The majestic and sublime beauty of western Norway fills the frames of Margreth Olin’s breathtaking and panoramic Songs of Earth, which had its world premiere at CPH:DOX this week. Our journey through this rugged landscape in numerous sweeping aerial shots, which combine with close-up observation of flora and fauna to inspire a real sense of awe, is accompanied by orchestral songs based on the sounds of nature in Nordfjord.
Mortality and loss
But before we might think to dismiss the film as little more than a veritable tourist advertisement for a Nordic country already widely famed for its scenery, the director begins to plumb more existential and melancholic territory as she grapples with mortality and loss. These inevitable sadnesses of the human condition are compounded by a growing awareness of the climate crisis and brought into urgent focus by her parents’ advancing years. Olin has come home after several decades to spend time with her father, who is now an octogenarian, and unravel more of who he is while she still has a chance to talk frankly with him. He takes her to Oldedalen, in the valley where he grew up and the family lived for many generations, battling to survive in an overwhelming environment of mountains and fjords that is as treacherous as it is magnificent and subject through the ages to fatal avalanches and landslides. We begin to understand along with her that the urge to connect to a lasting family legacy feels especially raw and acute, even at times futile, in a natural world as immense and rapidly changing as this one.
These inevitable sadnesses of the human condition are compounded by a growing awareness of the climate crisis and brought into urgent focus by her parents’ advancing years.
The creaking of glacier ice as it fractures and breaks up is a sound that we hear intermittently in the film like a disquieting refrain, as the silence is cut through with the realisation that this stupendous whiteness is not going to last. The waterfall that streams from the melting glacier has never been as big as it is now — a terrible indication, we can assume, that the climate crisis is altering the landscape that the family has defined themselves upon for centuries beyond recognition. The glacier is dying, in short, and the underlying grief this brings to the superficially awe-inspiring vistas mixes with Olin’s recognition that the death of her parents cannot be far off. Her mother and father, who she films talking with each other in their living room, are very matter-of-fact about the pending reality of loss, as they debate who should preferably die first to leave the least loneliness in their wake for the surviving partner. The lack of consolatory euphemism in their words makes sense when we hear that untimely death was ever-present in the lives of their ancestors, for whom the fjord landscape was not a safe or predictable home.
Family farm history
The first written record of the family farm was in 1603, and old black-and-white photographs show the family down through the ages. In the nineteenth century, an avalanche laid waste on a neighbouring farm. A huge landslide in 1905 wiped out entire extended families and all of their property. Survivors of such disasters were left to deal with the psychological sense of loss and a lack of control, as well as the practical concerns of how to survive off the land with reduced labour power and many children to raise. Being carried for hours over a large snow-drift to reach the closest source of medical attention during a storm was also par for the course for a child that came down with appendicitis in such isolation. When Olin’s father describes how special the different hue of a flower is that had to particularly struggle to stay alive due to its weather-beaten positioning, we get a sense of the grit and resilience that needed to be valued and harnessed by the Norwegian people to get by in this less than forgiving location.
A hardy spruce tree that no storm has been able to bring down stands on this terrain, planted by a family ancestor high on the mountain. Human figures seem diminutive and insignificant within the sheer scale of this landscape. But as relatives were born and then died, often untimely deaths, the tree has remained and become both a meaningful marker to visit for their descendants and a topic of frequent discussion among them. The spruce’s power to stay rooted in the ground and connect the family’s continued presence and memories only increases the vertigo we feel as the very contours of the landscape shift under pressure all around. It is not only the land, but ancestral memory and identity, that is at stake with environmental decimation. Transience and fragility on a scale this grand is a challenging concept to process, and Olin has given us, in her Songs of Earth, a moving meditation toward that end.
Songs of the Earth is a 2023 CP:DOX World Premiere