We recommend the movies that came before and influenced Joel Coen’s take on the Scottish play.
Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights what to watch after Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.
It has been a while since a Shakespeare adaptation really grabbed the attention of the masses. Not a while since a great movie based on the Bard was made, but a while since one demanded to be seen, particularly by audiences who normally don’t go for the stuff. Joel Coen‘s take on Macbeth is a feast for fans as well as for anyone who hasn’t ever seen “the Scottish play” before. It’s visually stunning and easily followed without comprehension of the dialogue, and the players are all outstanding. Anyone with an Apple TV+ subscription will at least want to take a peek inside this arthouse offering.
I can also see The Tragedy of Macbeth being shown in schools, specifically to high school students who’ve just read the source material. But to any teachers doing so, I wish that you would also provide context for the movie itself. Maybe distribute a sheet of information on the production as well as some additionally suggested viewing recommendations. For the latter, feel free to share the contents of this edition of Movie DNA, which showcases the adaptations and other notable works that came before and that possibly led to the casting and creation of Coen’s marvelous effort.
Here is a list of a dozen movies to see after The Tragedy of Macbeth, not necessarily that you will like but which will give you a better appreciation of what Coen and company are doing with their adaptation:
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924)
The look of The Tragedy of Macbeth screams of German Expressionism influence, and that’s been acknowledged by the filmmakers. One of the stated references is this medieval fantasy film by Fritz Lang, the first of two parts of his adaptation of the epic poem Nibelungenlied. Due to its subject matter, involving knights and kings and dragons and magic, it would be a fitting selection from its time and of its movement to be recommended alongside Coen’s Macbeth movie anyway. Production designer Stefan Dechant has made the pairing even more perfect by telling IndieWire of its inspiration:
“When we sat down, Joel had a very strong vision [for the look and choreography]: black-and-white, Academy ratio [1.37:1], German Expressionism, and it was abstracted so he was embracing the theatrical but you’re never denying the cinematic … he talked about Inverness [where Macbeth lives] as the impression of a castle. This was always about block shapes. This is where Casa Luis Barragan came in and we looked at the simplicity of the castles in [Fritz Lang’s] ‘Siegfried.’”
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried is streaming free on Kanopy and available to rent or buy on Kino Now.
Also known as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this inaugural Oscar-winning picture marked the US debut of F.W. Murnau. He hailed from Germany, where his expressionistic gothic films had included Nosferatu and Faust. This melodramatic silent feature tells, to put it simply, the story of a man who leaves his wife in the country for a woman from the city. The plot of Sunrise isn’t really relevant to why it’s on this list of precursors and influences, though. Rather, you’ll want to be paying attention to Rochus Gliese‘s Academy Award-nominated art direction.
According to Dechant in the IndieWire interview:
“We talked about Murnau and creating an artificial environment, so we looked at the lake and marshes in ‘Sunrise’ as a touchstone that influenced the grasses along the ruins.”
Sunrise is streaming free on IMDb TV and Classix.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
German expressionism was not only practiced by German filmmakers. Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer, who made some of his films in Germany and other countries, is most famous for this French feature about Saint Joan. The Passion of Joan of Arc is also known for its minimalist aesthetic, particularly in its use of close-ups on the face of lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti. “Carl Dreyer was always about how much you can remove and have the actor there,” Dechant explained to IndieWire of this film’s connection to the similarly titled The Tragedy of Macbeth.
The new movie’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, had more to say of the influence to Little White Lies magazine:
“Dreyer was the main influence, for me at least. It’s about the simplicity of the set. What is so amazing about ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ is the way he frames everything. Dreyer simplifies everything to show how powerful the English Church was against Joan of Arc. She has lost, basically. She has lost the battle against the Church. And the close-ups are extraordinary. That pushed us towards the Academy ratio, especially with the very powerful cast we had. The first close-up we did on Denzel Washington was just like, ‘Wow, that’s power!’”
