Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Tilbury (1987) (TV)

Directed by:
Viðar Víkingsson

Iceland wanted no part in WWII and declared neutrality, refusing to side with either the Nazis or the Allies. That's when the UK took it upon themselves to launch an invasion of the country, sending their Royal Navy and Marines there in 1940 against the Icelandic government's wishes. While this wasn't a bloody, violent takeover by any means, or really a takeover at all, the Brits certainly weren't wanted there at the time either. This was viewed as a major violation of the countries desire for independence. Looking through a retrospective lens, one can now say that the imposed British presence helped ward off a potential German takeover. It also was an important strategic decision, especially after Canadian and American forces joined the war efforts and tens of thousands of troops ended up stationed on the isolated, sparsely-populated North Atlantic island. However, this caused a lot of local turmoil, but perhaps not in the most expected of ways... 

Though the occupation brought money, jobs and improved infrastructure to the poor country, Icelandic menfolk became infuriated when many of "their" women began romantic relationships with the foreign soldiers. These women were branded traitors and prostitutes, and many of them were shunned by their friends and family. The government of Iceland even formed a special committee to try to crack down on these taboo relationships. It was unsuccessful, but the "problem" eventually solved itself as the war wound down and the troops started to leave.

While I know nobody's here for a history lesson (at least one not related to film), it's an important topic to discuss in regards to this particular film, which is deliberately commenting upon it. Tilbury is set in 1940, right after the British invasion, and stretches into 1941, when U.S. troops started arriving, and cleverly weaves its mythology (apparently based on local folklore) into this real life historical event.

Audun Thorarinsson (Kristján Franklín Magnús), a young, sheltered lad from the country with aspirations of becoming a professional swimmer, is sent to Reykjavík to help out the British troops and take advantage of their better pool facilities. While he's there, he hopes to reconnect with his childhood crush, a parson's daughter named Gudrún Innness (Helga Bernhard). Audun moves in with a widow and her rebellious teenage daughter, Sigrún (Erla Skúladóttir), who's basically the embodiment of what 40s era Icelandic men feared from their women. She smokes, drinks, asserts her independence and is unimpressed with uncultured local men ("ordinary yokels!"), instead opting to sneak out late at night to "entertain" soldiers.

Audun eventually runs across Gudrún, only to discover she has also hooked up with a Brit: Major Tilbury (Karl Ágúst Úlfsson). The catch? He's old, short, bald, obnoxious and hideously unattractive, with bushy eyebrows, a terrible complexion, a protruding chin and a huge nose. He also may already be married and has a bad habit of randomly projectile vomiting huge amounts of green something or other. What could she possibly see in such a grotesque character? Well, aside from the fact he's a high ranking member of the military supposedly descended from British royalty. And a snazzy dancer.

The few minutes of narration that opens the film has already clued us in to what's going on. According to legend, women facing hunger or hardship are able to bring a tiny imp called a "tilberi" to life by wrapping a human rib in wool, nestling it in their bosom and then activating it with communion wine. The tilberi will then go out and drink milk from livestock and produce a substance called "tilberi butter." The butter, which has a strange consistency and greenish color, can entirely sustain the woman, but in return she has to feed the tilberi her own blood. Thankfully, once the process has started, the woman will miraculously sprout a nipple on her inner thigh for the imp to feed from! The existence of the tilberi also has to remain hidden or else it will retaliate against its "mommy" and suckle her to death!

While the folklore here is certainly unique, this strange and ultimately awkward cocktail of history, horror, humor and mythology possesses an uncertain tone that will delight some but be a hard pillberi to swallow for others. The addition of highly questionable subtext and a bland roster of unlikable / underdeveloped characters only add fuel to the polarizing fire. There's absurdist and often juvenile comedy, surreal elements, childhood flashbacks, hallucinations and crude, gross out moments with Troma-style puking, and they even throw in a long choreographed dance number for some reason. Perhaps they should have set some time aside to make us actually care about these people instead.

