Robert Eggers: An Auteur of the Macabre

Robert Eggers is an auteur of the macabre. Responsible for modern classics The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman, let's take a look over Eggers' career as we celebrate the physical release of The Northman, examining how he presents his work with the skill and intention of a master.

Robert Eggers: An Auteur of the Macabre - Cover Image

Robert Eggers is an auteur of the macabre. A filmmaker who’s intentions go beyond what we see on the screen, delving into our most primal fears. With each successive film, we are dragged through a hell scape that is just as hilarious as it is disturbing. It feels, within the community, that the release of one of his films stands as an event. These works include: The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman.

The interesting part of Eggers’ work is that it is the sort of filmmaking that doesn’t appeal to a mass audience. Yet, his first two films were successes. They were announcements of a major voice. A voice unwilling to compromise his vision. A voice that has bestowed on us masterpieces of the twenty-first century.

Robert Eggers is a filmmaker who simply can’t be ignored. In an industry led by corporate design, he is a breathe of fresh air amongst the noise. The originality of his work and the obsessive focus on what interests him as a filmmaker is proof of his status as an auteur.

With the recent physical release of The Northman, I will be taking a look back on his films and considering what makes Robert Eggers so incredible.

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Robert Eggers Grounds the Macabre Fantasy in Reality

One element across Eggers’ films is the attention to historical detail. It is one of first things you will hear about him. Yet, considering the metatextual nature of this choice, what is it about the historical accuracy that makes his films so terrifying? He uses reality to ground the fantasy.

Often times, the realm of horror can get beyond our grasp. What was initially terrifying becomes mundane. The further we delve into the media surrounding us, the more desensitised we become to the concept of horror. Robert Eggers uses this impression of reality to create to the sensation of pure terror, and as a result anchors us to our innate fear of death within the fantasy.

This is carried across all of Eggers’ films and is a key ingredient in his position of auteur. Death stands at every corner, watching our every move and Robert Eggers is fascinated with our relationship to it. Take The Witch, we are bombarded with the prevalence of death. Every second of existence in this “new world” is suffering. From the potential of starvation to the prospect of eternal damnation, the impression of the macabre seeps itself into every facet of the film. 

The Witch | Official Trailer HD | A24

A Caveat and Resolution

However, I will not deny that his films frequently give way to pure fantasy. In The Lighthouse, the imagery conjures an almost fanatical interest in cosmic and mythological horror. Still, the limited set and focus on character provides the audience with a way to relate to the narrative and accept the madness that ensues.

Not only is the tether literal through historical accuracy, but is also deeply psychological. In The Northman, Amleth faces constant misery as death screams in his face. At times, it is too much when considered from the angle of believability, but it is that foundation in his desire for revenge and love for his mother that results in an investment in Amleth’s journey.

As I have explored, what we learn from these examples is an Eggers film is a balancing act between the macabre within the realm of fantasy and reality, placing it firmly as one of his trademarks as an auteur.

The macabre incarnate, Robert Eggers demonstrates the visual command of an auteur

The macabre incarnate, Robert Eggers demonstrates the visual command of an auteur

The Auteur Demonstrates a Mood Unto Itself

Additionally, we must explore the atmosphere that drenches Eggers’ films. For those reading who are familiar with his work, let me ask you this: what comes to mind when you picture one of these films? Is it the rich dialogue? The jaw dropping cinematography? For me, it is the way each film made me feel.

This is a crucial topic to explore as Eggers himself has explained the mood as being a crucial part of his writing process on The Lighthouse:

I start with atmosphere. My brother had an idea — a ghost running the lighthouse — that created a look and a feeling of a world in my head. Then we got the very basic strokes of a story based on a real story, about two lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas, who get stranded on their lighthouse station and one of them dies.

Revelling in macabre atmosphere, Robert Eggers was an auteur from the start

Revelling in macabre atmosphere, Robert Eggers was an auteur from the start

This is integral to every viewing of his films. There is a tangible dread running through every moment, submerging the viewer into the nightmare Eggers has carefully crafted. It is through this atmosphere that the evidence is even more compelling that Robert Eggers is an auteur of the macabre.

The practical elements of filmmaking must be discussed here. Yet, to save time, I will focus on one film: The Northman.

I will not spoil The Northman for those who haven’t seen it. However, I will have to spoil minor visual details for one scene here. Early in the film, there is a ritual in which one can only describe the purpose being to assist Amleth’s ascension into manhood. The framing of the camera is so tight as to make the actors seem inhuman. The lighting penetrates a murky environment that feels as if it wishes to remain hidden. Death and life intertwine themselves to the point of being indistinguishable from each other. And it is in that coexistence that is so incredibly macabre to me as I watch, laughing at the incredulity of it all as I secretly cower in fear. 

Through the prevalence of the thematic of death, I am convinced that Robert Eggers is an auteur of the macabre. Not only are we forced to confront it on a narrative level, but even the simplest of filmmaking elements push the to reflect on disturbing nature of our mortality.

THE NORTHMAN - Official Trailer - Only In Theaters April 22

One Last Thing

Before we go, I should say that I do not subscribe to the theory of the auteur. I believe filmmaking is a collaborative effort that should allow recognition for all. However, in this instance I am willing to make an exception. I believe that Robert Eggers does have a singular vision that his team help him bring to life. 

Robert Eggers is an auteur of the macabre. His films visit death in many different forms. They tease at the disturbing lengths we will go to accept and even transcend our own mortality.

So thank you Mr. Eggers and everyone who works on the films. Thank you for sticking to your vision and creating some of my favourite works of art!

So what’s your favourite Eggers film? Have any further thoughts about his style? Let us know in the comments!
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