Substance is Subject: A ‘Compass’ to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist
How does one approach a film as complex and multi-layered as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009)? As Antichrist poses the question of origins, it seems appropriate to begin by trying to locate the origin, or inspiration, of the film itself.
Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, designated in the film only as He and She, as a couple caught up in marital crisis. They are mourning the death of their toddler, Nic, shown in the film’s mesmerizing prologue. As the tragedy catapults Her into an emotional abyss, He, a cognitive-behavioural therapist, unprofessionally takes over Her therapy. When Her tortured mourning enters a new phase, He decides to treat Her greatest fear – nature – with a “confrontational cure,” that is, through direct exposure to it. Accordingly, they retreat from their middle-class home in Seattle to “Eden,” a cabin in an increasingly claustrophobic forest, where events spiral out of control.
Anybody probing this film will learn of von Trier’s chronic anxieties, and of his severe case of acute depression that preceded its production, which formed a reservoir of pain from which he drew for this deeply personal film. In an interview granted to the journal tip Berlin in 2009, von Trier revealed another point of departure, a TV documentary on Europe’s primeval forest, which fomented an awareness that the forest, a site he identifies as a romantic icon, was, at the same time, a place of pain and of an extreme competition between species. If his regular visits to the forest allow him to “relax completely,” he suggests, this is probably precisely because it is a paradoxical place of ambivalent beauty. It seems that he began to view this ambiguity as the premise for a horror film, which evolved into Antichrist. He is quick to add that the film has not really turned out to be a horror film (Weixlbaumer, 2009), which, he suggests, aligns it with the rest of his oeuvre, where the boundaries between genres tend to be fluid, notwithstanding original intentions.
This inspiration for the film remains palpable, and, for all its gruesome moments, Antichrist allows the viewer to enjoy the stereotypically idyllic aspects of the remote outdoors. Indeed, an examination of the script reveals the forest as “romantic idyll” as a recurring motif. Consider scene 33, entitled “Small Clearing/Mixed Forest with Undergrowth – Day,” which features Him taking a stroll while She sleeps, and “the sun shines on a classically romantic wood . . .” (Von Trier, 2008) At its most fundamental, Antichrist oscillates between, in Kantian/Lacanian terms, a perception of the outer being as an object, mediated by language and culture, and its (supposed) inner essence. Von Trier deploys his aesthetic medium, film, to address the philosophical problem of the relation between surface and depth, the revelation of which – in scenes which are often protracted into super slow motion to indicate their exceptionality and significance – lends the film its vertiginous, disorienting character. Immediately following scene 33, with its sun shining on a classically romantic wood, von Trier confronts the viewer with the film’s first (of three) “totem animals” (Thomsen 2009), the hind (or doe): “We are again in super slow motion, and the forest is filled with eerie sound. The hind turns away ever so slowly after having stared intensely at him for a while, and turns off. And now he sees the ghastly vision – something is protruding from the hind; a still-born foetus still hanging in its vernix out of the hind’s genital opening. It’s a nasty and repulsive sight (Lars von Trier, 2008).
The qualifier “not really,” in von Trier’s assertion that Antichrist is not really a horror film, points to the Lacanian Real, a register which is defined by its constitutive excess, or deficit, vis-à-vis an established socio-symbolic standard. It is possible, of course, to interpret von Trier’s statement as implying there is a crucial element missing in Antichrist, something that, if included, would render the film a genuine horror movie, an incarnation of the living dead, for example. Yet Antichrist is genuine horror, distinguished, precisely, by a “surplus” over the genre conventionally conceived.
To see this, consider Slavoj Žižek’s concise Kantian/Lacanian definition of the genre’s uncanny supernatural beings as “Things that think.” (Žižek 1991, 220, Gullatz 2015) Žižek’s primary reference point here has been the figure of the vampire. (Žižek 1991, 220) He is aware that his definition presupposes the strictly inadmissible conflation of Kant’s transcendental subject, a formal construct anchored in the abstraction “I think,” with metaphysical substance, which to Kant will forever remain an inherently unrecognizable Thing-in-itself. However, according to Žižek, the genre is defined precisely by a “catastrophic” transgression of the trans-phenomenal Thing into the phenomenal domain, a violation by which havoc is wreaked on the stability of its accustomed causal order. (Žižek 1991, 220) In (Lacanian) psychoanalytical terms, the undead Thing embodies the Real, the remnants of jouissance having survived quartering by the signifier and subverting the homeostasis of the pleasure principle with the insistence of “drive.” (Žižek 2006, 177-118) Accordingly, the crux of a Lacanian reading of the genre’s “entities” lies in decoding them as “drive,” the psychological (as opposed to biological) sexual need that can never be satisfied, uncannily exhibiting an impossible “subjectivity” of its own. The terms of Žižek’s definition also reveal why any notion of “negotiating” with the genre’s Things would be inherently ludicrous; as a pure embodiment of drive, they are caught in its hermetic, circular motion.
Significantly, the Kantian terms of Žižek’s definition suggest that the genre harbours an implicit metaphysics, a view supported by Richard Stanley, the director of Dust Devil (1992), in a 1997 interview with Offscreen, when he suggested that “esoterica is meant to survive inside gothic art as a self-censoring secret, as something which survives symbolically, which is available for those who care” (Totaro, 1997).
The elusive “excess” of Antichrist, palpable even on a first, non-analytical viewing of the film, now comes into theoretical relief. We only need to read von Trier’s point of departure, the quasi-epiphany of his recognition of nature’s Janus face, in light of Žižek’s Kantian/Lacanian definition of the genre, to see that it is nature, object of unceasing philosophical and theological discourses, which is elevated to the status of the genre’s Thing here. This is almost emblematically exemplified when Gainsbourg’s She refers to nature as “Satan’s church,” a statement which sublimates it, subtly endowing it with a subjective sense. In associating nature with a metaphysical horror ordinarily reserved for the genre’s standard supernatural beings, von Trier accomplishes a crucial dialectical turn, a linkage of genre device with a philosophical/theological enquiry, which allows him to ex-plicate, or fully develop, the underlying philosophical potential of the genre remarked upon by Žižek, Stanley, et.al. The film’s multi-layered narrative and refined aesthetics are thus not merely an artistic end in itself, but function to establish a unique meta-perspective vis-à-vis conventional horror.
The film’s title itself is a first hint at the film’s complexity; it ambiguously evokes both the cinematic horror genre and Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, a late work first published in 1895, which, von Trier says, had lain unread on his bedside table for 40 years. The impression of an existentially reflected aesthetic approach to horror is strengthened if we consider that the film credits acknowledge the work of research consultants in six interrelated areas: misogyny, mythology and evil, anxiety, horror films, music, and theology. The director’s sophisticated game, played at a self-reflective distance to the conventions of the genre, appears aimed at transcending these in the direction of a comprehensive existential enquiry.
Here it helps to contextualize Antichrist with von Trier’s first venture into the area of horror, his TV miniseries Kingdom (1994, 1997), inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. At the end of each episode, von Trier steps into the frame for an epilogue. Wearing a tuxedo, he takes up his position in front of a red curtain, contemplating issues such as the gap between the imaginative realm of the artist, the human creator, and the greatness of God’s real creation. In conclusion, he pronounces on the necessity to take the good with the evil, underlining this with two understated gestures: the sign of the cross poked into the air with a finger, as if he were a priest, and the heavy metal sign of the devil, brandished casually, yet gleefully. This doesn’t fail to produce the intended impression, for we feel that the aesthetic game the director is playing is inscrutable. In Antichrist, von Trier still plays his inscrutable game, but at a different order of magnitude. In order to nonetheless “fathom” it, we will collect and collate pertinent information, considering key existing reviews. Our central focus will be on Antichrist’s philosophical undercurrents. After considering the impact of Nietzsche, we will trace a chain of influence that connects Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) – who thought that the rebellion of Lucifer perverted Creation – to Nietzsche, via Nietzsche’s immediate philosophical predecessors Schopenhauer and Schelling.
Let’s begin with Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In an intriguing early response to Antichrist, Danish feminist scholar Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen takes the oblique reference in the film’s title as her point of departure. (Thomsen 2009) In Anti-Christ, a late work generally regarded by scholars as Nietzsche’s final settling of accounts with Christianity, Nietzsche once more deplores the disastrous influence of Christianity on European culture and philosophy. The relevance of Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity to von Trier’s film may not be immediately evident, and Thomsen has to follow a slightly circuitous route to establish the link. She notes that, to Nietzsche, the notion of the Anti-Christ was linked both to himself and to the figure of the Greek God of wine and ecstasy, Dionysos. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche’s last work before his catastrophic collapse in early 1889, he referred to himself as “Dionysos against the crucified.” Equally significantly, according to Thomsen, Nietzsche’s first published work, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), was furnished with a new foreword in 1886, in which Nietzsche wrote “that he had taken the liberty to make Dionysos the opposite of Christian morality and thus given Anti-Christ the name of Dionysos” (Thomsen, 2009).
