Cinema and Media Studies Icelandic Cinema
Björn Norðfjörð
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0368


Icelandic cinema is comprised of both familiar features common to all national cinemas and unique ones that make it stand out among all the others. In fact, with its single distinct language, official state religion, government-sponsored cultural production (including cinema), “natural” island borders, and a mostly homogenous population, it comes close to capturing the essence of the concept of national cinema that is so rarely borne out by actuality. Conversely, what makes Icelandic cinema different from the “typical” national cinema is its extreme smallness—arguably the smallest one in all of world cinema. The year 1980 marks the most important turning point in the history of Icelandic cinema since it was then that the first films funded by the newly established Icelandic Film Fund were released in cinemas. Before then, and all the way back to the early twentieth century, pioneering filmmakers made numerous documentaries, the occasional narrative feature or even experimental film. But without state support and lacking infrastructure, such efforts were intermittent and lacking in consistency. That all changed during the 1980s as a new generation of filmmakers began the work of establishing a national cinema that privileged local talent and stories and was often inspired by canonical Icelandic literature. After some striking box-office successes in its early years the fledgling industry found itself in financial crisis as the decade drew to a close. The problem was solved through an increase in international partnership and the garnering of financial support from pan-Nordic and European film funds, resulting in a shift from a national to transnational emphasis during the 1990s. Another global turn emerged in the first decade of the twenty-first century as foreign runaway productions—led by Hollywood—increasingly made Iceland their home. In a very short span of time a tiny local cinema had developed into a complex industry, well integrated into the circuits of world cinema. Certainly, smaller nations (including ones lacking official statehood) have produced the occasional film, but a multidimensional film industry producing both a variety of local films and participating in the making of global blockbusters is not found among a smaller national population. It is in this sense that Iceland is the smallest of all national cinemas.

General Overviews

The first overview of Icelandic cinema, Sveinsson 1981, was published at exactly the same time that Icelandic cinema was emerging. Cowie 2000 is therefore arguably the first chronicle of Icelandic national cinema as the well-known critic and scholar kept a constant eye on the development of Icelandic cinema throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century. Drawing increasingly upon film scholarship, others soon pursued the history of Icelandic cinema with greater scrutiny. The lengthy essay Møller 2005 and the dissertation Norðfjörð 2005 investigate the tension between local and global elements in Icelandic cinema. It is evident from these publications, and also Iversen, et al. 1998, Norðfjörð 2007, and Gravestock 2019, that most general overviews are published in English. Towering over all Icelandic publications is Elísson 1999, which includes many key historical essays on early Icelandic cinema along with analyses devoted to films from the last two decades of the twentieth century. While nothing comparable has been published since, Vilhjálmsson 2019, cited under Anthologies, includes an updated historical overview of Icelandic cinema. Notably the only book-length study devoted to the topic in Icelandic is Einarsson 2011, an economic treatise. Filling in many of the blanks, the ten-part television series Sverrisson 2021 provides a comprehensive chronology of Icelandic cinema drawing upon interviews with critics, scholars, and filmmakers alike. There is also a handful of overview publications in other languages, most notably Schindler 2015 in German.

  • Cowie, Peter. Icelandic Films 1980–2000. Reykjavík, Iceland: Kvikmyndasjóður Íslands, 2000.

    Already well known for his extensive work on world cinema—not least Scandinavian cinema and Ingmar Bergman—Cowie composed this overview of Icelandic cinema for the Icelandic Film Fund. This is an updated version of Cowie’s Icelandic Films, published in 1995, and Cowie had also included prior a brief chapter on Icelandic cinema in his 1992 publication Scandinavian Cinema. As in much of his other work Cowie’s approach is director focused in this volume.

  • Einarsson, Ágúst. Hagræn áhrif kvikmyndalistar. Bifröst, Iceland: Háskólinn á Bifröst, 2011.

