On Midsommar, fascism and climate change
(A version of this article appeared in Tribune magazine, 10/08/19)
Ari Aster, writer/director of Midsommar, knows you might’ve watched 70s British horror classic The Wicker Man. But he hasn’t cribbed from it (nor its modern, bear-punching remake) so much as anticipated your familiarity with the sub-genre of the ‘creepy cult’ or at least with the wider genre conventions. One such convention is foreshadowing, which in horror films is more than a screenwriting cliché or roundabout way to say ‘telling a story’ — but an essential device to sustain the note of dread.
By now, though, double-edged dialogue, symbolic background details, doomy music have all gotten groaningly obvious. In response to our genre savvy Midsommar leans in to its foreshadowing — to the point of being knowing and tongue-in-cheek. When the mysterious Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) tells bereaved American student Dani (Florence Pugh) how glad he is she’ll be joining the midsummer festivities among his Hårga people in the remote Swedish countryside, we’re meant to think: Uh-oh!
This ‘knowing foreshadowing’ encourages you to look out for which details — the mural at the start of the film, a photo of Dani crowned with flowers — might be an omen. And by looking so closely we might catch the omen behind the omens. Thirty minutes into the film we see a college dorm-room, where, in medium shot, on a table unremarked, sits a book called ‘The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark’. ‘Uthark’ is the kooky theory that Scandinavian runes aren’t a script but a code with hidden meanings. Granted, seeing Nazis everywhere is its own kooky sub-genre of film criticism. But this single overt Nazi reference (Pelle even sketches the table for emphasis) primes you to look out for more covert ones, and to put the horror in context: between a familiar past and potential future…
In contrast to Pelle, Dani’s boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends Mark and Josh (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) treat her throughout their holiday as a buzzkill. She has her reasons. In contrast to the foreshadowing later, the film starts with a mystery: why Dani one wintry night can’t get through to her sister on the phone: her sister’s killed herself and their parents with car exhaust. But tagging along to see the Hårga won’t be the escape from this catastrophe that Dani hopes. The first, most dramatic thing she sees is how the Hårga control their population at one end through ‘ättestupa’, an ancient Scandinavian ritual in which the two oldest in the tribe jump off a cliff. (The penny drops for Dani and co., the trap falls during this fall to the death.) But if we wanted to find a culture of senicide we only have to go back to Nazi Germany. The Hårga priestess explains to her shocked guests that ättestupa is healthier than letting an old person age and grow bitter — “poisoning their spirit.” This recalls Dani’s sister, who poisoned her parents — more specifically, she gassed them to death. (The Hårga commune is sometimes referred to as “a camp”.) The guests suffer their own gruesome deaths; Simon (Archie Madekwe) is suspended alive from hooks with his lungs outside his ribs, what IMDb trivia helpfully explains is a Viking torture method known as the ‘Blood Eagle’; but the more discernible echo is of Nazi medical experiments in organ vivisection. The film even ends with the Hårga purging unhealthy spirits in a burnt sacrifice: the literal meaning of ‘holocaust’.
Is the film, then, just an allegory that exploits another generation’s horror? Aster’s described himself as working through his neurotic Jewish fears, so maybe Midsommar is ancestrally anxious like David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London (1981) who has a nightmare where Nazi pig-demons slaughter his family. And fascism as a subtext in horror is hardly unprecedented: the Overlook Hotel’s spiritual birthday of 1921 bridges the New World genocides gone and the Old World genocides to come. (Danny in The Shining rejects absorption into his sinister host community; Dani in Midsommar accepts it…)
But look at when and where Midsommar is set. Sweden is a clever dialectical choice: Scandinavian social democracy is, in the liberal imagination, the enviable end of history, making Sweden all the more ironic homeland for the violent Hårga. At the same time, Sweden is entirely appropriate: the possible location of Aryan ‘Thule’ in the Nazi occult and a current re-spawn point for fascists, who’ve already denounced the film as ‘anti-white’. But lushly forested Sweden also provides Aster with the other plank of meaning for his film. Just before they reach the commune, Pelle and his brother Ingemar offer Dani and guests some magic mushrooms, after which Pelle rhapsodises about flowing with nature while they hallucinate the grass reclaiming their feet. He’d billed his community as “hippy”, and they do appear to be at the green end of the spectrum: garlanded, robed, with a thing for flowers and runes.