Nietzsche first used the dichotomy Apollonian-Dionysian, an allusion to two prominent Gods from the ancient Greek pantheon, Apollo and Dionysos, in The Birth of Tragedy, to delineate antagonistic human traits, associating the Apollonian with reason, order and form, and the Dionysian with chaos, intoxication and an incessantly burgeoning creativity dissolving all boundaries of self. This opposition subsequently remained a recurring motif in his philosophy. Nietzsche was convinced that the development of philosophy in ancient Greece – a discipline he indicts for its anti-mythological bias, its cold ideal of reason forever grasping at the causal network underlying phenomena, and its anemic ethics of moderation – originally led to what he regarded as the impasse of an overemphasis on rationality in Western culture. To Nietzsche, the rise of philosophy amounted to a “fall” from the (supposed) apex of culture, Greek tragedy, where the Apollonian and Dionysian principles were still poised in balance. This is deemed to have set in motion a downward spiral that continued through the subsequent identity defining European cultural developments, Christianity and the Enlightenment. Thomsen, describing in some detail the ancient cult of Dionysos, with its three stages involving first an ecstasy (an exiting of oneself) through intoxication with wine in which Dionysos himself was deemed present, secondly madness and maniacal rage as the participant became one with the group of maenads (the “raving ones,” immortal female followers of Dionysos), and, finally, a moment of catharsis and harmony which became the forerunner of the classical Greek tragedy, emphasizes the character of the Dionysian as a convulsive force breaking down boundaries – the boundaries of gender, but also the boundary between life and death.
Thomsen cites a consensus amongst scholars that Nietzsche had progressively associated the Dionysian principle more with the feminine than the masculine, adding that the ancient cult, with its three stages as described, itself became more “feminine” in the course of its historical development. (Thomsen 2009, 2) The inclination to associate nature/female nature, with their respective cyclical times, with the Dionysian principle, and, conversely, to give “Apollonian” linear time, which “man” attempts to control through his power over history, a male orientation, is instantly accessible to intuitive apprehension. Thomsen thus applies Nietzsche’s Dionysian/Apollonian divide to the gender politics in von Trier’s Antichrist, explicitly affiliating von Trier’s prototypically female She with the Dionysian principle, with chaos, nature and maniacal violence. Citing Michel Maffesoli’s L’ombre de Dionysos: contribution a une sociologie de l’orgie (1985), she also establishes a lineage from the cult of Dionysos to the fantasy and practice of the witch Sabbath, and therefore to the horror genre, providing a semantic matrix, which allows us to see a cultural continuity between Dionysos and the Devil in Antichrist. Maffesoli contends that the witch Sabbath, an indispensible, archetypal element of the horror genre, has developed on the model of the Dionysian cult, as the goat in the centre, embodying evil or the devil, resonates with the Pagan God Pan or the (horned) Dionysos. Orgiastic celebrations and the figure of the idealized naked female body, frequently a virgin for the witch Sabbath, form significant elements of both cults (Maffesoli 1985, 145).
Thomsen reads Antichrist’s most iconic scene, the couple’s nocturnal sex at the roots of a giant dead tree, with a view to both cults. Some way into their stay at Eden, She leaves the cabin in the nude and masturbates next to the massive network of roots – outside, in order to feel the pain and unify with nature, as Thomsen contends – but is soon joined by her husband for connubial sex. Von Trier then adds the surreal image of human body parts, mostly lower arms, protruding from out of the network of roots. To Thomsen, this image more than evokes the orgiastic witch Sabbath, in which He takes the part of the devil, although it is not certain, she writes, “who initiates whom into the devilry.” (Thomsen 2009, 4) Towards the end of this pivotal scene, Gainsbourg’s She proclaims, enigmatically, that “the sisters of Ratisbon can summon up a hail storm.”
Thomsen, but also British philosopher Nina Power (2009), has identified this as an oblique reference to the Bavarian town of Ratisbon (also known as Regensburg), which played a role in European witch trials and is mentioned in the most notorious of witch-hunting manuals, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches) (Kramer, 1486), as is the notion of summoning hailstorms.
The Dionysian principle, as well as the encoding of this principle as female through its association with Her, can be discerned in the earliest passages of the movie, both in the prologue and in chapter one, entitled “Grief,” which present the couple in their house in Seattle as they work through their grief and consequent marital problems. At one point, She suffers a panic attack, experiencing its characteristic, suffocating sense of imminent doom. Her emotional overwhelm is rendered aesthetically via a series of close-ups, described in the script as the “anxiety montage,” of, in turn, “the mouth chewing to produce spit,” “the carotid artery from the side,” “the chest from the side,” “the hands rubbing each other,” “the pupil moving restlessly,” “an ear,” etc. The soundtrack accompanying this montage of the body in pieces (“corps morcele,” Lacan), is composed of a series of disorienting natural sounds – on which von Trier personally collaborated – that fit the image in question; for example, the sound of blood being pumped accompanying the close-up of the carotid artery.
Von Trier’s juxtaposition of these part objects with regressive sound cannot but evoke the films of David Lynch. The focus on the ear, in particular, recalls a key scene from Blue Velvet (1986), the camera journey into the severed ear, which acquires its powerful sense of suggestion only through the accompanying soundtrack, a menacing drone that changes pitch, becoming deeper as we enter deeper into the ear, indicating an organic substratum – perhaps the primordial environment of the womb as experienced by the embryo. In light of Lynch’s preoccupation with Jeffrey’s rite of passage, his introduction to an underbelly of crime and violent sex in his hometown, the drone accompanying the camera journey into the ear conveys a moral evil, intuited to have its origins in the depths of (feminine) nature. Von Trier can be seen to have “borrowed” Lynch’s association of the deeper, underlying strata of nature with sonic devices such as a menacing drone, or other magnified natural sounds.
Intervening in the course of Her panic attack, rendered drastically by von Trier with a focus on its raw physicality, He tries to calm Her through breathing exercises, assuring Her that She is not dying, but that Her mourning process has entered its next level: “anxiety.” His attempt to contain the horrifying Real of Her anxiety through the reason-based techniques of cognitive-behavioural psychology manifests the fateful entanglement of the two principles, and as He and His science embody the principle of form, it seems appropriate that He approaches the new stage of her mourning “geometrically.” He suggests that they devise a pyramid chart, to be populated with the objects of Her fear, in an ascending order of intensity. Asked to ponder this, She responds that Eden, as well as the woods near Eden, should go into the chart. The signifier “Eden,” broadly a cipher for a female-connoted nature, also functions strategically here, introducing the next setting of the filmic narrative, the forest, the site supposedly allowing for a “confrontation” with Her fears within the frame of a behavioural “exposure cure.”
The anxiety of Gainsbourg’s She reflects that of von Trier, who has a history of chronic anxiety. He is known to have various phobias —including a phobia of hospitals, which complicated the shooting of Kingdom – and to exhibit avoidance patterns in regard to travelling. Indeed, he was once carried off a ferry in a catatonic state (O’Hagan 2009). Yet anxiety is also one of the film’s six interrelated “research departments” acknowledged in the credits. These reveal that the anxiety research had been assigned to an academic, Simo Koppe. In addition, von Trier hired Danish psychiatrists Michelle Ulrichsen and Irene Oestrich as therapeutic consultants to the film, further evidence that he aspired to maximum verisimilitude in the film’s portrayal of anxiety, the complex psycho-somatic processes underlying it, and its treatment through (cognitive-behavioural) therapy. It suffices to consider a conversation in the film’s second chapter, which encapsulates essential features of the cognitive-behavioural approach to anxiety. He and She discuss Her anxiety about Nic during a previous stay at Eden, when She thought She had heard Nic scream somewhere in the distance, even though he had been in the vicinity all the time, unharmed. The husband/therapist suggests that She had linked an emotional event She could not explain to a place, Eden, which subsequently acted as a catalyst for Her fear (anxiety as learned “behaviour,” which can be “unlearned,” in behaviourism). She felt threatened by something in the woods, and it is natural to “react” when you feel threatened. When there is an actual threat, He continues, the brain’s triggering of the fight or flight response can save an individual’s life, but in the absence of this, the fear that has been engendered may itself become an object of fear, thus creating a vicious cycle, known as the “anxiety cycle.” And, indeed, ”phobophobia,” the fear of fear, is a key concept in current medical models of Panic Disorder and of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), as is the linked phenomenon of fight or flight response, a vital function in our evolution-designed triune brain. 1
Yet in Antichrist there is another, overriding, “cycle” in operation. In the dance of death between the two principles choreographed by von Trier, Dionysian transgression always leads, and, at this point, it is becoming evident that She has slipped into a psychosis, a condition involving a subjective destitution – that is, a dissolution of the self – well beyond the scope of any “awareness” oriented therapy. The scream, which She initially thought originated from her son, increasingly becomes a detached object that takes on a life of its own – the “cry of nature,” a hallucinated voice that embodies Her paranoia. In Lacanian terms, the “voice” as partial object in psychosis indicates the conflation of language and drive, the presence of a Thing —jouissance colonizing the psychotic’s Symbolic, depriving it of its purely structural function as an “empty” inter-subjective medium and transforming it into a “full” object, a signifying substance. However, in light of the film’s affiliation with the genre, albeit at a self-reflective remove, the “cry of nature” also subverts reason in a far more profound way: it is suggestive of metaphysics. In Antichrist, this cry forms part of a wider narrative strategy to associate nature with a (suffering) subjectivity of its own, which serves to elevate it, rendering it sublime.
