Witch mythology has been cornered by Western tradition, trademarked into a literary product. The myth we have been told is one of long noses and pointed hats, a crooked glance through a shining forest glen at lost children drawn to unknowable power. If you venture outside the brand, you may stumble on The White Reindeer, your face hardening in an icy wind. In this witch myth, a desolate tundra rolls in an endless plain of knolls and ridges like a frozen sea. In Finland, the nomadic Finno-Ugric-speaking people known as the Sámi tell witch stories that reflect their icy world, one where witches could look like anything, even a reindeer. Even your own true love.
I get the sense that these stories didn’t keep them warm (maybe they just made the cold comprehensible). Against a vast landscape of wolves and snow and sky, The White Reindeer begins in a meandering chant, all-encompassing, like a sound of wind:
A child is born to a fiery snow
Grew a girl with hay shoes
Like a young reindeer doe
Didn’t know at her father’s home
When she went to her bridegroom’s house
That she was born a witch.
This establishes a vital feature of this witch mythology – that they can be born one without knowing it. Nature, in both the landscape and even one’s heritage, controls the lives of the people in The White Reindeer, who are black dots in an endless, unfeeling white. If there is a witch in the film, she doesn’t know who she is until she begins bewitching. She does it on instinct. As a white reindeer, she roves over the hills of her village (transformation is key in many witch myths). To the men, drawn to chase her and die by her like hungry children, she does more than we could imagine, more than the film is ever willing to show. But she is not spared their torment. To her, the witch ritual is a form of both freedom and entrapment. In her world, acting on her desires is a form of self-harm.
The film’s structure is made of basic elements. At 68 minutes in length, it mirrors well-known tropes of monster films with "terror" or "abominable" in the title, from the introduction of an obligatory romance to the doubtful villagers and their hunt for the monster. Yet these tropes (or tropes in retrospect) do not make The White Reindeer seem cheap. Instead, they make those cheap films seem like our new fables, our monster fairytales, born from a formula as old as storytelling, even if they didn’t know it (maybe they were just born into it).
Through sheer restraint in Kuosmanen's controlled performance and Erik Blomberg’s stark cinematography, The White Reindeer manages to call back the ancient feeling that defined the stories people used to tell before storytelling was a luxury, when knowing the myths of a scary world was the closest we came to feeling in control of it. Getting that feeling back now from a film has the opposite effect – it makes a safe world feel scary again. It hunts down Hollywood catharsis and reverts it.
Watching The White Reindeer feels like huddling on the ground, like being whispered a cold truth. The chilly sunshine makes you notice its beautiful brutality; snow trapped in the lashes of flushed faces glistens in the black and white. The shot structure, which favors wide establishing shots, intimate closeups, and minimal dialogue, has the realness of a documentary. Few shots are built to be sensational, though they can all be felt. The film is covered in a fog of clouds and breath. Reindeer walk in concentric circles, huddled on the tundra, so that only a few at a time will be on the outside of the herd where the mosquitos are most plentiful. Of all possible creatures, none display fatalism like the reindeer.
In the backdrop of these harsh natural images, the people of The White Reindeer eke out their existence. The film could be silent for how few words are spoken between people – truthfully, it is more silent than many silents, which even then often felt the need to elaborate things that imagination could explain better than words. Only key fragments of dialogue – such as the prophecy of the shaman Tsalkku-Nilla and the accounts of the villagers – stand out in the film’s expressive yet withdrawn worldview. The land speaks to the camera in this film. The people can’t explain it – sometimes, they just say things to feel in control.
Though the film depicts a real landscape, it turns our world into an unearthly being; seeing a tree in The White Reindeer, gnarled and crusted with ice, black against the sky, made me feel like I had never seen a tree before. Much of the film is shot from a great distance using Blomberg’s refined visual voice as not only the cinematographer but also the screenwriter, editor, and director to paint the film’s somber mood. He can take a single glance at a foreign object and turn the film’s naturalism into a feeling of horrible truth. An altar, a pillar of stone with hard, crafted lines against the blurry horizon of the sky, is surrounded by antlers jutting from the snow. They fill the screen as Blomberg lowers the camera to the ground below them, to look up at the sky. Did reindeer wander here and die? Were they sacrificed to the stone to appease it? Did they also come to worship it in their own way?
I can't say for sure if Kubrick was thinking of this worn, stone god when forming his images of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or if Iñárritu was haunted by images of white reindeer and snowshine when Hugh Glass dreamed of those pillars of skulls in The Revenant. But I believe the images come from a shared cultural mythology – they are connected by the feeling that our ancestors saw such things for real, hardwired by time, a feeling that each of their creators was referring to even if they were not referring to each other. Blomberg resurrects those hard, ancient lines cutting into the cold sky, and recovers that feeling of unknowable authority and ancient magic. A woman confronts this shape as though she knows it is significant but cannot remember what it means. This film is the new version of that feeling. It recreates the distant terror that would exist in its images even if we did not know that those stones had eyes in ancient times and brought people to their knees in the sight of these "gods," as prevalent yet unknowable as a storm of snow.
