Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.

During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.

The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.

The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.

The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.

To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.

To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.

I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.

 

Love, Marcus

She really is a wonderful woman. I do not show her the proper appreciation. She works hard to raise our infant son, Soren, while I go out and earn a paycheck.  She also puts up with my assorted mental illnesses, including but not limited to, anxiety, bipolar disorder and manic depression. Entire weeks go by where I am despondent and brooding and impotent. But she is my safety net, even if I can never bring myself to explain just how much I need her and appreciate her.

But it’s another day, and another long drive home during rush hour. I swear this is the worst time of the day for me.  I work in the middle of the city, but live on its edges; making my daily commute to and from work long and unbearable. And since I work the classic 9-5 shift, I am inundated with heavy traffic every time I am in the car.  The smog, the over-population, the honking horns, the panhandlers; it all culminates in a sordid cacophony of sensory irritation and overload.

I do not feel good today, again, but I am determined to make Katherine feel appreciated, so I am stopping by the store on my way home to buy her flowers and write out a card explaining my appreciation. It is always easier to write these things down and hand them over instead of trying to remember what you wanted to say and articulating the message correctly, on the spot. This will take an extra 20 minutes or so, but that is fine, because Katherine thinks I have a meeting after work.  She isn’t expecting me home for a few hours still.  It will be a nice surprise to hand her the flowers and card, take over baby duties (changing diapers, feeding, putting to bed), and let her relax. I figure I could even draw her a bath and make dinner tonight.  I have been so caught up in my latest dreary depressive episode over the past few weeks that I have been exceptionally self-centered.  Mental illness has a way of turning otherwise balanced people into narcissists because we are expending tremendous effort every waking minute of our lives dealing with our own cognitive fall out. The morbid thoughts are circuitous and agonizing. The anxiety is ever-present, and when it does die down, an anxiety concerning its inevitable return keeps the nervous system on edge.  The mood swings are extreme and not connected in any sensible way to external conditions.  All of this piles up and locks us inside ourselves.  Medicines help a little bit, but at the cost of feeling real.  Medication completely levels out the peaks and valleys, and makes me feel like a member of the walking dead. Instead of intense mood swings, I flat line; which in many ways is just as bad, if not uniquely worse.  And when, for want of money for example, I cannot afford the prescription refill, the withdrawals are nightmarish. Therefore, I put myself at the mercy of my disorders and blow, to and fro, in the internal winds of my mind.

But Katherine is innocent, she never signed up for this. When we met I was far more stable, and have only descended into cognitive chaos in recent years. I love her so deeply, and her loyalty to me is profoundly moving; although, again, I have the constant problem of not being able to articulate to her just how much she means to me. She has the stress of a newborn child to deal with as well, and I know I multiply that stress tenfold on a daily basis. Whether it’s on account of a hysterical fit of sadness and anger or a weeks-long despondency where I barely speak to her, let alone show her the affection she deserves.  However, she is my lifeline.  Without her, without my family, I would be nothing and suicide would be inevitable. Even in my darkest moments, I know I can lay my head on her lap and weep, and I know she is taking care of Soren no matter how dysfunctional and disabled I am.  Knowing that I have this nest of a home to collapse into every night truly gives me the only shred of hope and comfort I possess in this world.

So I walk into this beehive of a grocery store to buy her flowers and a card, and my anxiety skyrockets.  I hate people, I hate their meaningless chatter, their shallow desires, and their blindness to what really matters.  But most of all, I hate how they take their mental health for granted.  One of my favorite games to play when I am in a busy public place like this is to try and remember what it was like when I had my mental health.  I try to remember what it was like to be normal; and I end up envying everyone around me. The longer any specific bout of depression or anxiety lasts, the harder it is to remember what it’s like to be healthy. But I garner an odd sort of comfort from trying to remember, and getting stabs of insight into what it’s like to be okay. Lightning flashes of remembrance. It keeps my mind occupied as I pick out the flowers, and buy a cheap card, and stand in this horrific check-out line. My heart is racing, my mind is spinning, and I feel like I might pass out if I have to stand here for another second. But eventually I get to the cashier, put on a brave face, engage in that awkward small talk (“Hello, did you find everything you were looking for?”; “Yes, I did. Thank you.”; “Paper or plastic?”; “Paper, please”; “Okay, here you are. Have a nice night”; “Thank you, you too.”), and finally make it back out to my car, where I scribble the following into the card:

Dear Katherine, I now I am the worst. I am so sorry that I have become what I am. But please know how much I cherish and adore you. Please know that you and Soren mean everything to me, and one day I will be okay again, and we will travel and have guests over for dinner, and go out on the weekends like normal people. In the meantime, I want you to know how much I love you, how much I need you, and how much I appreciate all the work you do to raise our son, and, in a way, to raise me too.  I love you more than I could ever put into words, and I will get better. Just please stick with me.

