Viking tales have been mainstays of American cinema for decades, thrilling audiences with stories of brawny heroics and swashbuckling exploits. But how many Viking movies feature a hallucinatory cameo from the Icelandic pop star Björk as a raspy-voiced, headdress-clad mystical seer?
“The Northman,” a bloody epic drawn from medieval Scandinavian legend, bears the unmistakable aesthetic signature of Robert Eggers, a 38-year-old director who has established himself as one of the most fiercely iconoclastic filmmakers working today.
The film, which debuts April 22, stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a hulking Viking prince who stops at nothing to avenge the killing of his father (Ethan Hawke), save his mother (Nicole Kidman) and murder his family’s betrayer. The violence that ensues is fiery, savage and relentless.
The mythological version of Amleth was the inspiration for Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragic prince of Denmark. Eggers, the son of a Shakespeare scholar, bows to that thematic lineage without compromising on his stark vision of him: an eccentric blend of death-metal ferocity and Tolkienesque fantasy.
Eggers, who has jet-black hair and a close-cropped beard, specializes in films where historical realities mingle with unsettling surrealism. But he said he never expected to make a film that draws so heavily from Viking lore.
“Initially, I was never interested in Vikings,” Eggers said in a recent Zoom interview, occasionally peppering his comments with a self-deprecating laughter. “The macho stereotype put me off as a kid, and, as an adult, the right-wing misappropriation of Viking culture cemented my disinterest.”
But then Eggers’ wife, Alexandra Shaker, who delights in medieval and early modern literature, implored him to dive into Icelandic sagas. He did not immediately follow her suggestion from her. (“You should always listen to your wife,” Eggers said with a laugh. “I did not.”)
When they visited Iceland, however, Eggers was so captivated by the “powerful and ancient and awe-inspiring” landscapes that he finally took his wife’s advice and “got into this fascinating culture.”
“The Northman” was the result. (The film will be distributed by Focus Features, the specialty film unit of NBC News’ parent company, NBCUniversal.)
Eggers made his theatrical debut in 2015 with “The Witch,” a 93-minute horror fable about the clash between a 1630s Puritan family and the evils dwelling in the woods near their New England farm. The film riveted audiences at the Sundance Film Festival, introduced viewers to a young actor named Anya Taylor-Joy and helped put the millennial-courting indie distributor A24 on the map.
“The Lighthouse,” Eggers’ second film, similarly occupied unsettling territory but posed more of a challenge for viewers. The film, set in the 1890s and infused with the creeping dread of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction, stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers gripped by madness. The combination of black-and-white imagery and a square-frame 1:19:1 aspect ratio inspires an uncanny feeling of claustrophobia.
“The Northman” is Eggers’ most ambitious project yet, at least in terms of sheer expense. “The Witch” was made for a modest $4 million, or roughly 1.1 percent of the estimated production budget of “Avengers: Endgame.” “The Lighthouse,” shot in just over 30 days, cost some $11 million. “The Northman” is said to have come with a $90 million price tag, owing partly to more elaborate sets, stunts, costumes and digital effects.
“Nothing could have prepared me for ‘The Northman’ because it’s such an exponentially larger step. ‘The Lighthouse’ is a very logical step after ‘The Witch,’ and this is completely illogical and irresponsible,” Eggers said. “Ninety days of being pummeled by rain and freezing cold on the side of a mountain is quite a different experience, plus dealing with hundreds of extras and stuntmen and horses.”
Skarsgård, 45, arguably taking on his most demanding film role to date, undertook extensive physical and mental preparations to play Amleth. “I wanted to get bigger,” the actor said with a smile. “The character’s name [translates to] ‘bear wolf,’ but I don’t look much like a bear.”
In the five months before shooting began, Skarsgård packed on pounds and muscle, beefing up his diet and frequenting the gym. He also buried himself in the mythological basis for the movie. He spoke to Viking scholars and tore through books, such as historian Neil Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings.”
“The book was like my Viking bible, for lack of a better word,” Skarsgård said. “I would go to it in order to understand the mindset of a Viking 1,000 years ago — Amleth’s relationship to the spiritual world, the gods, the concept of fate.”