    Einarsson is not a film scholar but an economist and this is therefore not a work of conventional film scholarship. Instead of focusing on the aesthetics and meaning of Icelandic films, Einarsson’s interest lies in the institutional, legal, and above all, the economic, parameters of Icelandic filmmaking.

  • Elísson, Guðni, ed. Heimur kvikmyndanna. Reykjavík, Iceland: Forlagið and, 1999.

    Although not a direct linear overview of Icelandic cinema, this anthology covers more angles than any other single publication on the topic. It includes numerous key essays on Icelandic cinema prior to 1980 and many analyses of more contemporary works focusing on topics like nature, adaptation, and masculinity. It is unfortunate that this pioneering work of editor Elísson has not been emulated in Icelandic publications in the twenty-first century.

  • Gravestock, Steve. A History of Icelandic Film. Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival, 2019.

    As a straightforward catalogue of Icelandic film production, this book lacks some of the key bibliographic references that have informed the historical overview of Icelandic cinema. The privileging of lengthy plot summaries over formal and thematic analysis might be useful to readers unfamiliar with the Icelandic film canon.

  • Iversen, Gunnar, Astrid Soderbergh Widding, and Tytti Soila, eds. Nordic National Cinemas. London: Routledge, 1998.

    As indicated by its title, this volume is a general overview of the Nordic national cinemas rather than specifically Icelandic national cinema, and indeed the chapter by Widding on Iceland (pp. 96–101) is both brief and somewhat misleading. Nonetheless, the inclusion of Iceland in this volume speaks to the importance of thinking about Icelandic cinema in its Nordic regional context.

  • Møller, Birgir Thor. “In and Out of Reykjavik: Framing Iceland in the Global Daze.” In Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition. Edited by Andrew Nestingen and Trevor G. Elkington, 307–340. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005.

    An English translation of Møller’s earlier Danish essay “Island og filmen gennem 100 år: En rejse mellem land og by, fortid og samtid” published in 2003. In some ways the original Danish title better represents the scope of Møller’s essay that is neither limited to Reykjavík nor contemporary cinema.

  • Norðfjörð, Björn. “Icelandic Cinema: A National Practice in a Global Context.” PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2005.

    The first comprehensive scholarly overview of Icelandic cinema. Drawing upon theories of nation, globalization, adaptation, national and transnational cinema, the author describes the conflict between local and global elements throughout its history. It introduces little studied periods of Icelandic filmmaking prior to 1980, while also chronicling contemporary film production via interviews with film directors and producers.

  • Norðfjörð, Björn. “Iceland.” In The Cinema of Small Nations. Edited by Mette Hjort and Duncan Petrie, 43–59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

    In addition to offering a historical overview of Icelandic cinema emphasizing the transnational shift of the 1990s, the essay considers the importance of scale for the study of national cinemas. In particular, it addresses Icelandic cinema as an extra small one.

  • Schindler, Agnes. Icelandic National Cinema. Film- und Rezensionsanalysen nationaler Identität. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2015.

    The most comprehensive work on Icelandic cinema in the German language. While also addressing its earlier history, the focus is very much on Icelandic cinema after 1980, emphasizing questions and issues involving national identity.

  • Sveinsson, Erlendur, ed. Kvikmyndir á Íslandi. Reykjavík, Iceland: Kvikmyndasafn Íslands, 1981.

    As Icelandic cinema was being established as a national cinema, this pioneering publication supported its emergence with a look back to the past. Among the entries is Sveinsson’s own brief but first historical overview of Icelandic cinema, “Kvikmyndir á Íslandi í 75 ár” (pp. 25–32).

  • Sverrisson, Ásgrímur. Ísland: bíóland. Reykjavík, Iceland: Kvikmyndasögur/RÚV, 2021.

    Presented in ten approximately hour-long episodes, this documentary series made for television covers the whole span of Icelandic cinema in chronological order from the silent period to the present day. It is told through interviews with scholars, critics, and filmmakers—and plethora of telling film clips. It has been translated to English under the title “Iceland: Filmland”.

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