But though they look like hippies, they’re also fairly blond, blue-eyed and otherwise conspicuously all-white. To introduce their maypole dance an elder tells a fairy tale about how their young maidens were threatened by a ‘Dark One’. This sinister underside was present in the late 19th / early 20th century Völkisch movement in Northern Europe, which combined Romanticism’s love of the great outdoors with the era’s nationalist politics, and soon graded into racism and anti-semitism: back-to-nature meets Blood and Soil (in one overhead shot, we see Dani ritualistically bury a piece of raw meat). The Völkisch movement would go on to inspire the Third Reich with its own supposed preservation of the countryside and celebration of rural traditions — call it ‘The Nationalsozialistische Trust.’
As for timing, the Hårga priestess and Pelle explain that their special midsummer ritual takes place every 90 years. Assuming Midsommar is set the year it was made or released, what happened in 1928–29? The Wall Street Crash and resulting first electoral breakthroughs of the Nazi party. So what’s the catalyst for fascism in 2019? Barring a few twilight sequences, the majority of the film is shot in glorious sunshine. (One of the challenges Aster must’ve set himself was to scare his audience without relying on the dark.) The priestess reminds us how this summer was “our hottest on record” — said not with the usual climate scientist alarm but with earnest gratitude. And, trying to explain to the guests the ättestupa deaths of the old people, she weirdly speaks of it in terms of “recycling.”
What if a hotter planet will boost cultures like the Hårga, what if the Hårga are a taste of cultures to come? Ones that teach a kitsch ecology of ‘harmonious life cycles’ to justify killing, manage breeding from the top-down — Hårga elders keep bloodlines pure and select who’ll mate — and violently control their borders — the location of the commune is kept secret and if, like Simon’s fiancée Connie (Ellora Torchia), you try to leave, you die. In his book Four Futures Peter Frase predicts ‘exterminism’ as one of the possibilities in the age of climate change: a world of exclusivist elite communes. (For early evidence, see Marine Le Pen and her concern-trolling contrast between prudent settlers and careless nomads.) Considering their long and cyclic history the Hårga are both post-Nazi and proto-Nazi. Midsommar expresses an ongoing and plausible worry: the fascism next time, when the catalyst won’t be economical so much as ecological.
Not everyone is worried in the same way; not everyone is even worried. Mixed-raced Simon and brown Connie might not understand what they saw at the brutal ättestupa ritual, but they recognise it, and they want to Get Out. The film smartly exploits here the cliché of the dispensable ethnic redshirts: though they’re the first to die, they’re also the ones who saw what was coming. Whereas their white fellow guests take an academic or morbid interest: Mark’s annoyed to have missed out on the violence from taking a nap, while Christian decides to make the Hårga subject for his thesis. Dani, considering her family’s death, whom she hallucinates during the ättestupa ritual, is shocked but looks unburdened too.
Complicating this picture is Josh, who’s black, and wants to study the Hårga first. But his plot function is to fall out with Christian for treading on his academic territory then be forced to share his research with the late-coming white guy. To get an edge over Christian, Josh trespasses the Hårga library and takes photos of their forbidden books — and is bludgeoned to death. After he’s gone missing, the Hårga pretend he’s run off with their books, yet Christian is more anxious to apologise and distance himself than to find his friend or say he’s not a thief. By motivating Christian’s lack of concern with petty rivalry Aster exploits the cliché of the conveniently gullible horror film characters to further entrap his.
Christian’s desire not to offend the Hårga, his and Josh’s unfazed cultural relativism, even Mark’s cultural fetishism (he’s the most excited by the prospect of sex and violence) is encouraged by the film. One man’s cult is another man’s culture, and Aster himself has said Christian is more the villain of the piece than the Hårga. He didn’t name Christian so by accident. In The Wicker Man, Edward Woodward’s virginal Christianity wilts before the summery power of Christopher Lee and his fire-jumping sex-hippies. But Midsommar takes that film’s culture clash theme even further. A close-up of a bottle of Ativan in anxious Dani’s bathroom rhymes with the close-up of herbal drafts the Hårga put to more psychedelic use. When Mark is tempted to his doom by a Hårga maiden, she says, “I’ll show you!” though it feels more like “I’ll show you”: the coded aggression in everyday social interaction. Earlier when Dani phoned Christian, scared for her sister, we could hear Mark in the background saying, “Hi Dani! Hi Dani! Hi Dani!” — a nice touch to demonstrate his own coded aggression as much as his class-clown personality: he’s ‘jokingly’ pestering her like he reminds Christian she pesters him. Dani’s sister’s suicide-murder, meanwhile, is an example of our culture’s ‘senseless’ killing set alongside the Hårga’s ritualised and so meaningful kind. How much worse are the Hårga, really, to the cultures our characters come from, how different is their ‘meaningful violence’ to our wars, executions, borders defended to the point of letting thousands drown?
