Baltasar Kormákur’s eerie Netflix series Katla is an original work of poetic myth about grief, longing and guilt. By Sarah Krasnostein.
Its pages are populated by chimeras, manticores, the Phoenix and the Eater of the Dead, but the strangest creature in Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) might be the most mundane and the least imaginary: the Double. “Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries,” he wrote in an entry particularly dense with literary and mythological references. Egypt had its ka, Germany its doppelgänger; Scotland has both the fetch – a spectral twin who comes to fetch a person about to die – and the wraith – an apparition of one’s exact image seen just before one’s death. To meet oneself, Borges observed, is ominous.
Katla – named for the subglacial volcano roiling at the centre of its story – is the first Netflix original series commissioned from Iceland. Created by Baltasar Kormákur (Everest, The Deep, Jar City, Trapped), it’s set in the remote coastal town of Vík, near the volcano of that name, which in this story has been erupting for a year. In the first of eight episodes, we are introduced to Vík’s residents and their lives with a world-building skill that is rare (episode one of Mare of Easttown is the only other example within recent memory) but unsurprising from Kormákur, who has spent his career investigating the summits and nadirs of human experience.
Wearing masks because the air is no longer safe to breathe, everyone in Vík has received what Joseph Campbell referred to as “the call to adventure” – and they have ignored it. With excuses that run from stubbornness to stasis, they have chosen to stay with the familiar at great cost. To remain where they are – physically, in their ash-coated environs, and emotionally, in their life-constricting circumstances – is dangerous.
The show opens with rescue worker Gríma, exhausted by a year spent looking for her sister, Ása, who disappeared the day the eruptions began. Gríma lives with her husband in her bleak childhood home. She is unwell, and dismissive of her widowed father’s calls for her to carry on with her own life. Suddenly a woman emerges – naked, painted with thick black ash – from the glacier melting by the volcano. Then others appear until the long gone are suddenly back, or so it seems.
They are initially just the whites of their eyes and chattering teeth. But once the opaque layer of ash is removed from their skin and hair, the doubles are fully formed, thinking, feeling, remembering beings – as impossible to rationally dismiss or easily integrate as the logic of dreams.
The show has been compared to Solaris (Stanisław Lem’s book more than Andrei Tarkovky’s film) as well as the French series The Returned. I would add David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and a smidge of Northern Exposure – albeit one absolutely devoid of humour (for that, see Timothy Greenberg’s Living with Yourself ). With its swirling atmosphere of fear-inducing strangeness, Katla is often described as an eerie sci-fi thriller but, more accurately, it’s a significant and original work of poetic myth about grief, longing and guilt.
Sandwiched between smoke and soot, Vík is accessible only by boat. Visitors require a permit to be ferried across the Markarfljót river by an amiable, Thermos-toting Charon. Once arrived, they stay at the Hotel Vík, run by Bergrún, the Tarot and entrail-reading wise woman, who dryly introduces the idea that the ash-covered doubles are the changelings of Icelandic folklore – children of the Hidden People.
Bergrún left Vík to follow her dreams around the world and ended up happily enough back where she started. Not so for the other characters, such as Gríma – the gap between what they wished for and what life has delivered is far greater. This is the space in which the strange visitors emerging from the crevasses wreak their havoc.
We meet Darri, the geologist exploring the volcano, and his wife, Magnea, whose marriage has not survived the death of their son. There is Gísli, the evangelical police chief caring for his dying wife. We watch him read to her from the Book of Job, another story that grapples with the gap between what we want and what we get, the Just Is-ness of injustice in a world where goodness is no guarantee and the ground might open under us at any moment. Gríma’s father, Þór, spends his days caring for stray animals and repairing machinery, stoically tending to everything but the void he carries inside. “Everything in this universe repeats itself,” he says. “The sun comes up, the sun goes down. The sun comes up again … everything goes round and round and it’s absurd. Who am I to question the nature of things?”
These finely drawn characters move in a realist setting of meaningful coincidence between their external and interior landscapes – the fire burning under ice, the dying animals, the Arctic tides, the isolated buildings of Vík and its environs where colour is used to beautiful emotional effect. Reds and greens and blues are flattened in the gritty daylight as if at dusk. The pink and baby blue Rococo audacity of Gísli’s police station marks it as a place unconnected to its surrounds. Visitors arrive in white, under transparent raincoats as pink as babies and as innocent. An aerial view of straight road carved through white snow is so monochromatic it could have been shot in black and white.
A lesser show would’ve stopped here, content with the masterfully appointed frame. But one of the things that makes Katla exceptional is not just what we see, but how it is shown. Slow pacing allows time for necessary reflection. With equal dexterity the camera conveys the sublimity of the vast volcanic landscape and – in slightly angled, tight close-ups – the topography of the human face as emotion courses beneath. So effective are its optics that they are almost better described as haptics – we are allowed to linger on the heart-slowing softness of a sweater, deep powdery piles of black ash near thresholds, strands of hair matted with defrosting mud. Perhaps this is why its most immediate visual comparisons are painterly rather than cinematic – the inwardness of a Hopper landscape or a van Eyck portrait; the intermingling of the mundane and demonic in the fires of a Bosch.
Without its expertly measured writing and acting, Katla would have failed to marshal all this imagery, however powerful, into something majestic and moving. Each actor performs with such understated delicacy that often I did not know I had been hit by a wave of deepest emotion – tenderness or sorrow or horror – until I was submerged in its warmth. This judiciousness is what makes the show’s use of violence – the final episode is particularly brutal – so effective, because it is both realistic and relevant. Katla ends with a cliffhanger, and I believe there will be a second season. But I would be satisfied with the note it ends on: the suspended quality of not knowing feels more powerfully suited to the questions it raises than any resolution.
Where Borges saw portentous threat in the many mythologies of the Double, Carl Jung saw something golden. Everyone has a shadow, according to Jung. That’s where we submerge the parts of ourselves that we have been socially conditioned to revile. But we are called – as the hero is called – to drag the darkness into the light; to wrestle, above all, with ourselves.
Jung called this journey of internal confrontation “the doorway to the real”, by which he meant not simply a more integrated view of ourselves and the world around us, but the serenity of internal authority to which that view gives rise. But you know us – mostly we decline the conflict, preferring to keep our hidden self under the ice.
Maybe that’s why we’re more willing to invest enthusiastically in ever-recontextualised stories about doubles and changelings as pure entertainment than to wonder about our enormous emotional attraction to such stories in the first place. After all, the inconvenient weight of certain explanations for our discontents can easily be dismissed as fantasy if we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re looking at them from the outside.
Katla is showing on Netflix.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 31, 2021 as "Double visions".
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