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

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

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.

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.

“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.