Though the Hårga might not be outright villains, the film doesn’t valorise them; instead it exposes the oxymoron of their ‘nature culture’. The Hårga worship nature to such an extent they relax incest taboos to inbreed an Oracle, whose disability an elder explains is a means to bypass cognition towards instinct. This reflects Sweden’s history of rationalist eugenics (like a reflection, in reverse) and ironises the Hårga’s grand claims. The Oracle’s prophecies are just paint scrawls, the interpretation of which is controlled by a community elite. The last time we see the Oracle, before the final sacrifice, he sits in a cloud of wool — literally wooly thinking. Two Hårga men volunteer to be among the nine sacrificed, and their friends give them potions to ease their pain. But they don’t work: the men still die screaming; culture doesn’t overrule nature. Neither is Aster afraid to show the po-faced silliness of the Hårga, with their flute-playing and tra-la-la frolicking and spiking of pies with pubes, and in doing so reverses the hashtag from ‘my culture is not a costume’ to ‘all culture is a costume.’ Pelle described these rituals as “dressing up”, and Dani does so with the Hårga — most of all by being crowned their May Queen, which leads to her siding with them over the life she knows. As the sociologist Durkheim warned, ritual precedes belief.
In the film’s biggest reversal of expectations Dani is the commune’s beneficiary and not victim. (This builds from The Wicker Man, in which the victim was not the maiden we thought but the virgin cop.) She starts the film with a series of failed communications: her sister, unable to communicate the “darkness” she feels, won’t be reached. Christian misreads Dani’s worry about her sister as paranoia. One of the most excruciating scenes in the film has no gore: not long after her family’s death Dani gently asks Christian why he didn’t tell her he was going to Sweden. His grumpy reaction transposes the hurt feelings, so that in a matter of minutes Dani is the one desperately apologising to Christian for having brought it up — emotional judo in place of empathy. (The scene proof as well that Florence Pugh is off to an early start as one of the UK’s best actors.)
About Christian, Pelle asks Dani: “Does he make you feel held?” A more suspicious Dani might’ve replied, “You mean ‘held’ like bundle-of-sticks held?” For who’s singled out and drawn to fascism, as Pelle draws Dani? Among others, the isolated, the emotionally broken. Though Christian ‘holds’ screaming Dani after she finds out about her family, the camera swoops past his terrified face: he’s as much out of his depth and trapped as he is sorry for her. All Pelle has to do is empathise with Dani, share his own orphaned status (his parents “died in a fire” — maybe in some earlier ritual burning) for her to excuse herself to the bathroom, where she cries again, but this time not in raw pain but almost with a sense of ‘Finally!’
Dani is attracted to Pelle, who draws sketches of her and remembers her birthday while having to jog the memory of her boyfriend. When a Hårga elder claims to Connie that Simon left the camp without her, Dani’s disturbed by the way Christian dismisses Connie’s worry and her own; she detects he’d be similarly unworried for her. Which is why halfway through the film she dreams of waking up alone in the Hårga dormitory: she looks for her boyfriend and friends then sees them driving away without her. She screams but only car exhaust leaves her mouth. Will Poulter’s talent is on full display here: the sting of his huge departing grin at Dani captures the self-spiting malice of a nightmare. But in Freudian terms an anxiety is a wish disguised as a fear; Dani’s already been through the guilt-stricken, child’s wish-fulfilment of family annihilation; her dream of Christian leaving her is a ‘dream’ also in the sense of what is longed for. The car exhaust leaves her mouth, not enters it like it did for her sister. She will not be killed; instead, her pain will make her an accomplice in Christian’s killing.
Christian’s story is that classic, anti-romantic urban legend: you’re about to finally break-up with someone but then they suffer a catastrophe. He’d told his friends he was worried if he broke up with Dani he might “regret it for his rest of his life”. It turns out to be the other way round, while a further claim from that discussion comes true: Mark tells Christian if he breaks up with Dani they can impregnate some Swedish milkmaids, a goal they achieve in the worst, ‘wishing on a cursed monkey paw’ way. To ensure the genetic health of the commune Mark and Christian are seduced by separate girls. When Christian deflowers the girl Maja (not a euphemism: he finds her naked apart from flowers) he does so with an audience of Hårga older women. One of them takes Maja’s hand and sings her orgasm in chorus. Christian pausing his shag to give this older woman a wide-eyed WTF stare is the film’s funniest moment: actor Jack Reynor combines the look of Chris Pratt with the exploded naivety of ‘woah’-era Keanu Reeves; plus it’s always great when a character’s reaction and the audience’s reaction match.
(I should stress how funny the film manages to be. Quentin Tarantino once explained he’s never made a horror because a director with his comic sensibility couldn’t help interrupt the dread. Aster’s achievement is to combine dread and comedy seamlessly (most of the latter coming from Will Poulter’s character Mark, whose bro-vado gives way upon entering the Swedish countryside to neurotic fears about drugs and bugs)).