Later, She will poetically refer to nature as “Satan’s church.” It looks as if She, a female prototype, functions as the “priestess” of this church. A closer look at the film’s misogyny research is therefore in order.
The misogyny label has, in the past, been attached to von Trier, who has a reputation of bullying his female cast (O’Hagan 2009). Heidi Laura, a former university researcher in cultural history and Antichrist’s official misogyny consultant, revealed in a newspaper article that von Trier, who had already researched the deeply misogynist Malleus Maleficarum himself, had approached her with a request to take on the film’s misogyny research, asking if she could “write a sustained argument on the evil nature of woman, based on all available Western sources?” (Laura 2011) In taking up the challenge, Laura discovered that the subject was “as deep and wide as civilization itself.” With no scarcity of sources to contend with, she compiled an expansive list of authors, who contributed to the “history” of misogyny, which includes a range of illustrious names such as Shakespeare, Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger (Laura 2011). We will consider Schopenhauer’s contribution to misogyny, and thus his indirect impact on Antichrist via Laura’s research, a little further down. For now, consider the concluding couplet from Shakespeare’s sonnet 147, which Laura stumbled upon in the course of her research: “For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright/Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.” The furnishing of this citation, with its twin emphasis on misogyny and the relation of surface and depth, to von Trier seems fortuitous. In her summarizing conclusion, Laura suggests that the male authors she had read all appeared to agree that “woman is intrinsically more connected to nature than man. This is why man rightfully fears woman: just like nature she is beyond control” (Laura 2011). Laura’s summary points to a convergence of the themes of misogyny and anxiety in Antichrist, a sense that the coupled woman/nature presents a principle trauma for men. But why is nature Her greatest fear then? This is, perhaps, best accounted for in terms of von Trier’s well-known proclivity for the device of “inversion,” which allows him to displace his own depression/anxiety onto Her.
Towards the end of her article, Laura cites Camille Paglia, the American feminist, who emerged on the academic stage with her strident Sexual Personae (2011). This reference is significant, indicating a close convergence of Laura’s research with Thomsen’s Nietzsche-oriented reading. Paglia’s Sexual Personae, a tour de force covering the history of culture from the ancient Egyptians to our own age, relies heavily on Nietzsche’s distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian principles. Indeed, the distinction is her principle reference point. Paglia prefers to use the term “chthonic” rather than Dionysian, however, in order to counter the widespread tendency to mistake the Dionysian for hedonism and to instead stress its “lethal” undercurrents. Etymologically, “chthonic” is of ancient Greek origin, denoting that which is of or under the earth, the subterranean. When Laura, paraphrasing Paglia, notes that men fear “the mysterious fertility and groundedness of women,” that her dark realm is perceived to be closer to uncontrollable nature, and that the forest, the home of an abundance of mythic creatures, functions as a cipher for woman (Laura 2011), she all but confirms Thomsen’s Nietzsche-based reading of the gender politics in Antichrist. Laura’s designation of “the mysterious fertility and groundedness” of women, which encapsulates nature’s subterranean dimension as “ground,” simultaneously fertile origin and inevitable final destination, could almost serve as a dictionary definition of “chthonic.” Yet Paglia conceives the chthonic broadly, aligning it not only with earth, but also with fluids, with mist and fog, the wine of the Dionysian cult, milk as the original nourishment, the sexual fluids, and, finally, at our point of origin, the primordial sea of the womb. She notes, with sarcastic relish, that “the wet dream of Dionysian liquidity takes the hard edges off things. Objects and ideas are fuzzy, misty, that mistiness Johnny Mathis sings of in love” (Paglia 1990, 98). Referring to sfumato, a painting technique developed by Leonardo da Vinci, in order to envelop the background in his painting in a diffuse mistiness, she notes that “the smokiness of sfumato is Dionysian mistiness, the fog hanging over the chthonian swamp” (Paglia 1990, 158).
The chthonic thus conceived pervades Antichrist to the point of ubiquity. Von Trier has elaborated the Dionysian as a force men fear in his own Apollonian medium, film, a symbiosis Nietzsche would surely have appreciated.
Consider the brief phase of transition, as the couple are on the train, on their way to Eden. He uses the occasion for a therapy session, encouraging Her to relax, to blend comfortably into Her seat and to imagine the landscape they are about to visit. The ensuing, aesthetically striking, sequence of scenes (22-26), all shot in super slow motion, has us witness how She imaginatively situates herself in the landscape, traversing important landmarks that we will soon re-encounter in real time: a bridge across a brook, which She crosses tentatively, a meadow of ferns, and a view of the forest from within the womb-like enclosure of a foxhole overhung with roots and moss. In Her lucid dream, nature, overhung with a constant curtain of fog, which comes in various shades from “decorative” to “dense,” according to the script, is earthy and wet, imbued, in other words, with a Dionysian archetype of the feminine. Or, in terms of Paglia’s reading of Nietzsche, it (nature) is seen through a Dionysian prism, with “fog hanging over the chthonian swamp.” As Gainsbourg’s She, a touchingly diminutive and fragile figure, wanders through an over-arching nature “composed” like a series of masterly dark romantic paintings, “woman” and nature interpenetrate, a process culminating finally in their mystical union. In the concluding scene of Her imagining, She walks up a trail to the cabin in the tall grass, where He encourages Her to lie down. When He asks Her what it’s like, She responds, amusingly, “Green! It’s all very green . . .” (von Trier 2008). He encourages Her “to melt into all the danger.” Von Trier then adopts a camera angle unusual for this sequence, showing her from a bird’s eye perspective as She is lying on the forest floor, at rest, with her eyes closed, when, “without warning” (von Trier 2008), the surrounding green surges over and into Her. That She is no longer small here, and asleep, is significant, as this creates the impression that Her dissolution correlates with a nascent subjectivity possessed by nature Herself.
While this recalls the aesthetics of David Lynch’s chthonic vortices, we also discern here the shadow of the second key influence on von Trier: Andrei Tarkovsky. In the second part of her article, Thomsen associates Antichrist’s Dionysian principle, and the concomitant non-linear time of nature, a constant becoming and metamorphosis, with the Deleuzian concepts of “time image,” the “haptic image” and “peaks of present.” She relates these notions to time in both Antichrist and in The Sacrifice (1986), by Tarkovsky, to whom Antichrist is dedicated (Thomsen 2009, 7-10). I shall not pursue this in detail, but I will embark in a similar direction, on a trail, precisely, navigating a Žižekian/Deleuzian Tarkovsky.
Žižek (2009) approaches the cinema of Tarkovsky with a view to illuminating its spirituality beyond the traditional ideological opposition of spirit and matter. According to Žižek, Tarkovsky evades the conventional apprehension of spirit as elevation, construing the spirituality of his protagonists in terms of an intense direct contact with “the humid heaviness of earth.” (Žižek 2009, 243) Žižek attempts to gain a firmer theoretical grasp of the phenomenology of spirit in Tarkovsky by deploying the concept of geistige Koerperlichkeit, spiritual corporeality, used by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) to denote an enfolding of matter and spirit. Yet if “spirit” in Tarkovsky is, fundamentally, a spiritual corporeality, what narrative/aesthetic devices allow the director to induce this impression? Žižek reminds us that Tarkovsky presents the principle embodiment of the Deleuzian notion of time-image replacing movement-image. Pointing to the pervasive sense of the heavy gravity of the Earth in Tarkovsky’s movies, which seems to induce a temporal anamorphosis as well, a “stretching” of time beyond what would be considered appropriate by narrative requirements, he construes time in the films Tarkovsky as a “time of the Real.” According to Žižek, this notion designates neither the time of the diegetic space of the narrative, nor the subjective time experienced by the viewer watching the film. Rather, the “time of the Real” inheres in a spectral domain “in between.” To anchor down this masterpiece of abstraction and ambiguity, he draws on the world of expressionist painting, likening Tarkovsky’s temporal anamorphoses to
the protracted stains which “are” the yellow sky in late Van Gogh or the water grass in Munch: this uncanny “massiveness” pertains neither to the direct materiality of the colour stains, nor to the materiality of the depicted objects – it dwells in a kind of intermediate spectral domain of what Schelling called geistige Koerperlichkeit, spiritual corporeality (Žižek 2009, 243).