Taylor-Joy, 26, who co-stars as a mysterious slave named Olga, said she had been eager for a chance to re-team with Eggers since “The Witch” debuted in theaters. “We’re not just artistically connected. We’re really good friends,” she said.
Viking literature was not difficult to locate during preproduction, but Taylor-Joy said she preferred to rely on Eggers’ telling of Amleth’s saga rather than diving into research materials on her own.
“I’m an avid reader,” Taylor-Joy said, “but Robert is one of the few people where I would rather have him tell me the story.”
The rainswept, muddy and sometimes treacherous production did not much bother her. “I’m the most annoying person to ask about this. Is it everyone’s idea of a good time? Probably not. But it’s my idea of a good time,” she said with a laugh.
“I love going up against the elements,” she added.
‘It’s a big risk’
Eggers said he recognizes that Focus Features, an arm of Universal Pictures, took a gamble on “The Northman.” The film has certain conventional elements — a muscular hero on a bold quest, electrifying action scenes, a romantic subplot — but it is unquestionably the work of an unorthodox art-house craftsman. (Eggers co-wrote the screenplay with the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón.)
“It’s a big risk for the studio to have a guy who’s made two art-house films — I mean, ‘The Witch’ was a financial success [for A24]but against a very tight budget — use all of my collaborators and heads of department that I’ve used before, who also don’t have the résumé for a Viking blockbuster movie,” Eggers said.
“It’s my attempt at making a film for a broad audience,” Eggers said. “I’m trying to make the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie I can, and entertainment is usually, like, fifth or 15th on my list of priorities. But here, it was kind of No. 1.”
Skarsgård, who was long interested in acting in a Viking-themed project, said he was drawn to Eggers’ “deep interest in and knowledge of Norse mythology.” The actor’s first meeting with the director — after the theatrical release of “The Witch” and before production started on “The Lighthouse” — felt appropriately fated.
“I was incredibly impressed by his attention to detail,” Skarsgård said. “I felt transported back in time. I thought, ‘If I can do [‘The Witch’] on a very limited budget, imagine what he can do on a bigger scale while also staying true to his vision and his adherence to authenticity.’”
In developing the visual style of “The Northman,” Eggers — as is his habit — looked to the past. “All the great Soviet historical epics were major touchstones, as well as slow Hungarian cinema, weirdly enough,” Eggers said. Akira Kurosawa’s samurai masterpieces “were all watched carefully” for their “unparalleled” staging of action scenes, he added.
But not all of Eggers’ cinematic reference points were strictly from the art-house canon. He also leaned on memories of John Milius’ decidedly mainstream sword-and-sorcery cult classic “Conan the Barbarian,” one of the early 1980s he-man action spectacles that turned Arnold Schwarzenegger into an international superstar.
“I watched that movie so much as a kid,” Eggers said. “We didn’t revisit that movie, but the movie’s presence is felt all over ‘The Northman’ — a handful of times deliberately, but a million times in general just because I’ve seen it so much.”
It’s my attempt at making a film for a broad audience.
Robert Eggers on ‘The Northman’
Eggers has long dreamed of directing a remake of the 1922 silent film landmark “Nosferatu” by the German expressionist master FW Murnau. The project was announced in 2015, but it has since fallen apart twice. The pop singer Harry Styles was once attached to play a non-Dracula role in the film, but he reportedly dropped out.
“Murnau’s film changed my entire life and cemented my desire to be a film director. I wonder if the ghost of Murnau is telling me that, as much as I like that film, maybe I don’t have the right to remake it,” Eggers said ruefully.
Eggers would not be the first filmmaker to return to the disorienting world of “Nosferatu.” The daring German auteur Werner Herzog made “Nosferatu the Vampyre” in 1979. Yet Eggers, a keen and respectful student of film history, wondered if Herzog might have been more suited to update a German film classic for a new era.
“Maybe we don’t need another ‘Nosferatu,’ as painful as that might be for me,” Eggers said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism