I’m sure that the title The Northerners has some kind of special resonance in Dutch, but for me, a foreigner, the title might as well apply to the whole Nordic region. The dark humor and absurd plot of the film are typical of what I have come to expect from all those chili islands up north.
The good people up there have a distinct way of expressing themselves especially when it comes to comedy. The nordic sense of humor expresses a special affection for folly. They see our relentless struggle to find meaning in a meaningless universes as cute. Our suffering isn’t tragic, it’s endearing and kind of sweet. The quintessential expression this can be seen in any Roy Anderson movie, however, The Northerners is a few shades darker.
In The Northerners, everyone is their own straight man or woman. Their seriousness about their lives and the petty little grievances they harbor make them into walking parodies of humanity. It’s almost as if jokes aren’t necessary, humanity’s situation in the universe is comic enough. This, however, does not preclude characters who highlight the arbitrary nature of our existence by being a bit absurd. There is a man in the film who has deputized himself and will not let anyone set a campfire anywhere. If he sees a fire he runs up with his shotgun, frowns at the perpetrator, and then covers the fire with dirt. There is no rhyme or reason to it he has just decided this is important. He has found a purpose in life and it is as pointless and random as any other.
Once you are in the right headspace everything becomes surreal and absurd. Sartre once said it could leap out at you without warning from anywhere. A non-event like waiting in line at the grocery store can suddenly flip and you look at all the colorful little boxes on the conveyer belt and it all seems bizarre. Once in this state, everything looks strange, particularly what is ordinarily familiar.
Beyond the characters and their behavior, The Northerners takes special care to use the environment as a constant source of comedy. The film takes place in a little town huddled along one short street. It’s a planned community that exists in a seemingly endless and baron plane. There is however a forest nearby which is wonderfully absurd in its own right. The trees begin abruptly like they were placed there by a machine. There is empty tundra and then a perfectly straight line of trees where the forest begins. You can step into it as if passing through a curtain. Once inside the trees are all uniform and straight. The darkness of the wild forest is a kind Freudian refuge where secret things happen. It of course is patrolled by the self-appointed man with the shotgun but he is just one man against a wave of sexual tension, murderous anger, and everything else the town brings to the forest,
There is a scene where they have all gathered to wait at the bus stop. They are all dressed up to go to church. We see them gathered there like a little flock of clueless chickens huddled together in the dirt. There is nothing around them, just a little cement spot half covered in dust. It feels the same as pointing to the whole of humanity and seeing us bunched together on a tiny planet in the vast expanse of space. From a cosmic point of view, our lives are so impossibly short and tiny our sense of importance is ridiculous.
The close quarters of the “town” prevent any semblance of privacy. It’s like a Roman Polanski movie full of incessant eavesdropping, peeping, and gossiping. Their crowded proximity and isolation turns the whole community in on itself.
The plot of the film would take too long to relate. There are numerous twists and turns. It’s full of lies, murder, cheating, rape, and kidnapping along with a constant effort to keep everything under-raps so the neighbors don’t find out.
As the film progresses it gets darker and more absurd. The characters spiral out of control and pain and drama are mixed with embarrassment and shame. It unsettles you with its tragedy, but as things get worse and worse eventually it’s so awful it turns parodic and eventually funny.
The Northerners was written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam in 1992. The Dutch movie title sounds better, De noorderlingen. Warmerdam gives himself a role in the film. He plays Simon the postman who is, for lack of a better word, a real asshole. He secretly opens everyone’s mail before delivering it and then teases them about their private lives. It seems an appropriate role for the creator of this film. After all, what is he really doing but getting into people’s private lives and then laughing at them for getting tangled in their own meaningless shenanigans.
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