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.