In Her eerie reverie on the train to Eden, we perceive nature as an equally chthonic and supernatural realm. As in Tarkovsky, a temporal anamorphosis, here enhanced through the super-slow motion, contributes to a sense that the physical domain is suffused with the metaphysical, so that we perceive nature as “unconscious spirit,” to borrow another phrase from Schelling. A look at the script, which repeatedly features the term “supernatural,” proves that von Trier consciously sought this effect. The description of scene 22 opens thus: “Then cut to an almost supernatural shot of the little wooden bridge across the brook in the undergrowth.” Scene 23 similarly begins: “At a distance is a meadow full of ferns. Fog! We see an equally supernatural shot of the ferns” (Von Trier 2008).
In terms of Žižek’s Kantian/Lacanian definition of the genre (“things that think”), it is the sublimation of nature accomplishing this genre effect in Antichrist. We have previously encountered the “cry of nature,” as well as Her designation of nature as “Satan’s church,” appellations carefully and deliberately interspersed in the flow of the filmic narrative to foster a sense of sublimation. In other words, von Trier’s “aesthetical ontology” is underpinned, at any point, by an elaborate conceptual layer, a network of shifting signifiers on which it is balanced. Consider a section of dialogue Thomsen has labeled the movie’s point of no return – an ostensibly therapeutic role play some way down their stay at Eden, in which the tables are turned. He is assigned the role of nature, She is to represent reason:
I’m nature, all the things, that you call nature./ Ok, mister Nature. What do you want?/ To hurt you as much as I can./ How?/ How do you think?/ By frightening me?/ By killing you!/ Nature can’t harm me. You’re just the all greenery outside./ No, I’m more than that./ I don’t understand./ I’m outside, but I’m also . . . within. I’m nature of all human beings./ Oh, that kind of nature. The kind of nature, that causes people to do evil things against women./ That’s exactly, who I am./ That kind of nature interested me a lot, when I was up here. That kind of nature was the subject of my thesis. But you shouldn’t underestimate Eden./ What did Eden do?/I discovered something else in my material, than I expected. If human nature is evil. Then that goes as well for the nature of . . ./. . . of women . . . female nature./ The nature of all the sisters. Women do not control their own bodies. Nature does . . . (von Trier 2008).
A sense of ostentatious theatrical improvisation here recalls the minimalism of the chalk drawings and the makeshift stage setting in von Trier’s Dogville (2003) that served to create a self-referential vantage point, lifting the veil on the hidden technique employed in theatrical/cinematic creation. The dialogue can be seen to contain, in a nutshell, a microcosm of Antichrist, affording us a glimpse of the “clockwork” making it tick.
It is not unusual for the protagonists of a horror film to discuss the threat they are facing, yet, in Antichrist, nature is no longer simply the scenic backdrop for genre’s “entities,” but has in itself become a metaphysical horror. As a result, the protagonists’ exchange on this threat traces a “philosophical discourse,” a miniature dialectic mediating between two opposed positions, as nature uncannily shifts from Her to Him, and back, from appearing to be an object, with “all the greenery outside,” to being a subject endowed with moral and metaphysical qualities, and accordingly, from appearing benign to being surreptitiously, or openly, malignant. The sense of disorientation is exacerbated by the reference to Her aborted thesis on “Gynocide,” a piece of research on witchcraft and the witch-trials reflecting Lars von Trier’s own research, as well as his preoccupation with misogyny and the issue of violence against women.
This dialogue holds the key to the principal movement of the film: an oscillation between inner and outer, between essence and appearance – of both nature and of human nature. Her reference to “gynocide” is a case in point. Read in the mode of a rationalizing objectification, this would point to a psychotic identification with evil catalyzed by her research. Yet, in a kind of abyssal inversion, von Trier here penetrates the “skin” of rationalization, establishing an inside perspective of Her “vision,” the conviction that life is evil. That von Trier sympathizes with this vision, to the extent of allowing that it might be ontologically sound, is indicated not least by the ironic designation “Eden,” a cipher, in this context, for a perverted creation.
The shift of perspective renders the abyss of conscious being, apprehended, in turn, to have its source in the abyss of a perverted creation, a place from which nature itself is seen to speak here, given the set-up of this dialogue as a nature/reason role play. It is as if nature has uncannily attained self-reflection, a possibility originally opened up by von Trier’s linkage of genre device and metaphysical enquiry, which allows him to ascend to a meta-level and to unfold the genre’s underlying philosophical potential. The resulting semantic “excess” of the film could be rendered through reference to Hegel’s formula “substance is subject,” a formula condensing Hegel’s central tenet that substance – the absolute, universal truth – attains the endpoint of its movement of self-deployment in and through the negativity of the self-relating thought exhibited by the philosophically engaged human subject. Indeed, if this formula is to have any meaning at all today, beyond narrow circles devoted to an “administration” of Hegel’s system, it must be precisely in its application to the “living” thought which becomes manifest in self-reflexive philosophical works of art such as Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
In order to bring home this thesis, I shall devote the remainder of this essay to further elucidating the film’s philosophical enunciation.
Recall that theology is one of the research areas specifically acknowledged in the credits. Our first encounter with theology in Antichrist is the ancient cult of Dionysos with its famously ecstatic celebration of nature, which Nietzsche, the self-declared “Anti-Christ,” juxtaposed with the pathological “decadence” of the will with which he diagnosed Christian Europe. It seems that, paradoxically, the Gnosis had been an equally significant influence on this film.
The Gnosis is a generic term for a variety of, mostly, heretical Christian movements that evolved in the second and third century AD, during the ascent of Christianity across the Roman Empire. Broadly speaking, Gnostics tried to dissociate the peaceful, loving God of the New Testament from empirical reality – the contrast must have appeared too stark – attributing creation too an either incompetent, or positively evil, deity, the so-called demiurge. This demiurge is sometimes associated with the unpredictable, angry deity of the Old Testament, now identified as Satan. The Gnosis were steeped not only in Christianity, but also in the intellectual traditions of Platonism and Neo-Platonism, and accordingly exhibited significant mystical inclinations.
In a Gnostic light, Her designation of nature as Satan’s church appears like a quaint poetic paraphrase of a Gnostic point of view. The fundamental coordinates establishing _ Antichrist_ narrative space: the prototypical He and She characters (fatefully entangled, with nature and with each other), the claustrophobic forest at “Eden,” a place which evokes paradise, but is hell by sight, are suggestive of a Gnostic “frame” of the film. In a 2009 article, entitled “Lars von Trier auf Gnostischen Abwegen,” Charles Martig, who has a theological background, identifies Gnostic tendencies in the film. He points out that the prologue’s sex scene, which denounces sexuality, and by implication creation per se, – as the source of suffering and death, correlates with Gnostic notions of the physical world as a perverted creation, in which man has become implicated through his body. Martig also reads the toddler’s accidental fall in the prologue as evoking the fall of Lucifer. He discerns the Gnostic inclination towards “mortification,” that is, the Gnostic’s attempt to negate physical being, manifested above all in sexuality, through an ascetic detachment from life, in the film’s morbid portrayal of sexuality as a “sickness unto death” (Martig 2009).
A Gnostic reading of Antichrist helps to evaluate the position of the film in von Trier’s “depression trilogy.” We are now aware that Antichrist is the first part of a trilogy, which also includes Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac, Vols. 1 and 2 (2013). From our present vantage point, tantalizing parallels between Antichrist’s existential pessimism, with its emphasis on sexuality, and the existential nausea in Nymphomaniac, also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, shift into focus.