Though he certainly shows more sympathy toward his fellow countrymen, at times the director seems to be satirizing both the unwelcome military invaders and the resulting homegrown hysteria. The Icelandic women here are all but lining up to get with the soldiers, while the men are flummoxed and frustrated. Gudrún is caught sneaking off to a graveyard to feed her tilberi (disguised as her British military lover "Major Tilbury," of course!) and has been using its butter to make Cadbury (a British company) chocolate products. A Scottish general refers to local hired help as "the lowest form of life" while soldiers mockingly wave used condoms around to signal their conquests. When U.S. forces finally show up ("We Americans will make sure you get all the guns you need!"), their leader refers to the locals as "backwater peasants" as he eats a Hershey's bar.

Several other aspects of the plot manage to be even more perplexing. Now I want to be careful here and point out that depicting characters with certain prejudices is not the same thing as endorsing said prejudices. That said, what we're left with here is a film that's so heavy on anti-Jewish sentiment and dog whistles, and so heavy on criticizing the Allied forces, that it actually appears to be sympathizing with the Nazis! I'm not sure if this comes off that way because it's so muddled or if it comes off that way because the leveled criticism is extremely imbalanced.

Firing a starting pistol during a swim meet is used as an excuse for the military to arrest Coach Kemp (Aðalsteinn Bergdal), who turns out to be a Nazi sympathizer and bemoans the "Jewish mentality" now corrupting his country. This teary-eyed character, arrested and held captive under false pretenses, is also the only character in the entire movie willing to tell Audun the truth, thus steering our protagonist in the right direction. As far as the evil, culture-destroying tilberi is concerned, it's designed with a pretty infamous anti-Semitic trope: The large hooked nose. One of the many Nazi propaganda campaigns used against Jews involved spreading lies that they were poisoning food, and thus it's no coincidence this features a scene of its evil, short, big-schnozed demon throwing out contaminated candy bars to children!

The film not only depicts the anti-Nazi forces as complete scumbags who aggressively threaten the Icelandic way of life, but also depicts the local women as vacuous, promiscuous, backstabbing social climbers. Everything leans toward painting Icelandic men as the ultimate victims in this scenario simply for having romantic competition from outsiders, but it's hard to forget it's saying this while there's a global genocide of millions occurring simultaneously. Ah, the perils of isolationism and bubble life. Your world-shattering problem that's unique to you or your culture may be the ultimate IDGAF to the rest of the world in the grand scheme of things. The naïve male lead is left scarred and alone a year later, but there's no real catharsis for him either. He's still shackled to his lost love (who never appears to have fancied him anyway) and ends up getting sucked into a haystack by unseen forces (?) for all his troubles! I'd like to think the director and writer had other, more nobler intentions with this film, but whatever those were, they get hopelessly scrambled here.

Not many people had even heard of this before it turned up on Severin's All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror box set in 2021. That collection, spread out over 14 discs, contains nineteen features, tons of shorts, essays and interviews, Keir-La Janisse's 3+-hour-long documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021), a book, and tons of special features. It's well worth getting if you have the money to throw down on it. If not, many of the titles from this set can currently be viewed for free on Tubi. Some can also be found on Youtube, though the quality obviously isn't going to be as good.

This 2021 release marks the very first time this film has been officially released here in America as well as the first time it's been available with proper English subtitles. Notable extras include commentary from the director and writer Þórarinn Eldjárn, interviews with the director and stars Magnúss and Úlfsson and a 33-minute short from the director called Tache blanche sur la nuque / "A White Spot in the Back of the Head" (1979), which he made while studying in France. It's based on a ghost story called Djákninn á Myrká ("The Deacon of Myrka"), which is also its Icelandic release title, and is yet another new-to-me movie I need to add to my ever-growing index.

Like Vikingsson's previous genre film GHOST STORY (1985), this is short (just 56 minutes) and was made for the Icelandic TV network Ríkisútvarpið-Sjónvarp (RÚV).

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