Love,
Marcus

I put the pen back in my glove box, pull out of my parking space, and head home; happy with myself that I mustered up the emotional fortitude to make the purchase and express my feelings.

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I pull into our driveway, grab the bag with the flowers and the card, and walk inside.  I set my keys down, and hear my son upstairs cooing and gurgling. I walk upstairs, assuming Katherine is with him, turn the corner and walk to our bedroom and open the cracked door all the way.  Katherine is not alone. She is on her back, legs spread out to her sides, and a man that is not me is on top of her, plunging in and out of her body as she moans emphatically. I can only see the man’s hairy back and ass, violently entering my wife; and her face is shielded from mine by his body. The bedding is completely off the bed, leaving only the sheet and one pillow under Katherine’s head.  I notice, between the moist pumps, what I assume to be ejaculate dripping down the crevice of her ass, creeping slowly and viscously over her asshole and then down onto the bed, puddling grotesquely. They have been at it for a while. I glance down at Soren, laying on his back, like his mother, under his playpen, making various infantile sounds; completely unaware of the horror happening all around him.  My wife and the mystery man are so enthralled in the act of betrayal they do not notice me standing there, nauseated and deranged, too stunned to speak or act.

After what feels like 5 minutes, but is probably no more than 30 seconds, I walk out of the room and to the hall closet, reaching up into the top shelf and pulling out the gun that Katherine and I had bought for protection when we purchased our house. I calmly, serenely even, loaded two bullets into the chamber of the gun. I am not even thinking; my mind is Zen quiet. Not a singular linguistic line of dialogue bubbling up into conscious awareness; just dead inward silence. I feel the weight of the firearm in my hand, moving it up and down a couple times in my palm, surprised at how heavy it is.  I cock the gun, flooding the chamber with the first bullet, which makes a satisfying metallic sound. I stalk back into the bedroom, where the nightmare is taking place. I point the gun at the back of the man, and pause for a few seconds, wondering if they will notice me standing there.  They do not. They have no idea what is happening.  I almost feel bad. They are having such a good time, and what I am about to do is going to drag them out of their ecstasy and directly into this nightmare. I press, ever so gently, on the trigger, not enough to fire a shot, but enough to begin that process. Then, with my arm outstretched holding the gun, and without even the slightest tremble in my hand, I drift my aim upwards towards the ceiling and squeeze the trigger, firing a shot into drywall above my head.  A brief snow storm of white debris falls around me.  The man leaps upward, emerging violently out of my wife’s body, and I notice a thin spider-web string of bodily fluid attached to the man’s penis, connecting him still with Katherine’s cunt. They are both sitting up, retreating fearfully back up against the headboard, looking horrified in a way that kind of scares me too for a second.  Soren is frightened and howling hysterically, but I block out his screams; my mind is still wonderfully silent. I see the man’s face now, and notice, dispassionately, that he is the neighbor. Of course he is.  He also has a wife and a child, I know. Of course he does.

I know they are waiting for their bullets, or at least he is waiting for his.  They are deer in headlights, and I prolong the awkward, terrifying silence; pointing the gun again at the man, calmly.  He is as quiet as a mouse, eyes wide and unblinking, and she is pleading with me; empty, desperate words of remorse and supplication.

I say sternly, and rather coolly, “any last words”.  Her begging reaches a higher, more precarious pitch, and he sinks backwards into his body and into his silence, waiting for the death he deserves.

I turn the gun around suddenly and shove it into my own mouth; I make deep, insane eye contact with Katherine, and pull the trigger.  I feel the hot explosion in my mouth and nose, but no pain.
Then nothing.

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The flowers and the card sat neatly in the paper bag by the door. She still deserves the appreciation.

I hope she knows I love her.