Nanook of the North

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 17, 2014

If you look closely there’s lots of scattershot material here.  Cobbled together, shaggy-dog elements kind of come through the cracks.  This is partly because at the time of production the modern documentary hadn’t exactly been invented yet. It’s also because this is a barnstormer’s independent film production, and a crazy gamble of a production at that.  No wonder it’s sloppy!  Other than that, great things abound.  Flaherty’s oft-celebrated igloo sequence is celebrated for a reason.  It is one of cinema’s miracles.  (See “Nanook” entry in Ian Aitken, ed., Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, Routledge, 2006.)  The (faked) tug of war with the seal is arresting and amusing.  It might distract you from the more matter-of-fact, much more important aftermath.  Look at the detail of that carve-up!  Nanook/Allakariallak is an architect, and artist, a holy man, a warm-hearted vocational instructor and a terrific butcher to boot.

“Nanook” is a great character, but there’s more than just him to this movie.  With all its fibs and fudges, it still reaches back across industrialization and conquest to primordial antiquity, and in a way that few films have managed.  (Dreyer’s “Joan,” Rossellini’s Stromboli,  City of Gold, Heartland, Master and Commander, most anything by Sergei Paradjanov.)  This feels like creation’s dawn.  It may be a wintry morning, but it still makes you optimistic about mankind and its possibilities.  How consoling this must have been back in war-traumatized 1922!  Back to the elemental basics, to humans in a natural space, and to all the good that follows.

Curiously, I found Abraham Maslow (the obligatory “A Theory of Human Motivation,” 1943) jumping out at me during the film’s concluding half hour.  For all of the previously described positivity, there’s also a powerful, looming fatality to this whole thing.  Look at that amazing shot, late in the film, as the members of this community all walk out of focus, cross that blasted space, becoming mere ghostly silhouettes.  Talk about direness!  These people struggle to cover their physiological and security needs.  And Nanook dies within two years of this production; they ultimately don’t cover those needs all that successfully.

But the grace with which these people eke!  How did they leap from physiological and safety needs right up to self-actualization?  Flaherty, and more particularly his subjects, gives us a punishing elemental saga that doesn’t result in Jack London-like naturalism.  Yes these Inuit eat raw meat, but compare the unforced, thoroughly infused cheerfulness of these subjects with those snarling savage dogs.  You can’t quite choose your lot, but you can kind of choose what you do with it.


Another igloo film: