, is timidly absent through most of the festivities, and does not see his mother off when she departs for America with her new husband. A brief episode shows Grjóni’s son and Danni being harassed and beaten up on their way into town for being “camp scum.” As Grjóni goes to fight back, his son commits suicide with the stolen revolver. Baddi’s grandfather, Tommi, takes Grjóni in and attempts to cheer him up by walking like Charlie Chaplin, which he had done in the past to entertain Grjóni as a child.

Eventually, Baddi is invited by his mother to come to America. He returns to Iceland in his American-made muscle car and dressed in a leather jacket, sunglasses, and a greaser-style pompadour. What’s more, he punctuates his Icelandic with English phrases, for example opting to refer to money as “money honey.” He proceeds to terrorize his family during numerous drunken parties with friends such as Grjóni, who has since turned to a life of crime. Their drunken antics are punctuated by numerous requests from Baddi of his family, culminating with the shipment of his television from America so that he can watch the military broadcasts. Finally, in an act that shocks the entire family, he impregnates Hveragerður, Danni’s secret crush. The subsequent wedding is a characteristically messy, drunken affair.

It is revealed to the family that Danni has been secretly taking flying lessons and has just graduated. The family’s attention shifts away from Baddi’s antics and onto Danni’s heroic deeds, and Danni is given the good bedroom. Fed up with the lack of attention, Baddi announces his intent to go to America and never return. When the grandmother foretells a fatal plane crash in the future, she pleads him to stay, but he will have none of it and departs with the pregnant Hveragerður. As it turns out, the fatal accident does occur, but it kills the pilot Danni instead. The prodigal son and his wife fly back for the funeral along with his mother, who has divorced Charlie. Baddi decides to stay when his son is born, who he names after his deceased brother. Soon after, Bóbó, the son of Baddi’s sister, is called out into a snowstorm by the ghost of Grjóni’s suicidal child, but is rescued by Baddi’s grandmother. Miraculously, the boy’s lame leg is healed and he spontaneously begins to sing. All the destitute families are kicked out of the barracks when the military decides to tear them down, and many of them move into nearby apartment slums. The film ends as Bóbó sings “La donna è mobile” while Tommi walks off to work, again mimicking Charlie Chaplin.

Understanding Devil’s Island in the context of the base issue

Given the narrative’s episodic nature, it is not surprising that many foreign critics became confused and saw it “more like a series of soap-opera episodes strung together than a feature in its own right.” (23) It is clear that, without the necessary background, they incorrectly interpret the significance of many of the film’s events. For example, Macnab mistakes Baddi’s television, a clear reference to American influence on Icelandic culture, as symbolic of “tantalising hints of a world of brightness and plenty … their hankering for a better life.” (24)

Macnab likewise criticized Baltasar Kórmakur’s acting in the role of Baddi as “laboured… a type we’ve seen countless times before.” (25) It seems that he has missed the very point that Baddi is a stereotype. He is the generality and meaninglessness of American culture superimposed on Icelandic youth. His personality merely imitates American popular culture in a desperate grab for attention, feigning “coolness” in his superficial knowledge of a foreign culture. In fact, his understanding of America is likely not very comprehensive, as exemplified when he first returns to Iceland and is comically prompted by the neighbourhood children, “Do you know how to speak American?” to which he amazed them with the English phrases, “Wash the windows! Check the oil! Dollar gas!” The words seem out of place precisely because they are displaced from their original context. In Baddi’s mouth, they have been rendered effectively meaningless. Furthermore, one can’t escape the feeling that while living in America, he was most likely seen as an awkward poser and not the “cool” greaser persona he flaunts when back on “Devil’s Island.”

While Baddi is representative of the influence of American culture, Danni is stereotypically Icelandic. He is shy and soft-spoken, though prone to bouts of strength when threatened—for example, when he throws Baddi out of the house for assaulting their grandmother. This mirrors the conception of the traditional Icelandic demeanour as being introverted yet incredibly stubborn and rash, a characteristic often described in Icelandic literature ranging from Laxness’ character of Bjartur in Independent People (1934-1935) all the way back to Egill Skallgrímsson of Egilssaga (c. 1240).

It is important to note that to some extent, Friðriksson is sympathetic towards American culture. In a symposium at the 1996 Nordic Film Festival, shortly before the release of Devil’s Island, he stated:

“I think this ‘craving’ [for American culture] has some good aspects. In Iceland all the films in the cinemas used to be American films. The only TV station and radio broadcasting came from the NATO base. We saw some positive things in this, for example, jazz came to Iceland before it came to other countries. Many people see only bad things about American cultural influence, but there’s a good side too.” (26)

How, then, shall we interpret the stereotypical portrayal of Americans and American culture in this film, where Baddi is a shiftless, drunken burden to those around him compared to his brother, who is simultaneously shy and heroic?

