The Juniper Tree

Director: Nietzchka Keene
Screenwriters: Nietzchka Keene

Institute History

  • 1991 Sundance Film Festival


Steeped in allegory, The Juniper Tree is a period retelling of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale by Los Angeles filmmaker Nietzchka Keene. It is a unique film which maintains an air of solemn detachment in its portrait of the plight of two sisters and the dangerous era they live in. By choosing the barren plateaus of Iceland as her location, Keene immediately creates a strong sense of isolation and loneliness. The camera captures the intrinsic beauty of the landscape but remains completely unintrusive apart from establishing the desired mood.

It is the Middle Ages and the height of the witch hunts. Two sisters flee their home after their mother is burned as a witch. Realizing that the elder sister, Katla, must find a husband to deflect any suspicion of witchcraft and safeguard their lives, the two find Johan with the aid of magical spells. However, after they move onto Johan's farm, problems arise with Johan's son, who greatly resents the presence of his new stepmother. Margit, the younger of the sisters, is haunted by her powers of second sight which she does not fully understand; Katla cannot break the boy's resentment. The tension builds in a classically melodra-matic manner in this story which is full of deception and murder-ous wrath lurking beneath the surface. As the sisters attempt to empower themselves with a degree of self-determination, it is the boy who stands in their way. The Juniper Tree resolves itself with the strain of horror common to many children's fairy tales, particularly those involving witches.

Keene's stylized stoicism does not in the least detract from the intensity of the drama, nor minimize the viewer's involvement. One is drawn into the thick tension developing among the characters, and immersed in the uncertainty of how the situation will work out, especially so because the camera reveals few secrets. The Juniper Tree is undoubtedly a difficult film which demands one's patience, but it is also very compelling because of the way it has found to explore childhood myths. Its vision and quality mark it as a highly accomplished first feature.

— Alberto Garcia

Screening Details

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