A Gnostic interpretation of Antichrist implies a distinct perspective on the film’s controversial violence, involving genital mutilation and self-mutilation, as well as attacks on the lower leg that recall Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990). The unsettling scenes caused an uproar amongst both audience and critics at the film’s premiere in Cannes, who condemned the violence as tasteless and gratuitously provocative. While Charles Martig also seems uncomfortable, he sees beyond the provocative surface, contextualizing the violence with the film’s Gnostic premise of the primordial evil of creation. The mutilation of the genitals is seen to represent an attempt to address the perceived evil at its “source”: sexuality and its malignant creative power that perpetuates a perverted creation (Martig 2009). Martig’s astute observations should not be allowed, however, to occlude another vital aspect of the violence, that the excruciating scenes allow von Trier to develop not only the notion that existence is, at core, pain, and that “woman” is evil, but also the antagonism of the two principles to an extreme, an extreme intended as a catharsis that will dialectically enhance the effect of the calmness of the film’s peaceful concluding “vision.” In other words, Her outburst figures prominently in the film’s “libidinal economy.”
The vicissitudes attending the development of the movie, which had originally been due for production in 2005, corroborate Martig. Von Trier was angered when the film’s executive producer, Peter Aalbaek, revealed the film’s planned denouement, that the world had been created by Satan, in an interview, and spontaneously decided to cancel filming in order to re-write the script. It is tempting to view the originally planned denouement as still being palpable in the film, present in its subtext, the film’s “unconscious.”
If there is a common denominator of the three installments of the depression trilogy, it is the underlying notion that life is evil. Faced with the imminent destruction of the Earth in Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the film’s lead – with a name inspired by de Sade’s heroine – asserts that there is no need to grieve for the Earth, as it is bound for its terminal collision with the planet Melancholia (another tribute to Tarkovsky): “All I know is, life on Earth is evil.” Indeed, Justine, paralyzed by a depression that cannot but evoke von Trier’s own, seems to be linked to Melancholia, a rogue planet intent on annihilating life on Earth, via some form of ethereal libidinal complicity.Antichrist, with its focus on the origin, life as Satan’s/the malevolent Gnostic demiurge’s perverted creation, and Melancholia as, in libidinal terms, the deserved, or longed for, apocalypse, correcting that original “mistake,” are thus “theological” companion films.
The simultaneous influence of Nietzsche and of the Gnosis on Antichrist seems paradoxical. The Gnostics’ bleak view of creation and Nietzsche’s unconditional affirmation of life are, after all, diametrical opposites. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes how he “captured” the notion of the eternal return, of one’s self-same existence, in a moment of inspiration during a walk on the banks of a lake near Sils Maria. This idea, crucial to his entire oeuvre, can be described as a litmus test for a life-affirming attitude, for only those who unconditionally embrace the notion, which implies a co-extensive eternal suffering, genuinely embrace life. Nietzsche’s philosophy of radical affirmation creates a problem for Nietzsche-oriented readings of (von Trier’s) Antichrist. While the notion of the “Dionysian principle” has proven a powerful analytical tool that critically advanced our understanding of Antichrist, Nietzsche’s polemical attacks on the decadence of the will in Christian Europe do not sit easily with the underlying Gnosticism of von Trier’s movie.
As Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) straddles Nietzsche and the Gnosis, he offers us a way out of this dilemma. Schopenhauer had been the key influence on Nietzsche, who adopted and adapted from him the pivotal concept of the “will,” the perceived inner essence of all being. While the thought of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thus essentially revolve around the very same axis, Nietzsche gave his own philosophy a different direction by rejecting Schopenhauer’s tenet that a radically ascetic lifestyle, that is, a “denial” of the will, would allow an escape from suffering. Instead, he famously celebrated the will.
Schopenhauer, who studied the Gnosis in depth, frequently compared it favourably with mainstream Christianity, which he deemed insufficiently rigorous in its attitude to asceticism. A “Gnostic” orientation of his philosophy shines through the opening passage of the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, where, adopting a global, “bird’s eye perspective” on life that recalls von Trier’s Melancholia, he denounces life as torment:
In endless space countless luminous spheres, round each of which some dozen smaller illuminated ones, hot at the core and covered over with a hard cold crust; on this crust a mouldy film has produced living and knowing beings: this is empirical truth, the real, the world. Yet for a being who thinks, it is a precarious position to stand on one of those numberless spheres freely floating in boundless space, without knowing whence or wither, and to be only one of innumerable similar beings that throng, press and toil, restlessly and rapidly arising and passing away in beginningless and endless time (Schopenhauer II, 3).
I trace the outlines of Schopenhauer’s concise summary of his thought in §54 of Vol.1 of The World as Will and Representation (Schopenhauer I, 274-286), a section rich in suggestive metaphors, to demonstrate that he holds a key not only to von Trier’s pessimistic ontology in Antichrist, but also to the “visionary” mode in which it is conveyed.
To Schopenhauer, man’s predicament emerges as a corollary of the built-in re-duplication of the world, its presence on two distinct levels, which, viewed at a deeper “philosophical” level, however, are revealed as two sides of the same coin. The “world” is both its inner content, or essence – the “will” – and the “representation” of this content, its appearance to the perceiving and knowing mind. Schopenhauer’s distinction traces the outlines of Kant’s preceding division of the world into an unknowable “Thing-in-itself,” the noumenon, on the one hand, and the phenomenon, that is, the appearance of the noumenon to consciousness, on the other. Yet in erecting a philosophical edifice aimed at uncovering “substance,” Schopenhauer had to go beyond Kant. Accordingly, he refused to adhere to one of Kant’s central tenets, the epistemological indict ensuring that Thing-in-itself will forever remain an inherently unknowable X. Convinced that ultimate reality can be known, he identified the Thing-in-itself with the “will,” adding that it was a mere tautology to call the will “the will to life.” Conversely, the world of representation, of the will to consciousness, is cast as different levels of the “objectification” of the will, or, as Schopenhauer puts it poetically in §54, as the “mirror” of the will.
Crucially, Schopenhauer did maintain Kant’s identification of the phenomenal world of appearance with physics, and of the noumenal Thing-in-itself with metaphysics. In Schopenhauer’s distinction, representation, which is the “surface” of the world, corresponded to life as we know it: visible phenomena in time and space governed by the laws of physics. If the “principle of sufficient reason,” which encompasses physical causation, logical connection and psychological motivation, governed the phenomenal world, the will as the Thing-in-itself, the inner content of the world, was “metaphysical,” that is say, presumed to persist outside of time, space and causality. Separation and individuation, birth and death, exist only on the level of representation, which necessarily involves the principium individuationis, the arising and passing away of individuals, whereas the world as will, which is metaphysical, is one. Schopenhauer’s doctrine is thus radically monistic. “Truth” here emphatically lies on the side of the unity of the will, according to Schopenhauer, as the principium individuationis of the phenomenal realm is held to be an illusion, a deception comparable to the notion of the “veil of Maya” in Eastern philosophy, a concept Schopenhauer admired. As innumerable beings “throng, press and toil,” suffering is inevitable, for, in its continuous striving, the will cannot ever be satisfied. It will always only encounter another phenomenal objectification of itself, as it is one.
A sublime moment in Antichrist occurs as He encounters, on a stroll through the thicket, the self-disemboweling fox, the second of the film’s three totem animals, which advises him in a human voice that “chaos reigns.” As von Trier revealed in his interview with O’Hagan, this idea harkens back to his “shamanic journeys”: “All these animals come from a practice I did 10 years ago. It’s a Brazilian technique where you enter a trance through this very powerful drumbeat. There are no drugs involved, so it is very safe but very powerful. It’s not really that difficult to enter the parallel world.” (O’Hagan 2009) Note that this scene is indeed typified by the ensemble of devices characterizing Antichrist’s visionary mode: the sudden onset of wind rustling in the leaves, as if in a warning, His stunned direct look into the camera indicating that he is “seeing” something exceptional, the super slow motion, to distort nature it into a temporal anamorphosis, “de-naturing” it, as well as the subliminally threatening “Lynchean drone,” to indicate an imminent immersion into its deeper strands. Note also that a communication with animals appears to be a feature of the shamanic experience (see Castaneda 1974). In light of Schopenhauer, the vision represents a”seeing through” the principium individuationis, a literally “visceral” apprehension that existence is, at core, pain. Nature conceived in its totality, as the phenomenal embodiment of the will, is inherently cannibalistic, as it is one.
To appreciate the relevance of Schopenhauer to Antichrist, and perhaps more broadly to the horror genre, consider his portrayal of the custom of the Greek and Roman aristocracy to adorn their costly sarcophagi with images representing the most ardent fervor of life. Schopenhauer cites as examples feasts, dances, marriages, fights between beasts, and bacchanalia, “to the point of showing us sexual intercourse between satyrs and goats” (Schopenhauer I, 276). He thought that the object of this exercise was evident: to shift attention away from the mourned individual to the immortal life of nature, that is, to Nature as a whole, as the phenomenon and fulfillment of the will to life. This, however, as he acknowledges, is “without abstract knowledge.” Birth and death are thus events pertaining only to the phenomenal realm, not to the will as such, of which the individual being is “only a particular example or specimen” (Schopenhauer I, 276). The death of the individual does not “injure” the whole of nature.