Ultimately, we must consider all the subtleties of the film’s ostensibly pessimistic ending. Danni, a personification of traditional Icelandic culture, is dead, while the superficially “American” Baddi lives on, albeit with some small signs of reform. At this level, the message seems clear: the phony American culture continues on while the traditional Icelandic way of life is left in shambles. However, there is another pair whose significance cannot be discounted—Grjóni’s son and Baddi’s nephew Bóbó. The role of Baddi and Danni therefore come to light as symbolic of the first interaction between American and Icelandic cultures as being simplistic and ultimately highly conflicting. Meanwhile, it is no stretch of logic to see the two children as a new generation, both literally and symbolically. They have a choice to make in regards to the new American influence thrust upon them. Grjóni’s son rejects his life as “camp scum” (i.e. both poor and also “Americanized” in his proximity to the base). In an act of ultimate self-hatred, he shoots himself with an American pistol. The origin of the pistol is an important element, as it alludes to American violence and militarism. In this dark act, we see the personification of the worst parts of American culture—anger, violence, and the seeming meaninglessness of life in a materialistic culture in which one’s value as a human is determined by one’s monetary worth.

However, this aspect is also self-destructive, and thus it ceases to exist. Yet it is not without its continued influence. First, it spurs his father into a life of crime. Later, the boy returns from the grave to beckon to his old friend Bóbó. We must consider that this moment—the appearance of a ghost—is a common occurrence in Icelandic folklore, in which ghost stories figure heavily. Is this same darkness, beckoning destruction, not also a part of the traditional Icelandic character? It may have been thanks to the American pistol that the son was able commit his act of self-destruction, but was it not ultimately his decision as an Icelander picked on by other Icelanders for being “camp scum” that drove him to use it? It may have been the American pistol that killed him, symbolically provided by Baddi’s theft, but it was his place in Icelandic society and his own decision that led up to this deed.

The ghostly appearance becomes a crucial moment—Bóbó confronts the dark spectre, and as he steps out into the winter blizzard, his life is threatened. Will he follow his old friend’s call to oblivion and self-destruction? Thankfully, in the last minute, the grandmother saves him, symbolically brandishing her traditional Icelandic religion in the form of a Bible. Having faced this darker side of the Icelandic character and survived, Bóbó is miraculously liberated from his lame leg and bursts into song. One may recall another moment of liberation earlier in the film when Danni flew above the picturesque Icelandic landscape, free from the claustrophobic confines of the army base. This sense of liberation connects the two in their desire for freedom. The mood is hopeful, and it is driven home in the concluding scene when Bóbó again sings spontaneously. The song is foreign, but of a classic, operatic nature in direct opposition to the Elvis-style rock that figures throughout most of the film. His singing is spirited and hopeful, and it accompanies his great-grandfather Tommi as he imitates Chaplin. The walk is an obvious reference to foreign cinema, but in the context of the film’s narrative it also implies the nurturing and supportive role of Tommi towards the children. In a similar way, the grandmother’s Christianity, a much earlier cultural import to Iceland dating back to the year 1000, serves to protect the family from harm. Furthermore, just as Christianity became, with time, an integral part of traditional Icelandic culture, so too do Chaplin’s walk and Bóbó’s foreign song become symbolic of a hope for the future and of the possibility for good influence from American culture. Unlike Baddi’s co-opting of an American greaser persona, these are not hollow gestures. For while the characteristic walk of the English-American Chaplin or the Italian canzone may have foreign origins, they have been given new life in the context of the characters’ lives. They are not meaningless imitations, but rather emotional acts expressing Tommi’s compassion and Bóbó’s celebration of independence.

In the end, Friðriksson’s political message reflects to some degree Halldór Laxness’ comment that:

“Were the American garrisons to go away: we would all of us become their friends on the day they leave. It is practically beyond human capacity to be the friends of foreign soldiery occupying your soil for any length of time, even if you have nothing against those foreign nationals as such, and might love them if you met them in their natural surroundings, their home country.” (27)

In Devil’s Island, Friðriksson lays bare the bad aspects of both American and Icelandic culture that came to surface in the context of the base issue. Friðriksson challenges Icelanders to not only consider the negative aspects of American culture, but their own culture as well. While the film is not very sympathetic to Americans, who are vague caricatures, it also challenges “normal” Icelanders who cruelly rejected their impoverished countrymen as “camp scum.” Critical of the army base itself, it also suggests the possibility of a future, already being written, in which Icelandic culture can benefit from a meaningful exchange with foreign culture. Baddi and Danni should therefore remain in the past—an old and pointless struggle between flat and useless stereotypes. However, in Bóbó’s confrontation with the ghost of Grjóni’s son, there exists the possibility of a better future.

