Trying to reach the sublime: Robert Eggers, cinematic poet of the past

In the Viking epic The Northman, the arthouse horror auteur behind The Witch and The Lighthouse takes on his most ambitious challenge to date.

Alexander Skarsgard and Anya Taylor-Joy star in a scene from the movie "The Northman." (CNS photo/Aidan Monaghan, Focus Features)

C.S. Lewis, in his preface to St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, wrote a brisk apologia for reading premodern authors, later published under the title “On the Reading of Old Books.” Lewis’s simple thesis is that we are all inescapably cultural products of a particular time and place, and reading old books broadens our horizons, liberating us from the myopia of our age.

There is no hint of a narrative of decline in Lewis’ argument: Future books would in principle be quite as broadening as old ones, he notes wryly, but “unfortunately we cannot get at them.” At the same time, his argument is both a repudiation of and a remedy for chronological snobbery. The tendency to condescend to past ages, as if our own moment were the most advanced product of a constant evolutionary cultural advancement, is best refuted by meeting our cultural elders as often as possible.

When it comes to movies, of course, the timeline of available material is sharply restricted: “Old movies” can mean movies only two or three decades old, and at most take us back only to the early 20th century, with fleeting glimpses of the late 19th. Movies, like books, can be set in any time period or cultural context—but most period films reveal much more about the times in which they were made than the times they are ostensibly about.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” L.P. Hartley famously quipped. Still, few films about the past give the viewer the feeling of visiting a foreign country—or of watching, so to speak, a foreign film. Instead, most period films fall into at least one of two opposite traps: Either they condescend to the past with triumphalistic chronological snobbery, or they project anachronistic, contemporary attitudes and ideas onto past eras, or both.

One who wishes to write effectively about the past—or to effectively depict the past in cinema—must begin, as Lewis counsels, by reading old books: not just one or two, but as many as possible. Few filmmakers have the inclination or the aptitude for that kind of rigorous research.

Which brings us to Robert Eggers.

Just like us, but different worldviews

“Fairytales, folk tales, comparative religion, and mythology are my biggest interests,” Eggers told Filmmaker magazine back in 2014 before his directorial debut, The Witch, established his visionary bona fides. “If I’m not working on a project,” he added, “I’ll read Spencer’s The Faerie Queene for fun.” Any suspicion that this might be pretentious smoke-blowing was dispelled when The Witch debuted.

From the archaic, Jacobean sentence structure and vocabulary of the dialogue to the Calvinist cast of the characters’ worldview, it’s clear that Eggers immersed himself deeply in the 17th-century New-England Puritan world of his characters. A closing title revealed that much of the dialogue was taken directly from the period sources—including “journals, diaries, and court records”—that inspired the film. Beyond that, Eggers also read extensively from the Puritan clergymen Cotton Mather and Samuel Willard; he even reported reading the 1560 Geneva Bible from cover to cover, focusing particularly on the Gospels.

“Reading these religious texts and these personal diaries was a great way to get an understanding of these people as human beings,” Eggers told Vulture in 2016. “They’re just like us, even if their worldviews are very different.”

Nowhere is this tension between common humanity and divergent worldviews more evident to me than in an exchange between The Witch’s father figure, William (Ralph Ineson), and his young son Caleb, who worries about the salvation of his baby brother Sam, who is presumed murdered, and of his own salvation if he should die. Caleb can quote Mathers’ catechism Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes: “My first father sinned, and I in him … I was conceived in sin and born in iniquity … Adam’s sin imputed to me and a corrupt nature dwelling within me … My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually.” But what does this mean for Sam’s soul, or for Caleb’s?

“Look you,” William begins. “I love thee marvelous well—but ’tis God alone, not man, what knows who is a son of Abraham and who is not. Who is good and who is evil. Fain would I tell thee Sam sleeps in Jesus, that thou wilt, that I will, but I cannot tell thee that. None can.”