Christian’s WTF stare is also a sign of his exclusion. He’s outside the commune, the community, the communing: empathy always has a border. He and Mark, their cocks ringed in red, are livestock: prized only for their hearty white cum, put out to stud before they’re put down. Not so for Dani. The film pairs Christian’s witness of female communing with Dani’s witness through a keyhole of him betraying her with Maja. Horrified, she runs to the dormitory, where she has a panic attack. But the Hårga women follow her there and empathise with her in a kind of group-hug meets dramatic breathing-exercise, less emotional catharsis than osmosis.
Dani experiences this the other way round when she picks Christian and not a Hårga as the ninth and final midsummer sacrifice. Aster’s foreshadowing here respects the audience to make the links, ratcheting our dread agonisingly, to the point of comically. When the guests first tour the camp, Simon asks, “Are we just gonna ignore the bear?” as they pass a bear in a cage. Later the film seems to show the point of the bear by cutting away to its fate depicted in the mural: it’s on fire. But in the film’s closing sequence, when we see a farmer teaching kids how to disembowel the bear as a paralysed Christian watches on, we understand Christian’s final resting place and fate.
After the Hårga elders jumped to their own gruesome deaths their watching loved ones wailed and beat their heads, bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘I feel for you’. The Hårga empathise for one another’s pain in a way Christian never did for Dani. Not giving empathy, he’s like an animal, and so is dressed up as one before getting purged by fire. Dani and the Hårga wail for their people inside the fire as though they’re the ones burning — Dani’s surname ‘Ardor’ means ‘burning’ as well as ‘warmth of feeling’. Only at the end of this extreme empathy does she smile. Whereas her sister killed their family in an agony of miscommunication, Dani kills for her new family in a communication breakthrough. For killing can easily coexist with empathy. Empathy isn’t ethics; it’s ethically neutral. Like community, family and other humanist watchwords, it’s just as useful a bonding agent for a fascist people as another.
Dani lost one family but gains another, loses one lover but gains another, a sort of mockery of the restoration scene in a comedy play. A warning, though, for anybody who empathises too much and sees a crowd-pleasing ‘dump his ass’ moment when Dani at last shucks off her terrible boyfriend Christian. She’s travelled the romcom arc, swapped a fake relationship for a real one: with her new, fascistic family. Where the film began with shots of winter – structurally we can assume midwinter – it ends in summer; Dani’s story is one of a broken person finding with the Hårga the sunny togetherness she couldn’t find in the tired, dead world before. (Remember, her family were exhausted to death…)
From the perspective of Western civilisation Abrahamic horror is comforting; the family in Aster’s previous film Hereditary is demonically tormented but at least now they know God exists. In Lovecraft stories your god is irrelevant. While in stories like Midsommar there’s not even any eldritch entity to blame — the Hårga’s Dark One is just a racist fairy tale. You might think this proves the realest horror is always ‘human horror’. But the horror of Midsommar is more one of radical exposure. Culture makes us ‘feel held’: holds us together, holds us in and holds others out. As such, it can seem so solid and (paradoxically) so natural. How easily, though, in the light of another culture it can all be stripped away, making us see our cultural assumptions about family and community and love were just that, assumptions — far from the best, and no defence from worse to come.
Though it’s never explicit Midsommar hints the Hårga practice cannibalism: they serve a human-shaped pie; the meat Dani buries appears after various characters’ violent deaths. For her book Always Coming Home, Ursula Le Guin wrote about an ecological utopia which had one glaring omission and implication. In a back-to-nature culture that treats all life as people, yet still farms and hunts, why wouldn’t you eat humans?
Aster pays tribute to horror films old and new. Further references to The Wicker Man, for example: a wall of previous years’ May Queen / harvest girl photos; a character finding an upright disembodied limb.
He’s also a self-professed fan of Ingmar Bergman. In The Seventh Seal, the minstrel Jof is forced to play a bear while his tormentors try to set him on fire.
Possible references to other films: the scene in which a vengeful Hårga wearing Mark’s skin looms out of the dark towards a bewildered Josh matches a scene in Under the Skin (2013), in which the latest victim of the alien flytrap sees the previous victim (and his fate) floating nearer, partially digested, before popping into a skin sack. And the shots of Dani’s face mid-breakdown dissolving into one another recall Scarlet Johansson’s ‘empathy epiphany’. Both films also feature a physically disabled character, though for very opposing reasons.
And does the triangular sacrificial barn in Midsommar reference the triangular end-level church in Mandy (2018)? Either way, Ari Aster has placed his film in the tradition he wants to be judged.