Nowadays, everyone seems to bemoan the current state of cinema, where even the best directors struggle to secure financing and the theatrical landscape is increasingly dominated by focus-tested films based on pre-existing IPs. Enter Robert Eggers, a 38-year-old maverick who’s taken the world by storm in the past decade by spearheading a unique brand of filmmaking that seems deliberately designed to sabotage every notion we had about conventional storytelling.
His one-two punch of New England tales, the 2015’s ‘The Witch’ and his 2019 follow-up ‘The Lighthouse’, instantly solidified him as a force to be reckoned with and earned him a reputation for his sharp attention to detail and historical accuracy. The fact that a swing-for-the-fences director with a penchant for mythological esoterica, religious fervor and macabre rituals has gone mainstream is telling proof that the demise of auteur cinema has been greatly exaggerated. ‘The Northman’, Eggers’ brand-new, $90-million-dollar Viking epic, should dispel any lingering doubts in that regard as his most ambitious production to date not to mention one of the tentpole releases of the year.
While the director is once again on everyone’s lips and we patiently bide our time until he knocks our socks off with his next instant classic, we have assembled ten great films that should strike a chord with any Robert Eggers’ hardcore enthusiast. From muddy Medieval epics, unsettling folk tales, bone-chilling witchcraft staples and immersive psychological thrillers — take the following list as a helpful aid that should come in handy once you’ve binged all three of his spell-binding period pieces.
1. Nosferatu (1922)
Any Eggers’ fan worth their salt owes it to themselves to watch not only the director’s favorite movie of all time but the one that triggered his fascination with the occult and the supernatural, two themes burrowed deep into his work.
For what is worth, you could take any given horror film in the past century and be able to trace it all the way back to F.W. Murnau’s iconic vampirical adaptation. Having reached the 100-year milestone this year, ‘Nosferatu’ not only pushed the boundaries of the genre to new heights, but according to Eggers, invented cinema as we know it. The director first discovered the German silent film after stumbling upon an image of lead actor Max Schreck in a book about vampires in elementary school, which prompted him to search far and wide for a VHS copy.
To say it was love at first sight would be selling it short. When he was 17, Eggers adapted it into a silent, Gothic theater play in high school, an experience that allegedly changed his life and laid out the groundwork to pursue his filmmaking aspirations. And ever since his breakout film back in 2015, the director has been doing his best to make his long-gestating remake a reality. And though the sight of his potential rendition makes our mouths water, it has been an uphill battle to get it off the ground. “I’ve been trying so hard,” Eggers concedes. “And I just wonder if Murnau’s ghost is telling me to stop barking that tree. It feels like that.” Here’s hoping the project eventually sees the light of day.
2. Andrei Rublev (1966)
Eggers recently explained that growing up in a secular society where “the sacred and the sublime aren’t anywhere to be found” may perhaps be the reason behind his penchant for bygone eras where myth, folklore and religion used to be the bedrocks of civilization. The same would apply to Andrei Tarkovsky, a frequent target of censorship crusades by the atheist Soviet regime who steeped in Christianity and spirituality to tell the story of the most venerated icon painter in Russian history.
Much like Eggers’ period pieces, ‘Andrei Rublev’ feels astoundingly transportive; like a genuine snapshot of the Middle Ages that somehow slithered into our present time. Set against a period of civil unrest, the story drifts through foreign invasions and otherworldly Pagan rituals as seen through the artist’s eyes, who finds his faith tested by his plight as he struggles to find solace in his work.
This should be required viewing not only for Eggers’ enthusiasts but any film buff period. But if a 205-minute-long black-and-white historical drama still seems a bit intimidating, take it from the man himself: “This movie is so beautiful, stunning and inspiring. The last act is probably just the best thing in cinema history. It’s completely mind-blowing, it really knocks you out.” The director had it in mind recently, citing the film’s violent realism as a key reference point for his new Viking epic.
3. Day of Wrath (1943)
Eggers’ reputation as film’s chief excavator of the past began with his folkloric debut, ‘The Witch’, a movie billed at the time as one of the most historically accurate period pieces in recent memory. During his strenuous research, the director drew from thousands of Jacobean-era witchcraft accounts to deliver a scathing portrait of religious fervor through the story of a grief-stricken family that turns on each other.
On the subject of puritan conviction, the folly of superstition and the dangers of mob mentality, Danish director Carl Dreyer still remains the highest authority. While ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is widely celebrated as his magnum opus, it’s his less-known ‘Days of Wrath’ that exists on a similar wavelength to Eggers’ New England tale. Loosely based on a real 16th-century case, witchcraft is once again the crux of the narrative, casting a long shadow over the life of a young woman who’s accused of catalyzing his elder husband’s death. Much like Eggers, Dreyer conjures a hauntingly unbridled vision of the past, refusing to sugarcoat the dark realities of a superstitious society that scapegoated countless innocent women with jarring indifference.
4. The Wailing (2016)
“Nothing happens”, “it’s too slow”, “it isn’t scary” — these are some of the contrived observations that greeted ‘The Witch’ upon release. Granted, the passage of time has rendered most of these moot while solidifying the film as a trendsetter not least for its unapologetic flouting of genre convention. Cut from the same cloth we find this two-and-a-half-hour folk horror courtesy of Na Hong-jin, a South-Korean director who doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook but is no less accomplished himself.
‘The Wailing’ presents a deceptively simple set-up: one lousy cop is called to duty to try to solve a double murder that has taken hold of a small, secluded rural village. Much like ‘The Witch’, the film paces itself leisurely, weaving through a disorientating set of trails, false leads and smokescreens en route to a bone-chilling — and eerily reminiscent — climax that will haunt you long after credits have rolled. If you get a kick out of an old-school good-versus-evil folk tale that rewards patience, picking up ‘The Wailing’ is a complete no-brainer.
5. Hereditary (2018)
Chances are if you’re a big fan of Robert Eggers, Ari Aster will be right up your street if you haven’t binged his brace of films already. Not without reason have these two A24-backed directors been simultaneously anointed as the two new poster boys for independent cinema. Besides sharing a similar brand of horror and career trajectory (both set to release their third feature-length film this year), there’s a noticeable overlap between their thematic fabrics. Self-fulfilling prophecies, inherited trauma, sacred familial bonds… There’s a refreshing novelty in the way Aster and Eggers navigate these classic tropes while dodging all the worn-out clichés we’ve come to dread in mainstream horror.
Part intimate psychodrama, part paranormal thriller, ‘Hereditary’ covers similar ground to ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Northman’ by thrusting us in the middle of a dysfunctional household that implodes from within after being struck by an unforeseen tragedy. In the same vein as the former, an evil force lurks in the shadows and threatens to tear them apart piece by piece. It goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint of heart and conceals plenty of disturbing moments that can lodge in one’s memory banks. But if you do have the stomach for it, ‘Hereditary’ will give you the best bang for your buck.