With The Northman soon to arrive in cinemas, now is the perfect time to revisit Robert Eggers’ humble directorial beginnings. Like many ambitious young directors, Eggers started out making short films. 2006’s Hansel & Gretal is one of the filmmaker’s earliest attempts to conjure the haunting atmosphere that made his 2014 folk-horror flick The Witch so utterly terrifying.
Interestingly, this early student film, the first credit on Eggers’ IMDB, carries many of the trademarks we have come to recognise in his movies. There’s the character of the witch, who, as in The Witch, is only seen from an obscured perspective. In this way, we’re never quite sure of what it is that haunts our protagonists as they wander through the woods. This lack of clarity makes both antagonists all the more sinister.
Then there’s the fact that Hansel & Gretel was filmed in black and white, something which also characterises Egger’s 2019 maritime psychological thriller The Lighthouse. In both cases, the absence of colour evokes the surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dali, and David Lynch while ensuring our attention is fixed on the textural qualities of the characters and their surroundings.
Short films such as Hansel & Gretal had a dual purpose for Eggers. Firstly, they allowed him to hone his technique as a visual storyteller, to make mistakes without the pressure of financiers. At the same time, they served as a way of attracting the attention of representatives and producers for his first feature film. By the time he got to make The Witch, the filmmaker had demonstrated his talents as a director and had the shorts to prove it.
Even the earliest of those short films, and Hansel & Gretel in particular, reveal Eggers’s fixation on the world of myth and fairytale. However, they also reveal a desire to make these archetypal stories relevant to a contemporary audience: “In doing this kind of archetypal storytelling, even if it’s based on a fairy tale or a myth, I still try to bring in my personal experiences, the things that are me,” he told BAFTA. “When my brothers first read The Witch screenplay, they said that even though this is the seventeenth century it sounds like our family arguing, you know. That’s very important. Someone not just conveying plot but also having little asides that are about life, these kind of things can of course ground it.”
Makes sure to check out Eggers’ unnerving retelling of the Hansel & Gretel story above.