If Schopenhauer discerned, in the funerary customs of the Greek and Roman aristocracy, the wish to dissolve the individual into the immortal life of nature, what, in this perspective, is the genre figure of the vampire other than a representation of the metaphysics of the will? The impossible incursion of this Thing into the phenomenal domain is necessarily presented as a paradox, a “living death.” The Greek/Roman adornments cited by Schopenhauer, with their roots in classical mythology, and the figure of the vampire similarly steeped in mythology, accordingly emerge as distinct cultural expressions of the same, the (supposed) inner content of the world, the will to life.
However, Schopenhauer, in his philosophy, and Lars von Trier, in his meta-movie, aim to express that which is expressed elsewhere in mythological terms at the level of abstract knowledge. It is not surprising, therefore, that both render the relation of the individual to the whole of nature in terms that closely mirror each other. Consider the following passage from The World as Will and Representation:
For it is not the individual that nature cares for, but only the species; and in all seriousness she urges the preservation of the species, since she provides for this so lavishly through the immense surplus of the seed and the great strength of the fructifying impulse. The individual, on the contrary, has no value for nature, and can have none, for infinite time, infinite space, and the infinite number of possible individual therein are her kingdom. Therefore nature is always ready to let the individual fall and the individual is accordingly not only exposed to destruction in a thousand ways from the most insignificant accidents, but is even destined for this and is led towards it by nature herself, from the moment that individual has served the maintenance of the species (Schopenhauer I, 276).
Key elements of this passage: “the immense surplus of the seed,” “the great strength of the fructifying impulse,” and nature’s tendency to unceremoniously conduct its offspring to its demise, inform Antichrist at the level of the film’s guiding theme, which is introduced as early as the harrowing prologue depicting Nic’s death.
To see this, allow a detour to scene 12, a flashback inserted as She suffers her previously described panic attack. To calm her, He prescribes breathing exercises asking her to imagine blowing on a dandelion clock. It is this that triggers the flashback to a previous stay at Eden. The script reveals that this scene, to be marked as a dreamy flashback by aesthetic device, is a recollection of a late summer day on a meadow illuminated with “romantic sunshine,” with the cabin somewhere in the background. Nic hands her a dandelion clock which she accepts smilingly. Then “he blows, sending the seeds away in a hazy cloud. The child is watching gravely” (von Trier 2008). The airborne seeds, creating the impression of a hazy cloud, as well as Nic’s somber face, indicate what is at stake here: Nic is in a melancholic mood, because he is having a premonition of his death, which has already taken place – in the melodrama of the film’s prologue. Towards the end of the prologue, Nic falls from the window of the couple’s apartment, amidst a cloud of snow, which is thus metaphorically aligned with the cloud of seeds in the flashback. As his parents are having sex in the background, von Trier’s own rendering of the “the fructifying impulse,” Nic, their “seed,” becomes one with the cloud of snow symbolically representing nature’s surplus of (doomed) seeds. Von Trier was careful to set this scene in super slow motion, the film’s marker of the visionary mode, and to enhance the drama and sense of tragedy by setting it to the lament of the Händel aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo (1711). Beyond conveying nature’s cycles of generation and corruption, the prologue’s snow also introduces another of the film’s themes. The juxtaposition of the couple’s non-simulated sex, von Tier used porn doubles for Dafoe and Gainsbourg, with the snow introduces the theme of the Dionysian mist, the fluids and the fluidity of (feminine) nature.
Antichrist’s elusive semantic excess becomes manifest as early as this prologue. It is not the, for a mainstream movie, unusual use of openly pornographic, penetrative sex as such that creates the “excess” of the prologue, but rather the entire meticulous movement of the scene itself. The anarchic Dionysian “outburst” of sexuality is juxtaposed not only with its corollary, death – in this case, the traumatic accidental death of the couple’s toddler – but also with the snow and its various, at this point undisclosed, significations. This ensemble of juxtapositions is then inserted into further layers of artifice: the sophisticated “choreography” of the scene, the accompanying Baroque aria, the device of super slow motion. The prologue’s encasing of its kernel, the brute Real, sex and death at their “mythological” pre-semantic level, in a cluster of aesthetic distancing devices and semantic overdeterminations then cumulatively creates the sense of an uncanny existential abyss.
Subsequently, the viewer will periodically re-encounter the film’s guiding theme. First in the course of Her panic attack towards the end of chapter one, as She recalls blowing on the dandelion clock, and then again, shortly after their arrival in the woods, as He goes on a stroll while She sleeps, encountering the film’s first “totem animal,” the hind with the still-born foetus hanging in its vernix. In what appears like a revelation of nature’s heart of darkness, this sight recalls the prologue, for it not only depicts the doomed “seed,” but also indicates the existential source of its preordained demise: the mother (the hind), and, by extension, “mother nature.”
During their first night at Eden, the couple is awoken by the unnerving staccato drop of acorns on the cabin’s metal roof. Unaware of what’s going on, He seems alarmed, until She tells him that “it’s just the stupid acorns,” Reassured, He goes back to sleep, but when He awakens the next morning, He is startled to find His hand, which had been protruding from under the cabin’s window while he was asleep, covered with a hoard of blood-sucking ticks. The sequence illustrates how “meta-horror” functions at two different levels in the film. At a superficial level, the scene simply inscribes an awareness of the conventions of the genre: the standard sequence false alarm, re-assurance, real threat. [[ It should be remembered here that “horror films” belong to the topics researched for the film, as acknowledged in the credits. The “accord” sudden fright, relieved reassurance, real danger is, of course, a standard genre device, and in meta-horror movies, such as Wes Craven’s Scream (1995), the device tends to be presented to the viewer with a “wink in the eye.” His discovery in the attic of a range of unsettling objects: the graphic illustrations relating to witchcraft and its persecution, her notebook for the aborted thesis on “Gynocide,” with its initially coherent writing that abruptly turns into a meaningless scrawl, and a mysterious astrological chart depicting the film’s totem animals fox, crow and deer as star constellations mark inscriptions of the director’s awareness of the conventions of the genre into the film. To these examples, one must add Her prophecy in Chapter 4 that “when the three beggars arrive, someone will die,” where the “three beggars” encrypt the three animals, the prophetic dimension of which had already been indicated. The genre wouldn’t be the genre without its secret chambers devoted to the occult, madwomen in the attic, doom-laden prophecies, etc. Suffice it to consider the prediction of the clairvoyant lady, rendered uncanny by the contrast between her blindness and her piercing blue eyes, in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), who pronounces on the imminent danger to Baxter’s life, or the madness/possession of Jack in the huge, yet empty, Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), manifested by the endless, compulsive re-typing of the sentence “All work and no play makes jack a dull boy,” which has sadly come to substitute for the narrative of his new novel. Of course, the “wink in the eye” in Antichrist, infinitely more subtle than that in Scream, lies partially buried in the film’s multiple layers of meaning. But as the couple’s next talk about the acorns in the narrow space of the cabin, rendered more claustrophobic still through the unrelenting acorns that hit with merciless insistence, reveals, something more fundamental is at stake. Note how Her bleak vision of procreation poetically shadows Schopenhauer’s philosophy of nature:
Oak trees grow to be hundreds of years old. They only have to produce one single tree every hundred years in order to propagate . . . it may sound banal to you, but it was a big thing for me to realize that when I was up here with Nic! The acorns fell on the roof then too . . . and kept falling and falling . . . and dying and dying . . . (Lars von Trier, 2008).
In light of Antichrist’s genre affiliation, the blood-sucking ticks subtly draw the specter of the vampire into the picture. Yet von Trier here simultaneously evokes and “extracts” the figure of the vampire, forgoing its actual presence. Precisely by treating this genre cliché in such an aloof way, he manages to draw that which the figure signifies philosophically into sharper relief: the immortal life of nature. The dropping acorns, metonymically signifying nature’s cycles of generation and corruption, and the ticks metaphorically hinting at the figure of the vampire, in combination create a semantic field capturing that which, in both Schopenhauer and von Trier, underlies nature as phenomenon: immortal nature, with its decidedly vampiristic traits.
