Among the pantheon of toe-chopping, head-slicing stepmothers in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy-tale canon, few are as starkly cruel and vicious as the one in The Juniper Tree.
Here, an abusive stepmother decapitates her stepson, frames her daughter for the crime, cooks the dead child’s body into a stew and feeds it to his father. It’s ghastly, with the carnage becoming full circle when the boy, reincarnated as a bird after his bones are buried alongside his biological mother’s body underneath the eponymous plant, drops a millstone on her head, allowing him to reunite with his family. Among the Grimms’ writings, the Christian undertones here are particularly pronounced, with cannibalistic consumption of sanctified flesh and bodily resurrection being central to the story. But hand-in-hand with these are the misogynist undercurrents so prevalent amidst the early 19th century European society that codified these folk tales into written literature — the stepmother is a cruel, controlling fiend while her daughter a weak-willed bystander.
The late Boston-born director Nietzchka Keene explicitly addresses these two subtexts in her 1990 Icelandic film The Juniper Tree, an art-house piece less a strict adaptation than a vague reimagining of the fairy tale. It borrows certain framing devices and characters, but then twists and curves them to serve of something new; something subversive.
Keene redirects the focus on the women, transforming them from Western European gentry to Northern European witches. After their mother is stoned and burned for witchcraft, sisters Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) and Margit (Björk Guðmundsdóttir) flee from their homes into an unknown country as refugees. Katla, who’s older, quickly finds and marries a widower named Jóhann (Valdimar örn Flygenring) with a withdrawn son named Jónas (Geirlaug Sunnar Þormar). The naive and clairvoyant Margit quickly befriends Jónas, sharing games and secrets while exploring the rocky cliffs of the nearby beaches. But Jónas resents her new mother and disobeys her, inverting their predatory relationship in the folk tale so the stepson becomes the aggressor. Jónas finally succeeds in turning Jóhann against her, forcing Katla to work her magic through charms and spells to keep him romantically interested. The boy’s cruelty proves indomitable, however, forcing them towards a violent, tragic climax that shatters her new marriage and her relationship with dear Margit.
The film reimagines the witch-sisters’ powers as a double-edged sword, at once personally empowering and self-condemning. We see this karmic twinning throughout the film: Katla uses magic to snare a husband, but her spells turn Jónas against her; Margit’s second sight enables her to communicate with their murdered mother, but she’s tormented by apocalyptic visions of fire and specters. Ultimately, their gifts prove useless in the face of an engrained patriarchy that seeks to control women into forced domesticity. And unlike the ultimately redemptive ending of the Christianized fairy tale, The Juniper Tree deprives its audience an easy closure.
In addition to its stark visual beauty — it was filmed on location in Iceland in black-and-white to underscore the timeless appeal of its fairy-tale source material — it’s notable for being the first feature-length film starring Nordic musical superstar Björk Guðmundsdóttir. She would later go on and drop her last name, nab 15 Grammys and win the 2000 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award for her performance in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. But watching this movie, it’s difficult to imagine that this waif-like 21-year-old had already made her mark by banshee-screaming in jazz fusion and post-punk bands. She’s the epitome of subsumed introspection and meekness, of quiet yet selfless love, both for her sister and the stepson who dooms her. She’s the one connection to the beatific agape of the fairy tale’s Christian godhead that Keene leaves untouched — and the film is all the more transcendent for it.
Starting March 15, the Metrograph in NYC will begin a theatrical run of a new restoration by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and The Film Foundation.