12 movies to watch if you like The Tragedy of Macbeth

We recommend the films that came before and influenced Joel Coen’s views on Scottish acting.

12 movies to watch if you like The Tragedy of Macbeth


By Christopher Campbell · Published January 14, 2022

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 the like-minded works of the past. This post highlights what to look for in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.

It’s been a while since a Shakespeare adaptation really caught the attention of the masses. Not a while since a great movie based on Bard was made, but a while since one was required to be seen, especially by audiences who usually do not go after things. Joel Coentakes on Macbeth is a party for fans as well as for anyone who has never seen “the Scottish spectacle” before. It’s visually stunning and easy to follow without understanding the dialogue, and the players are all excellent. Anyone with an Apple TV + subscription would at least like to take a look into this arthouse offering.

I can see too The tragedy of Macbeth are shown in schools, specifically for high school students who have just read the source material. But to any teacher who does, I wish you would also give context to the film itself. Maybe distribute a sheet with information about the production as well as some additional suggested viewing recommendations. For the latter, feel free to share the contents of this edition of Movie DNA, which shows the adaptations and other notable works that came before and which possibly led to the casting and creation of Coen’s marvelous efforts.

Here is a list of a dozen movies to watch The tragedy of Macbeth, not necessarily that you will like, but which will give you a better understanding of what Coen and the company are doing with their customization:

Nibelungerne: Siegfried (1924)

Nibelungen Film Siegfried - Movies Like Tragedy of Macbeth

The appearance of The tragedy of Macbeth screams of German expressionism, and it has been recognized by the filmmakers. One of the references cited is this medieval fantasy film by Fritz Lang, the first of two parts of his adaptation of the epic poem Nibelungenlied. Because of its subject matter involving knights and kings and dragons and magic, it would be an appropriate selection from its time and of its movement that can be recommended along with Coens Macbeth movies anyway. Production designer Stefan Dean has made the pairing even more perfect by telling IndieWire about 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 embraced the theatrical, but you never deny the cinematic… he talked about Inverness [where Macbeth lives] as the impression of a castle. This was always about block shapes. It was here that Casa Luis Barragan came in and we looked at the simplicity of the castles in [Fritz Lang’s] “Siegfried.”

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried streams for free on Kanopy and can be rented or purchased at Kino Now.

Sunrise (1927)

Sunrise Traveling Mat

Also known as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, this first Oscar-winning film marked the American debut for FW Murnau. He came from Germany, where his expressionist 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. Plotted by Sunrise however, is not really relevant to why it is on this list of precursors and influences. Instead, you want to be aware of Rochus Gliese‘s Academy Award-nominated art direction.

According to Dechant in the IndieWire interview:

“We were talking about Murnau and about creating an artificial environment, so we looked at the lake and the bogs in ‘Sunrise’ as a touchstone that affected the grass along the ruins.”

Sunrise streams for free on IMDb TV and Classix.

Jeanne d’Arc’s Passion (1928)

Jeanne d'Arc

German expressionism was not only practiced by German filmmakers. Danish instructor Carl Th. Dreyer, who made some of his films in Germany and other countries, is most famous for this French feature about Saint Joan. Jeanne d’Arc’s passion is also known for its minimalist aesthetics, especially in its use of close-ups on the face of the protagonist Renée Jeanne Falconetti. “Carl Dreyer was always about how much you can remove and have the actor there,” Dechant explained to IndieWire about this film’s connection to the similar title. The tragedy of Macbeth.

The new film’s cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, had more to say about the influence of Little white lies magazine:

“Dreyer was the biggest influence, at least for me. It’s about the simplicity of the set. What’s so amazing about ‘The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc’ is the way he frames everything. Dreyer simplifies everything to show how powerful the English Church was against Jeanne d’Arc. She has largely lost. She has lost the battle against the Church. And the close-ups are extraordinary. It pushed us towards the Academy relationship, especially with the very strong cast we had. The first close-up we did at Denzel Washington was like, ‘Wow, that’s power!’ ‘

The Passion of Joan of Arc is streamed on The Criterion Channel, HBO Max and Flix Fling.

Macbeth (1948)

Shakespeare film from Macbeth from 1948

Republic pictures

At least eight films of Macbeth were produced between 1909 and 1922, but most of them have been lost and none are readily available online. Orson WellesThe 1948 game version was the first to be 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 is also quite minimal in its production design, and it was similarly shot in a very short time. Better adaptations of the piece have existed since, but for historical and artistic reference this is worth a look.

In the interview with Little white lies, Coen briefly touches on this Macbeth:

“I saw the Orson Welles version and I think it’s a very interesting film, but it was a very stressful film for him. He was trying to prove that he could make the film according to schedule and budget because he had this reputation, and then 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 strange things in terms of combining and editing and invent 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 those I’ve seen – and I’ve seen many of them – I think I’ve influenced what I do in a really significant way, either positively or negatively. You see these things and you say, “Oh, it’s very interesting.” Or you see them, and you say, “Oh, I think it’s not very interesting, and I would do it very differently.” So in that sense, the all things Orson Welles [film] is interesting, but there’s a lot about his ‘Macbeth’ that I think he had to compromise on for budgetary reasons, and just the production was very fast. “

In addition to Welles’ Macbeth, you might also want to see his most famous film, Borger Kane. The IndieWire interview mentions that Dechant recognized the 1941 masterpiece in the form of its “multiplan ingenuity” when discussing how The tragedy of Macbeth used matte paintings to fill environments of the completely indoor shooting. In addition to the Welles adaptation, also seek out the recording of Trevor Nunn’s staging of Macbeth from 1979 starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. It was a “key impact” on Coen, according to The Guardian.

Macbeth streams for free on Vimeo.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Night hunter

Charles Laughton was primarily an actor, rose to prominence as a Shakespeare performer on the British stage and most famously on screen for his lead appearance in the Shakespeare-sounding film The private life of Henry VIII. He later directed a film, and what a microphone of a single effort it is. The Hunter’s Night is an iconic thriller that has great influence from the silent film era, especially works of German expressionism. And it has been a great inspiration for the genre cinema, especially horror films that have been around for more than 65 years.

The film even features a silent film legend: Lillian Gish. But Robert Mitchum remains prominent as the villain Harry Powell, with his hands tattooed with the words “love” and “hate” over his fingers (and a speech to that). He is after two small children who he believes know the location of stolen money that their deceased father has hidden away. And Shelley Winters plays their mother. What a cast! But again, the inspiration here is primarily about the film’s visuals, which is why Dechant told IndieWire about its significance for the appearance of The tragedy of Macbeth:

“‘Night of the Hunter’ because Charles Laughton [as director] did a similar thing: He looks at [D.W.] Griffith and then abstract the night scenes with the twinkling stars. They became the stars behind Duncan. I made some illustrations of the ruins, and for me they were too real, so I went further into that Laughton world. “

And in Little white lies interview, he says:

“To go back to ‘The Night of the Hunter’, look at the scene where Robert Mitchum is standing by the light post and the kids are in their bedroom – the graphics of the mountains behind them are so simple. It’s not pretending to be artful. It was there, we wanted to get to with this film, without having any idea about the artificial in it. For me, it was about reducing the imagery to its simplest form, to the point of almost complete abstraction. “

The Night of the Hunter is streamed on The Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime Video, Pluto TV, Tubi and Hoopla.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film reviews and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back then a zine could actually provide you with Sundance press releases. He is now senior editor at FSR and founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is chairman of the Critics Choice Association’s documentary division.

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