What’s extraordinary about this speech is the juxtaposition of terrible beliefs with palpable human emotion and intellectual rigor. From our perspective, William believes monstrous things, but he is not a monstrous person, nor is he uncritical or unconflicted. The Witch succeeds in portraying Puritans—Puritans!—without either projecting modern attitudes onto them or condescending to them. Watching it brings home to us Hartley’s line about the past; one could say The Witch plays as a kind of foreign film.

Medieval craftsmen doing it for God

Eggers also did a lot of reading for his second film, The Lighthouse, from literary icons including Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Louis Stevenson to the work of Maine native and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, whose 1890 novels Strangers and Wayfarers and Tales of New England draw heavily on Jewett’s interviews with sailors and sea captains as well as landlubbers and her attention to their language.

For his third feature, The Northman, Eggers set himself his most formidable challenge to date: Turning to the Scandinavian legend of Amleth—the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Eggers set out to create the most credible cinematic evocation of the Viking world ever committed to film, on an epic scale dwarfing his first two films.

Eggers cowrote the screenplay with the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón and worked with the linguist Haukur Þorgeirsson, who helped them utilize Old Norse for ritual settings and songs, drawing on medieval Icelandic sources. Those elements aside, most of the dialogue is in English: a compromise at which Eggers clearly chafes, judging from repeated rueful invocations in interviews of Mel Gibson, whose ability to self-finance his movies gave him the freedom to shoot Apocalypto as well as The Passion of the Christ in non-English languages. (Of the struggle between artistic integrity and commercial concerns, Eggers told The Guardian, “This is going to sound awfully precious—you know, feel free to puke—but the idea of medieval craftsmen…doing it for God is an appealing one to me.”)

The Northman is an unnervingly straightforward revenge story about a young prince named Amleth who witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his father (Ethan Hawke) and carry off his mother (Nicole Kidman). The boy barely escapes with his own life, and his sole thought is a threefold goal: “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”

Taken in by Vikings, Amleth grows into a hulking brute (Alexander Skarsgård) who takes part in vicious attacks with Berserker warriors. An early action sequence, filmed in a single tour de force tracking shot, follows Amleth into a raid on a Rus village in which defenders are murdered, captives enslaved, women raped, and children too young to work are massacred. Amleth’s indifference to these atrocities is alienating, and immediately distinguishes The Northman from revenge-themed movies like Braveheart in which sympathetic protagonists generally kill only in self-defense or righteous vengeance.

In Amleth’s worldview, it is not Fjölnir’s murderous violence, but his treachery against his brother and his sister-in-law, that warrants Amleth’s lifelong quest of revenge—and he pursues his vengeance with a savagery rivaling any splatter horror movie. There is nothing here like the psychological complexity and moral introspection of Shakespeare’s version of the story, and Eggers presents Amleth’s actions without judgment of any kind, evoking the style of Icelandic saga, which the scholar Peter Hallberg, in his classic study The Icelandic Saga, says is noted for

an extraordinarily objective and realistic manner, far removed from spiritualism and metaphysical brooding…Formally, at any rate, there prevails an almost complete freedom from moral value judgments. The saga observes a strict detachment; the narrator’s ego is completely suppressed. This attitude of the writer toward his subject matter finds a fitting mode of expression in his unadorned and austere style.

No Viking atheists

As he did in The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers takes his characters’ belief systems as seriously as the rest of their worldview. The Witch is set in a world in which powers and principalities are real and wanton women not only sell their souls to the enemy of mankind, but prey upon the vulnerable, murdering children and destroying families. The mythology of The Lighthouse is less coherent: bits of seafaring superstition, from mermaid horror-fantasies to the taboo against killing seabirds believed to embody the souls of drowned sailors, are juxtaposed with riffs on the Greek myths of the sea-god Proteus and the Titan Prometheus, the stealer of divine fire and technology. In The Northman, Eggers is once more, as in The Witch, on surer footing.