The motif of undead nature, the visible corollary of which is a bottomless supply of seeds, insinuates itself into one of His dreams, carefully rendered as a “vision” by von Trier. At a point immediately preceding this dream, or perhaps marking its beginning, He looks intensely at the camera, and thus by implication at us, a device we have identified as the marker of an imminent visionary moment. We then enter into the dream, conveyed in two stationary shots, with the first showing Him amidst a hail of acorns depicted in extreme slow motion. The second stationary shot expands the view to include the cabin in the background and introduces, in addition to the acorns, the impossibly fast (time lapse) growth of oak saplings from the ground, which begin to decay in mid-growth as ever new supplies of tiny saplings keep growing up from below. He watches on dreamily as if in an epiphany, facing us. Von Trier devised the aesthetics of this shot with great care, creating a paradoxical confluence of a temporal anamorphosis (the acorns in slow motion) and time lapse (the growing oak saplings) in order to indicate the impossible “time of the Real,” and thus to credibly render the oak’s life cycle as a quasi-epiphany.
This dream reveals how the visionary and meta-dimension of Antichrist interrelate. When Dafoe’s He looks directly into the camera prior to his visions, this serves two functions: catching Him in the act of “seeing” alerts us to the visionary character of what will follow. At the same time, this unexpected engagement with the viewer draws our attention to the fact that we are only watching a movie. In this way, the scene becomes Real in the Lacanian sense of the term: it designates something that is constitutively in excess, that is at all only insofar as it is “missed,” as it is perceived to be either in deficit or surplus. It is therefore precisely when von Trier draws our attention to the mere artifice of his art that he adds an extra dimension, making the viewer a kind of accomplice in his game with the meta-level. In having his alter ego He, von Trier imbues both Him and Her in Antichrist with some of his own traits, letting Her reflect his depression, whilst endowing Him with his inclination for visionary experiences, step out of the cinematic “frame” for an instant, it is as if von Trier is inviting us to join him in his Shamanic journey. Nature at this point loses some of its “uncanny massiveness” and, for a moment, appears to become fluid, weightless, almost transparent.
The history of art cinema is replete with examples of the life cycle conveyed in visionary mode, including both Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980). It is tempting to also include Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985), with its time lapse videos of biological decay obsessively arranged by the twin zoologists Oswald and Oliver Deuce following the accidental deaths of their respective wives at the beginning of the film. The videos, nihilistic reflections on life, function to help the brothers contain the trauma of loss, but also allow Greenaway to elaborate his own baroque artistic “vision” of life and death, a couple conjoined by the “copula” sexuality. The dream scene concluding Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), a film which shares with von Trier’s depression trilogy the use of porn actors/doubles for authenticity, should not be forgotten here. The dream, where a funeral is juxtaposed with the image of the mother holding her freshly born infant, is preceded by an uncomfortably realistic birth scene, which carries elements of horror.
Antichrist’s most iconic scene, the couple’s having sex at the roots of a giant dead tree, has nature once more assume its messy, chthonic guise. Recall that Thomsen read this scene as evoking the orgiastic witch Sabbath, a cultural topos with “roots” reaching back as far as the ancient cult of Dionysos. While it is not my objective to challenge this reading, I will point out that the script designates the bodies/body parts that appear some way into the scene, half visible in the network of roots as dead, as a ghastly sight (von Trier 2009). A closer look reveals that there is indeed no movement, so that the bodies and the dead tree together add up to present an overwhelming impression of death. It appears to have been von Trier’s ambition to devise a tree of death for_ his_ demonic Eden, to match the tree of life that had been placed next to the tree of knowledge in the paradise of Genesis. Considering that von Trier emphasized the status of the forest as a romantic icon, it is striking that two iconic paintings of the key painter of German Romanticism who helped to elevate the forest to this iconic status, Caspar David Friedrich, Zwei Männer in Betrachtung des Mondes (Two Men Contemplating the Moon) (1819/20) and Mann und Frau Beim Betrachten des Mondes (Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon) (1835), both feature a gigantic half-uprooted dead tree, with its network of roots mirroring the network of branches.
If approached with an awareness of von Trier’s research into horror films, the sight of the protruding arms that still have a semblance of “groping” cannot fail to conjure the trope of the living dead encroaching on the realm of the living with their thirst for life. The scene also resonates with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), in which a forest, with a large, at bottom obscenely bulbous tree, features prominently. Towards the end of the film, the undead horseman (Christopher Walken), who has finally recovered his head, rides his horse “into” this tree, a portal to hell, and, in a settling of accounts that will evacuate his presence, takes Lady van Tassel, the source of his predicament, with him. Following their disappearance, we still see an arm of van Tassel sticking out of the tree as a moral reminder, in a posture similar to that of some of the bodies in Antichrist. Intriguingly, the trope can be seen to continue to inform this image, even if we reverse the perspective: the massive black tree, which stretches its root – a suction pump – over the decaying dead in their chthonic womb-tomb seems to materialize nature’s “vampirizing” on, and then carelessly depositing, its individuated offspring.
Considering that the scene is set in chapter three, entitled “Gynocide,” the sight of the bodies must allude to the victims of the witch trials, and is to be aligned with the film’s preoccupation with “evil,” be that the alleged evil of the accused or the actual moral decay of their hypocritically self-righteous accusers. In a statement concluding this scene, She pronounces that the sisters at Ratisbon can summon a hailstorm, an oblique reference to the Malleus Maleficarum. Von Trier originally intended to insert a flashback here to a drawing of a witch summoning a hailstorm in the attic (von Trier 2008), yet, in an apparent effort at abstraction, decided to forgo this, inserting the flashback into the preceding nature/reason role-play instead. However, the subsequent sequences depicting the couple’s descent into mortal violence do feature a hailstorm. The storm, which in a sense immediately embodies the voracity of the Dionysian, symbolically encodes not only notions of evil and of craft, but also nature’s doomed seeds, and it is linked to the numerous previous scenes that employ fog, the medium of transport of the Devil, according to the Malleus Maleficarum, as a reference to Dionysian fluids. At the same time, von Trier uses the couple’s sex at the dead tree to continue the elaboration of another of his key visual themes, that of the body in pieces (corp morcele, Lacan). 2
This scene also has an existentialist colouring. The “composition” of the bodies in this scene evokes Théodore Géricault’s painting La Radeau de la Meduse (1819), which shows man existentially adrift, a plaything of the elements. And then there are echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s first published work, Nausea (1938), a novel relating Antoine Roquentin’s discovery that he suffers from a condition he calls “existential nausea,” a “philosophical disease” brought on by the recognition that things exist (meaninglessly). A root in a park, which impresses itself upon Roquentin in terms of the facticity of its pure being, condenses this sense of revulsion induced by the obscenity of a (seemingly) unmediated Real, and becomes its iconic representation.
At its most fundamental, the trinity of tree, bodies, and sex condenses the film’s central guiding theme: the vanitas notion of the utter nullity of individual pretensions vis-à-vis nature and its infinity of cycles. While both the tree and the bodies have ostensibly reached the end of their life cycles, we apprehend nature, as depicted here, not as dead, but as “abyssal,” conveying an uncanny immortal life. That the couple communicates with this life through sex seems to sanction Thomsen’s notion of a witch Sabbath. While the sense of a quasi-religious communion with undead nature does run through this scene, this ritual has a decidedly lethal dimension. Schopenhauer appears to condense the fundamental parameters of this scene avant la lettre when he asserts that “we begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses . . . does it not look as if existence were an error, the consequences of which gradually grow more and more manifest” (Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence). And does it not seem as if von Trier deployed his depression trilogy in order to aesthetically answer Schopenhauer’s rhetorical question in the affirmative?
While Antichrist at times seems like a perfect aesthetic analogy for Schopenhauer’s nihilistic philosophy, we have not seen any evidence of a direct influence of Schopenhauer on the film. However, in her article on her misogyny research, Laura cites Schopenhauer’s essay On Women, a misogynist piece, in which the philosopher elaborates how woman, lacking physical strength, is prone to rely on deviousness and craft (Laura 2011). This does establish a line from Schopenhauer to Gainsbourg’s craftiness and deviance in Antichrist, manifested both in Her crippling of Nic’s feet and in her inaction, when she sees Nic climbing up to the window prior to his fall, as a flashback to the prologue towards the end of the film reveals. The official evidence for her guilt, a letter from the Seattle medical examiner, and photographs depicting Nic with the wrong shoes on his feet, circulates in this film like a Lacanian signifier, which retroactively reveals guilt to have played a central role in her subjective destitution.