The White Reindeer is tagged as “horror,” though it doesn’t seem to fit the definition. This is where the genre of horror transforms into the image of the genre of fantasy, which can be just as dark and foreboding. That blurry line is a result of film viewers not being able to separate a function from a feeling – despite having the feeling of a fairytale, the film is classified under the conventions of a monster movie. This represents our failure to distinguish stories by what distinguishes them from each other, rather than by what they appear to share. None of the tropes used or borrowed by The White Reindeer give it the feeling of a film with tropes. The core experience is out of body in an old world.
Until now, I have not tried to “interpret” the themes of the film. This is because the film defies a single idea of its images – one assertion will offer both its argument and its alternative. Many viewers, for instance, will leave the film with the idea that it was about female sexuality, possibly as a demonstration of its insatiable desire. They may even mistake it for being empowering. We see the woman, who doesn’t realize she has the ancient inner strength of a tempting witch, unsatisfied by life with her simple shepherd husband. We see her seek out a way to tempt men, to destroy her loneliness, to feel sexually satisfied. Yet crucially, we also see men pursue her relentlessly – an argument could equally be made for the destructive male appetite, the pursuit of the instinctual hunter, and how pleas for female freedom are squashed by male desire. Both genders could be seen as oppressed or liberated. This means that there is more to the film than either of them.
I believe that The White Reindeer reaches far beyond a story of gender oppression to become a myth of the loss of innocence, both personal and cultural. It’s vital that the woman’s inner evil is an ancient lineage, sung to us as a natural law and never presented as a choice. She’s drawn to the stone idols of her ancestors, empowered and destroyed by them in a world that has no room for the old mythology anymore. But even if the old myths are just haunting songs in a field of snow, with nowhere to land or resonate, they still exist, somewhere, especially in an unsatisfied heart.
The film shows a full Protestant church, a marriage ceremony performed on the figurative remains of ancient traditions, which the real Sámi witnessed being mixed with the needs of settlers and fading away at the onslaught of evangelical Christianity. Changes in language, custom, and belief are shown on the fringes of every interaction in The White Reindeer, from the modern Sámi villagers’ disbelief in ancient customs to the shepherd husband displeasing his wife by remaining humble in an old-fashioned existence. And yet, the inner yearning, the sense of being rooted to the world, the primal energies of ancient faith – they remain in the feeling of the film, in its songs and stones. The woman gives up her innocence to tap into this power. It destroys her not because she is evil but because she, like the old customs, no longer match the needs of a changing world.
Sámi myths were founded on a belief in the detectable spiritual identities of every thing in the world. The Shamans were said to be able to connect the natural and spiritual realms through a shared system of ancient belief. Christianity by contrast represents spiritual law built on mighty pillars of judgment – its unknowability forced cultures it colonialized to lose their ancient certainties. It was a slow numbing process. As individuals replaced a shared value of acceptance with an imposed value of judgment, many like Mollberg observe that this transformation leads to an unavoidable conclusion – the demonization of the old ways.
The White Reindeer does not reverse this transition. It re-experiences it visually in the form of a woman becoming a sexual and cultural orphan. She sees crucifixes hanging from the nailless walls of ancient shanties, people disbelieving their own heritage, the snow and ice wailing on their cold bodies but without its spiritual identity intact. It had stopped being their way of life and became a punishment for their transgressions. It's no wonder she goes looking for primal, voracious power, to search for authenticity by becoming the demon that she has been made to believe of herself. She's what men and children call "witch," the only way that the old beliefs can be viewed after being subjected to the demands of new texts. The film allows us to see in miniature what it feels like to live an entire life in an endless wilderness but because of an invasion of one belief, feel lost for the very first time.
I don’t know what those who lived this cultural transition or the ancients who created its mythology would think of The White Reindeer. But I believe it would make sense to them. It reflects the great “not knowing,” the core experience of living a harsh transition in a harsh world, which at heart is a feeling of powerlessness. Classified as horror, this film will appear on many lists, will be restored by film foundations, and will be misunderstood by viewers looking for a classic thrill or even those academics who believe that every story that includes a sexual awakening must be interpreted as an anthem to Western feminism. But for those who can see it as it truly is, it is like reliving the spiritual transitions of history through images, resurrecting a worldview whose naïve power sustained it through the terror and hardship of a cruel life. It shows us its shadows in the hard blacks and whites of 68 minutes of being there and its joys in the soft focus, nearly dream-like, of the faces of the people who endured it without knowing how or why. It is an experience that is far more than a genre. It's hereditary.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Junior-Filmi/Adams-Filmi