The Northman opens with an uncredited, distorted voiceover ostensibly from Odin himself, setting up the story that follows. Amleth receives visionary guidance on his quest from a blind seeress (Björk) and a male witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), and confronts an undead barrow-dweller to obtain a magical sword that can only be drawn at night or at the “gates of Hel,” here identified with the volcano Hekla in southern Iceland.

Throughout his quest Amleth is guided by reliance upon the inexorability of fate; at one point, to save the life of his wife Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, the lead in The Witch), Amleth even surrenders to his enemy, confident that he cannot die because he is fated to kill him. (Amleth escapes thanks to assistance from ravens, a totem-animal of his dead father.) Honorable death in battle means acceptance into Valhalla, accompanied by a Valkyrie.

Of this supernatural realism, Eggers told The Guardian:

In all my work, and I’m not saying I’m succeeding in this, but I am trying to reach the sublime. So I suppose that’s why I am interested in these periods of history: there are no Viking atheists. There are Valkyries and giants and trolls, and sometimes people get put off that they’re in these sagas that are supposed to be naturalistic. And I’m like, yeah, but they believed that this was real. It’s naturalistic to them.

In The Witch, the worldview of the family at the story’s center is challenged by the seeming absence of God, who does not answer their prayers to deliver them from evil. Amleth’s simplistic moral outlook is shattered when an encounter with his long-lost mother reveals a back story far messier and more complicated than the outrage his life has been dedicated to avenging. He is also given an enigmatic challenge that seems at odds with the fate set before him: “You must choose between kindness for your kin and hatred for your enemies,” the he-witch tells him.

For me, The Witch remains Eggers’ most satisfying film to date. It’s the one film of his I can make sense of both on the characters’ worldview and on my own. The big moments hit hard in part because the small, quiet, mundane moments work so well. Eggers’ more recent films are marked by ever-mounting intensity, without much room for quiet, mundane moments.

Still, The Northman is an arresting immersion in the medieval Scandinavian world, one that expands viewers’ cinematic horizons. Wherever Eggers’ historical curiosity leads him next, I’ll be there.

(Editor’s note: The Motion Picture Association rating for The Northman is R. All of Eggers’ films are rated R for adult content including graphic violence and nudity; The Lighthouse and The Northman also contain sexual content.)


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About Steven D. Greydanus 27 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

2 Comments

  1. I have read a number of reviews of this film, articles about it, and an interview with the director . Your review made me decide that I had to see it.

    I have to wear earplugs at today’s screenings, so I often miss bits of dialog. Many times, my viewing of a film in a theater is an opportunity to decide if I should later buy a Blu-ray disc, enable the subtitles, and hear the rest of it.

    There are a few unforgettable moments in this film. Given the fact that the Vikings, immersed in a pagan revenge culture, have apparently little knowledge of Christianity (“Their god is a corpse nailed to a tree”), the prediction spoken to Amleth is remarkable. If I remember correctly, it goes like this:

    You must choose between hatred for your enemies and kindness for your kinfolk.

  2. I found it hard not to laugh throughout the film. Maybe I missed something. The casting seemed bad: Ethan Hawke as a Viking is a non-starter. The characters talk like action figures wielded by a 12 year-old boy: “I shall slay with my sword and justice shall prevail, etc.” Rabid fans of the film, of which there are many, say the greatness of the film is the unrelatable characters, which is authentic and accurate. That logic doesn’t make sense to me: The Iliad, Gilgamesh, and other ancient epics have relatable characters and are much older and in some sense odder. I’m sure the dialogue is authentic to the source material but somehow Eggers reproduced it without getting beneath it, as he did in “The Witch.” He made us see an ancient setting but without feeling like any of the characters were actual human beings. That’s what “300” did. “Apocalypto” is a great counterpoint because it made one feel from the start immersed in an alien setting that still had characters who felt like actual human beings. Am I the only one who felt this movie was laughably bad?

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