Divine inspirations: the art of The Lighthouse

Behind the bold, original vision Robert Eggers displays in his new film lies a vast trove of literary and visual influences, from Herman Melville to H.P. Lovecraft and – just possibly – Dad’s Army.

☞ “I know how to hype myself up now”: Robert Pattinson on making The Lighthouse

Graham Fuller

The Lighthouse evokes this untitled 1888 drawing by Belgian artist Jean Delville

The Lighthouse evokes this untitled 1888 drawing by Belgian artist Jean Delville

If The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers suffers from anxiety of influence, it doesn’t show. His gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle between bullying ‘wickie’ Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his guilt-ridden assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) off the coast of 1890s Maine draws on many literary works, paintings and films. It’s less a text than a trove.

 

Literary influences

The film originated with the attempt of Eggers’s co-writer brother, Max, to develop a screenplay from a late Edgar Allan Poe fragment about a Norwegian noble who exults in his solitude as a lighthouse keeper but experiences forebodings. The brothers merged the idea with the story of Thomas Griffith and Thomas Howell, quarrelsome real-life wickies who in 1801 served at the Smalls Lighthouse west of Pembrokeshire in Wales. When Griffith died, Howell placed the decomposing corpse in a makeshift coffin and lashed it to railings outside. The sight of one of Griffith’s arms flapping in the wind is said to have driven Howell mad. He anticipates the paranoid murderer-narrator of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) and Winslow.

Winslow’s bloody feud with seagulls harks back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). Its narrator, a wedding guest, learns from the mariner, of “grey beard and glittering eye”, how he brought death to his ship by killing an albatross:

The very deep did rot: O Christ!

That ever this should be!

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout

The death-fires danced at night;

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue and white.

The tapping of one of the gulls at Winslow’s bedside window owes a debt to Poe’s The Raven (1845) and The Tale of Tod Lapraik in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped sequel Catriona (aka David Balfour, 1893), which tells of two men’s struggle for control of the isolated Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth – one of whom assumes the guise of a solan goose to attack the other when he’s suspended by a rope on a cliff face. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 story, is also an obvious touchstone.

The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963)

Wake represents the Homeric sea god Proteus – as he sometimes appears to Winslow – and Winslow is Prometheus, the stealer of fire whom Zeus chains to a rock so his liver will be eaten repeatedly by an eagle. Wake and Winslow echo, too, The Tempest’s Prospero (king) and Caliban (resentful slave). Characterised by what Eggers calls “faux-Shakespearian, faux-Miltonian” rhetoric, the threats and sea-myth curse Wake lays on Winslow conjures the monologues in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), as when Stubb tells Flask he dreamed Captain Ahab had turned into a pyramid:

“While I was battering away at the pyramid, a sort of badger-haired old merman, with a hump on his back, takes me by the shoulders, and slews me round. ‘What are you ’bout?’ says he. Slid! man, but I was frightened. Such a phiz! But, somehow, next moment I was over the fright. ‘What am I about?’ says I at last. ‘And what business is that of yours, I should like to know, Mr Humpback? Do you want a kick?’ By the lord, Flask, I had no sooner said that, than he turned round his stern to me, bent over, and dragging up a lot of seaweed he had for a clout – what do you think, I saw? – why thunder alive, man, his stern was stuck full of marlinspikes, with the points out. Says I, on second thoughts, ‘I guess I won’t kick you, old fellow.’”

Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the whale is mirrored in Wake’s jealous possession of the lighthouse and its lantern, which triggers Winslow’s need to see it, effectively opening Pandora’s Box in a climax traceable to Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Wake’s rhythmic dialogue was modelled on the speech of the captains, sailors and fishermen – and in Winslow’s case, farm people – interviewed by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1901) to authenticate her regionalist fiction, which eloquently captured the decline of their trades in coastal southeast Maine. Her stories are suffused with nostalgia. In her 1877 novel Deephaven, the narrator and her friend visit Captain Sands, who opens for them a chest he has kept of an admired long-gone sailor:

“He was brought up a Catholic, I s’pose; anyway, he had some beads, and sometimes they would joke him about ’em on board ship, but he would blaze up in a minute, ugly as a tiger. I never saw him mad about anything else, though he wouldn’t stand it if anybody tried to crowd him. He fell from the main-to’-gallant yard to the deck, and was dead when they picked him up. They were off the Bermudas. I suppose he lost his balance, but I never could see how; he was sure-footed, and as quick as a cat.”

Sands’s daughter is married to a Winslow (though the marine painter Winslow Homer probably bequeathed Ephraim his surname). As one tall captain bumps his head against a low doorway in Jewett’s short story All My Sad Captains (1895), Winslow bumps his on entering the lighthouse’s sleeping quarters; his task of laying cedar tiles may come from the same story. The Eggerses took a few lines from Jewett. “All of the nuns were Catholics,” a quip by Wake, is spoken by Deephaven’s lame fisherman Danny.

The forbidden knowledge Winslow seeks in the lantern room seemingly issues from the radiance, which, emitted through a Fresnel lens, causes Wake to ejaculate. The room is apparently the lair of a slithery cephalopod or kraken, suggesting the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft’s dread-laden allegorical fiction.

 

Visual influences

Silence of the Sea (Arnold Böcklin, 1887)

Silence of the Sea (Arnold Böcklin, 1887)

Eggers’s admiration for symbolist art is manifested in figurative arrangements taken from Sascha Schneider’s 1924 painting Perseus and Andromeda and an untitled 1888 Jean Delville drawing of a flock of birds preying on a man. With its kohl-eyed mermaid, black-headed gulls, phallic sea serpent and male corpse, Arnold Böcklin’s 1887 Silence of the Sea is a partial blueprint for The Lighthouse as a mythic movie.

Jarin Blaschke’s sombre black-and-white cinematography and the film’s square-ish frame facilitate Eggers’s harnessing of the chiaroscuro of mid- to late-Weimar cinema, notably that of G.W. Pabst (The Joyless Street, 1925) and Fritz Lang as he jettisoned the Böcklin-inspired imagery of Die Nibelungen (1922-24) for the documentary style of M. (1931). Other referents include Ingmar Bergman’s Fårö island dramas, notably Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), with its observation tower and lighthouse.

The Lighthouse Keepers (1929)

The Lighthouse Keepers (1929)

Key to The Lighthouse is Jean Grémillon’s poetic realist drama The Lighthouse Keepers (1929), which documents the labours of a Breton veteran and his son, who is driven mad by rabies; Georges Périnal’s cinematography renders strange the lantern’s light as it is impressionistically filtered through the steel lattice in the keepers’ cylindrical prison. Brittany’s coast and the sea beyond is also the world – fraught with poverty and the expectation of loss – of such sublimely lyrical Jean Epstein documentary shorts as Finis terrae (1928), Mor’vran (1930) and Les Feux de la mer (1948), and the brief drama Le Tempestaire (1947).

Finis Terrae (1929)

Finis Terrae (1929)

Lighthouses and keepers appear in these films, and in Le Tempestaire there’s a mysterious ageing salt with Thomas Wake’s beard and physiognomy. Despite their philosophical tone and import, Epstein’s Brittany films are part of The Lighthouse’s DNA. Less likely an influence, though a testament to the universality of gothic lighthouse lore, is a 1970 episode of Dad’s Army that has four members of the platoon guarding a lighthouse, and Private Frazer telling his companions about a “slithery thing” that once terrified his wickie friend at a Scottish lighthouse. The tale and the gag it sets up come directly from Michael Powell’s atmospheric Welsh lighthouse thriller The Phantom Light (1935), which, happily, Private Pike remembers seeing.

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