This article has been peer-reviewed

Endnotes

  1. Djöflaeyjan. Directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, Íslanska kvikmyndasamsteypan, 1996. Most quotations are taken from the English subtitles unless otherwise noted.
  2. I have opted to follow the example set by film scholar Björn Norðfjörð of leaving Icelandic names in their original forms, as current attempts at Anglicisation have been woefully inadequate. As such, two Icelandic characters in particular may be of some confusion to English-speakers: þorn (Þþ) and eð (Ðð). Both are roughly equivalent to the English “th” sound. I will also adopt his Anglicised use of the patronymic name as if it were a surname, despite the fact that Icelanders are traditionally referred to by their first names.
  3. Djöflaeyjan. Quoted from the description printed on the back of the 2000 DVD release by Íslanska kvikmyndasamsteypan and Winstar TV and Video, Inc.
  4. Geoffrey Macnab. Review of Devil’s Island/Djöflaeyjan. Sight and Sound 8, no.1 (1998): 39.
  5. Ásgrímur Sverrisson. “Iceland.” Variety International Film Guide 1998, ed. Peter Cowie (Hollywood: Samuel French, 1997), 191. Devil’s Island attracted over 86,000 moviegoers in a nation of only 270,000.
  6. Macnab, 39.
  7. Birgir Thor Møller. “In and Out of Reykjavík: Framing Iceland in the Global Daze.” Transnational Cinema in a Global Context, ed. Andrew Nestingen and Trevor G. Elkington. New York: Wayne State University Press, 327.
  8. Møller, 326.
  9. Sigurður A. Magnússon. “Iceland and the American Presence.” Queen’s Quarterly 85, no.1 (1978): 79. This article is most likely one of the best summaries of the base issue written explicitly for foreigners.
  10. Magnússon, 79
  11. Magnússon, 80-81.
  12. Magnússon, 81-82.
  13. The cod wars were three mostly non-violent standoffs between Iceland and the UK regarding fishing territory around Iceland, in which Iceland fought to extend its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone from 4 miles to 12 miles, 12 miles to 50 miles, and finally 50 miles to 200 miles. The second cod war was perhaps the most aggressive and serious.
  14. Valur Ingimundarson. “A Western Cold War: The Crisis in Iceland’s Relations with Britain, the United States, and NATO, 1971-74.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 14, no.4 (2003): 114. This article provides an incredibly detailed summary of the diplomatic relations between Iceland, the United States, and Britain regarding the base issue and the cod wars.
  15. Magnússon, 84.
  16. Magnússon, 84.
  17. Ingimundarson, 130-131.
  18. Magnússon, 79.
  19. For example, see Paul Nikolov, “Private Army Sets Sights on Iceland,” The Reykjavík Grapevine, March 18, 2010, http://www.grapevine.is/News/ReadArticle/Private-Army-Sets-Sights-on-Iceland.
  20. The film never explicitly points out the connection between the soldier’s name and the cartoon by Charles Schultz. Although there may be some cultural reference, it could also simply be used as a stereotypically American-sounding name.
  21. The name “Gógó,” though unfamiliar to many foreigners, could be a cultural reference to one of the earliest Icelandic feature films, 79 af stöðinni (1962), sometimes called Girl Gógó internationally after its protagonist, portrayed by Kristbjörg Kjeld. The film dealt largely with issues of modernization and did include an American soldier named Bob. The film may be a favourite of Friðriksson’s, as he also directly references this film in his most recent work, Mamma Gógó (2010), which also stars Kjeld.
  22. While in English, the name Baddi recalls the idea of a “baddie” or “badguy,” the Icelandic name is actually a nickname for Baldur, the name of the Norse god of beauty, love, and happiness. The name thus holds radically different connotations between the two languages and is indicative of his character.
  23. Macnab, review of Devil’s Island, 39.
  24. Macnab, 39.
  25. Macnab, 39.
  26. David D’Arcy. “‘Coming of Age’ in Scandinavian and American Film.” Scandinavian Review 84, no.2 (1996): 84.
  27. Magnússon, 84.

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