A portrait of “Northman” director Robert Eggers: head off – culture

Robert Eggers is interested in the same thing about filmmaking that he enjoyed watching films as a child: immersing yourself in another reality. “Drawing people deep into a world. I want them to be there: with the figures at the helm on the longship, at the ritual dance around the campfire, at the all-important sword fight.”

The director is presenting his Viking epic “The Northman” in Hamburg. And during the interview he almost begs to see the film in the cinema. Not on a small screen. He couldn’t bear the thought.

The 38-year-old has only made three feature films. But all three of them have such their own signature beyond the Hollywood standard that one can confidently count him among the most exciting American filmmakers of the present. His feature film debut was 2015’s witch horror The Witch, for which he won Best Director at the Sundance Festival. 2019 followed the claustrophobic seaman drama “The Lighthouse”in which two men go insane on a foggy Atlantic island.

“A lot of the old sagas read like an 80’s action script.”

“The Northman” is again an intense visual experience. In Eggers’ apocalyptic interpretation of the Norse Amlethus saga, on which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is also based, Alexander Skarsgård plays a berserker thirsty for revenge, and Björk whispers dark prophecies as a witch in her first cinema role in 17 years. It’s a film of blood and sweat and dirt, deeply rooted in Icelandic mythology. Like its predecessors, “The Northman” feels like the suburbs of Hell – only heavier. Blood spurts like crazy and a lot of heads are cut off.

“I’m a bit shocked myself that I made such a macho film,” says Eggers in a chic hotel on the Alster. He also looks chic himself: his beard trimmed fashionably, signet rings on his hands, his outfit completely in black. But he doesn’t seem to feel really comfortable on the stiff brocade sofa. Eggers is the guy who probably would rather stand on a muddy, freezing cold film set than under Hanseatic chandeliers.

Shooting during Corona: Robert Eggers on the set of “The Northman”.

(Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Universal)

The director didn’t invent the brutal fight scenes in his film, he did careful research. For all we know today, the world at the beginning of the tenth century was a violent world. “A lot of the old sagas read like an 80’s action script. The scene where Alexander catches a spear and throws it back – that’s from a myth. I always try to show the past in my films without judgment. And that Norse sagas are a world of great warriors. They want and they have to fight.”

Eggers knows about the balancing act that results from this: “Of course, this is an expensive and complex action production that has to bring in money. The question is how do you manage to stage the action scenes in an exciting and entertaining way without the violence to glorify?” He still does not seem to be quite sure whether he has succeeded in finding an answer to this question. “The Northman” was by far his most difficult film. “I was so stressed that I started listening to black metal to relieve myself.”

One can imagine that his way of working as an auteur filmmaker was not always compatible with the specifications of a Hollywood studio and tight shooting schedules. “The Northman” is his first big budget film with a production cost of 90 million dollars. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Eggers has once again worked with old confidants: cameraman Jarin Blaschke, producer Lars Knudsen and actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who once celebrated her breakthrough with “The Witch”. “I’m proud of the result,” he says.

“It would break my heart to have smartphones and computers in my films.”

Born in a small town in New Hampshire, Eggers is known for his accurate renderings of bygone eras. His love of historical detail, he says, dates back to his childhood days, when he hoarded costumes and swords and “quite a lot of books” in his room. Nothing is left to chance in his films. It starts with the historic wool fabrics, the way the houses are built and the dim light. And continues with the shields, hounds and ancient musical instruments. Eggers loves to indulge in such details and subtleties. Otherwise rather reserved, his sentences become fast and exuberant when he talks about it. For his film he consulted historians and archaeologists. The result is probably the most realistic Viking film ever made. That’s why, Eggers jokes, the cast was so crucial: “Viking clothes and haircuts were really far from cool and sexy. Fortunately, Alexander and Anya would even look good if you put them in potato sacks.”

In fact, Robert Eggers has always been “allergic” to anything to do with Vikings. “I liked movies like ‘Conan the Barbarian’ as a kid, but as an adult I was put off by that kind of machismo. And I was skeptical about the far-right hijacking of Norse mythology.” That changed when he traveled to Iceland with his wife in 2016. “It blew my mind. Those landscapes. Like another world. Ancient and sublime. As if the story hadn’t started here.” He began to concern himself with culture. Things picked up speed when his leading actor, Alexander Skarsgård, told him that he had been trying and failing to make a Viking film for years. The screenplay was created together with the Icelandic author Sjón Sigurðsson. “I needed someone who would grow up surrounded by all the supernatural things – the earth spirits, elves and mythical lore – that Icelanders believe in. Sjón was my arbiter when it came to whether anything was Icelandic enough.”

He has a “strong affinity for the past,” says Robert Eggers about himself. “What I like about these past cultures is that the world of myth and reality are often one and the same. There are no borders.” So it’s rather unlikely that one of his films will ever take place in the present? “I think it would kind of break my heart to have smartphones and computers in my films.”

It is fitting that Eggers wants to remake Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” with Willem Dafoe as his next project. The film recently turned 100 years old. For someone like Eggers, probably just past enough.

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