The Passion of Joan of Arc is streaming on The Criterion Channel, HBO Max, and Flix Fling.
At least eight films of Macbeth were produced between 1909 and 1922, but most of them are lost and none are easily accessible online. Orson Welles‘ 1948 feature version was the first released in the sound era, delivering William Shakespeare’s words on-screen and spoken by the actors (including Welles himself in the title role). Like The Tragedy of Macbeth, it’s also rather minimal in its production design, and it was similarly shot in a very short span of time. Better adaptations of the play have existed since, but for historical and artistic reference, this one is worth a look.
In the interview with Little White Lies, Coen briefly discusses this Macbeth:
“I saw the Orson Welles version and I think it’s a very interesting movie but it was a very stressful movie for him. He was trying to prove that he could make the movie on schedule and budget, ’cause he had this reputation, and so there are things in it that are fast and sloppy. I think it’s one of the most bizarre exercises in costume design I’ve ever seen; he does some very weird things in terms of combining and editing and inventing new characters.”
And here’s what Coen had to say in an interview with The Film Stage:
“There are many, many film adaptations of ‘Macbeth.’ Of the ones I’ve seen — and I’ve seen a lot of them — I think have influenced what I’m doing in a really significant way, either positively or negatively. You watch these things and you go, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” Or you watch them and you go, “Oh, I think that’s not very interesting and I would do this very differently.” So, in that sense, they all influence things. The Orson Welles [film] is interesting, but there’s a lot about his ‘Macbeth’ that I think he had to compromise on, for budget reasons and just the production was very fast.”
In addition to Welles’ Macbeth, you might also want to have a look at his most famous movie, Citizen Kane. The IndieWire interview mentions that Dechant acknowledged the 1941 masterpiece in terms of its “multi-plane ingenuity” when discussing how The Tragedy of Macbeth employed matte paintings to fill in environments of the entirely-indoors shoot. Also in addition to the Welles adaptation, seek out the taping of Trevor Nunn’s staging of Macbeth from 1979 starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. That was a “key influence” on Coen, according to The Guardian.
Macbeth is streaming free on Vimeo.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton was primarily an actor, rising up as a Shakespearean performer on the British stage and most famous on-screen for his lead performance in the Shakespearean-sounding movie The Private Life of Henry VIII. He later directed one movie, and what a mic-drop of a single effort it is. The Night of the Hunter is an iconic thriller that takes a lot of influence from the silent film era, especially works of German Expressionism. And it’s been a huge inspiration for genre cinema, particularly horror film, going on more than 65 years.
The movie even features a silent film legend: Lillian Gish. But Robert Mitchum remains the standout as the villainous Harry Powell, with his hands tattooed with the words “love” and “hate” across the fingers (and a speech to go with them). He’s after two small children whom he believes know the location of stolen money that their late father has hidden away. And Shelley Winters plays their mother. What a cast! But again, the inspiration here is primarily about the movie’s visuals, and for that Dechant told IndieWire of its significance to the look of The Tragedy of Macbeth:
“‘Night of the Hunter’ because Charles Laughton [as director] did a similar thing: He’s looking at [D.W.] Griffith and then abstracting the night scenes with the twinkling stars. Those became the stars behind Duncan. I did some illustrations of the ruins and to me they were too real so I went further into that Laughton world.”
And in the Little White Lies interview, he says:
“To go back to ‘The Night of the Hunter,’ look at the scene where Robert Mitchum is standing out by the light post and the kids are in their bedroom — the graphic of the mountains behind them is so simple. It makes no pretense about being artifice. That’s where we wanted to get to with this movie, to have no pretense about the artifice of it. For me, it was about reducing the imagery to its simplest form, to the point of near-complete abstraction.”
The Night of the Hunter is streaming on The Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video, Pluto TV, Tubi, and Hoopla.
Related Topics: Movie DNA