As we have seen, Nietzsche adopted the notion of the “will” from Schopenhauer. His polemical attacks on Hegel and Schelling notwithstanding, Schopenhauer in turn derived the concept from Schelling, specifically Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and Related Matters (1809). Now allow me to return to Schelling for a final philosophical detour. A consideration of Antichrist in the light of a Romantic philosopher who, as his philosophical system progressed, increasingly devoted himself to the “night side” of nature, seems justified in its own right. Yet Schelling also plays a central role in the psychoanalytically oriented philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, whose reading of Schelling yields a bifocal psychoanalytical/philosophical view that can illuminate aspects of Antichrist that might otherwise escape our grasp. Finally, the line of philosophical influence from Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to Schelling which we have traced will lead us, finally, to Jacob Böhme, who thought that the fall of Lucifer perverted God’s creation.
To briefly trace the outlines of Schelling’s philosophy, Schelling’s thought was significantly influenced by the pantheistic philosophy of Benedictus (Baruch) Spinoza, who had equated the natural world with a divine substance, but he departed from Spinoza by “dynamizing” his static conception of the world as an all-encompassing object, superimposing upon it Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s dialectical construction of consciousness, of the thinking and willing “I.” The key to Schelling’s vision is this transference of the evolution of an individual consciousness onto the world as a whole which leads to the conception of an animated cosmos which is “organic” at its core, even in all of its apparently non-organic manifestations (matter, gravity, etc.). The world itself then becomes a quasi-subject, participating in a mode of “preconscious organization,” with a teleological orientation towards consciousness that is, however, only fully realized in man. In his Weltalter (Ages of the World) drafts, Schelling then posits a kind of “unconscious” within God, an archaic, preconscious rotary motion of drives that functions as the dark ground into which he “contracts” his being, and thereby becomes actual, yet from which he must then establish a proper distance in order to achieve the full light of freedom and self-identity.
Schelling’s Ages of the World, with its focus on the origin, is of particular relevance to a reading of Antichrist. In his seminal The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matters (1996), Žižek subjects Schelling’s notion of a tortured cosmic evolution to a sympathetic psychoanalytical reading, contextualizing Schelling’s arguably anthropomorphic cosmology with the interlocking of the Lacanian registers —the Real, Imaginary and Symbolic.
According to Schelling, during the first stage, when God exists only as the pure void of a “neutral” will which wants nothing, enjoying His own non-being, he is not yet personal. He only becomes personal —phenomenalizing himself to himself— when, by means of a purely formal conversion, the placid void of the initial neutral will which wants nothing is turned into its opposite, the divine rage of a positive will that effectively wants this nothing (Žižek 1996, 32-34). At this point, God “contracts” being, that is, he becomes actual by contracting his being into “Ground”: the vortex of a pre-temporal engagement between two opposing wills in Himself, the expansive will, which wants to posit a creation outside Himself, and a contractive will that cannot tolerate the existence of an external, minimally self-sufficient other, and thus continuously thwarts the expansive will, aborting its tentative attempts at “creation.” As, at this point, the dialectic of the two wills is under the power of the contractive one, God is caught in a futile rotary motion, the “chaotic psychotic universe of blind drives, their rotary motion, their undifferentiated pulsating” (Žižek 1996, 13). Schelling himself speaks of an “orgasm of all forces” in Weltalter (Schelling 1811-1813). However, eventually God pronounces the “word,” creating time and conferring order, while simultaneously repressing the pre-temporal rotary motion of drives into the eternal past. However, how can this form giving intervention that breaks the tie be conceived, given the cyclical pulsing of drives in which God appears trapped? Schelling suggests that the free act of creation out of primordial chaos is conceivable only, because Ground, the rotary motion of drives, does not constitute the ultimate fact: Ground is preceded by an Ungrund, by the abyss of freedom of the first stage, or “ag,” God’s initial non-personal existence as a placid pre-personal will which wills nothing. It is this Ungrund (abyss) that facilitates the otherwise inconceivable decision to pronounce the word, to confer upon the universe a “symbolic order.” 3
Žižek casts Schelling’s notion of the abyss of a divine chaos preceding creation in dramatic terms:
What we have here is Schelling’s grandiose Wagnerian vision of God in the state of an endless “pleasure in pain,” agonizing and struggling with Himself, affected by an unbearable anxiety, the vision of a “psychotic” mad God who is absolutely alone, a One who is All, since he tolerates nothing outside himself, a “wild madness tearing itself apart” (Žižek 1996, 24).
According to Schelling, the ordered universe we encounter today still testifies everywhere to that primordial agony. Wherever we look, he asserts, we see evidence that the world has not originated as a well-ordered entity, but as an initial chaos that has only been laboriously tamed. Schelling’s insight that the original all-consuming “divine vortex” even today remains the “innermost base of reality” crystallizes in his assertion that “if we were able to penetrate the exterior of things, we would see that the true stuff of all life and existence is the horrible” (Žižek 1996, 24).
It seems almost superfluous to point out that Antichrist renders aesthetically Schelling’s notion that a “penetration” of the surface will yield a disturbing view onto the innermost chaos at its base. _Antichrist_’s self-disemboweling fox, the director/shaman’s totem animal, roaming the forest at “Eden,” pronounces, in one of the film’s pivotal moments, that “chaos reigns.” Do we not bear witness here to von Trier’s attempt to “see” beyond the surface and apprehend nature’s inner content?
In order to graphically illustrate the functioning of “drive” governing the primordial chaos preceding the beginning proper in Schelling, Žižek resorts to the image of an animal which has been caught in a trap and which, in its attempt to disentangle itself from the snare, only continuously tightens it (Žižek 1996, 23). This metaphor is transferable not only to Antichrist’s self-disemboweling fox, but also to its third, and final, “totem animal,” the raven. The bird, recalling the eponymous animal in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, symbolically encodes the nagging persistence of grief (“Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!/Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’.”), but also conveys a general sense of ominous foreboding. However, the raven exceeds the purely metaphorical level, seemingly “directly” materializing the Real. When He is attacked by the bird as He hides in a foxhole to hide from His wife, who has become, at this point, “a madness tearing itself apart,” His successive attempts to kill it with a stone only further incite the beast, so that the two are temporarily caught in futile rotary motion – until the “undead” raven is finally dead. Similarly, the madness of Gainsbourg’s She can be understood as the reduction of a human subjectivity to the ontology of drive. Of course, it is no coincidence that von Trier lets this transformation take its course in a primordial forest that is vibrant everywhere with vestiges of the world at its point of origin.
As mentioned, Schelling’s philosophy is indebted to Jacob Böhme. Böhme (1575-1624), a mystic whom Hegel referred to as the first German philosopher, is today largely associated with his first publication, Aurora (1612), which already contains most aspects of his mature work in a nutshell. Böhme’s point of departure in Aurora is the biblical Genesis, but he combines its traditional account of creation with pantheistic and Gnostic notions, as well as a prototypical dialectic of the principles of Good and Evil. This led to his persecution as a heretic. Schelling then adopted the notion of a divine Ungrund, as well as the outlines of Böhme’s dialectic of the two principles in his Ages of the World.
Böhme’s pantheism is evident even at the outset of Aurora, where he uses the image of the Tree of Life in Genesis as a symbol for his notion of the universe as forming a part of God’s existence. As Aurora progresses, we apprehend that Böhme’s pantheistic vision of God/nature encompasses both Good and Evil, a necessary implication, since pantheism by definition entails that everything is contained in God. Böhme associates the principle of Evil with the fall of Lucifer, which ensured that at the Ground of the world there was now not the placid calm of divine peace, but “a raging and tearing, a burning and thrusting, and a wholly grudging being.” (Böhme 1612, 15:32) Böhme reasons that the rebellion of Lucifer originally raised the ire within God. Paul Carus, who devotes a chapter of his History of the Devil (1899) to Böhme, entitled “A Modern Gnostic,” argues that Böhme’s Gnosticism will have been largely unconscious, since, as a humble shoemaker, he lacked education. He notes that Böhme prefigured Schopenhauer’s notion of the will, but in stating this seems to have overlooked how Schopenhauer hinges on Schelling’s mediating role.
With Böhme, who is known to have suffered from bouts of severe depression, we have reached an endpoint, but also a nodal point, of our analysis of Antichrist. The proximity of Böhme’s Aurora to Antichrist is rather striking. There is, as we have now seen, a line of philosophical influence from Böhme, who held that the fall of Lucifer perverted creation, to Nietzsche, whose Anti-Christ inspired the title of von Trier’s film. Böhme constitutes a “nodal point” in our reading, since he points forward to Nietzsche and von Trier, but also backwards towards Gnosticism, another significant influence on the film, as Martig has demonstrated.
Finally, if Antichrist feels very “dense,” this is a consequence of the semantic overdetermination of its central elements: its “tree of death,” its totem animals, the snow, hail, fog, etc. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the name for such an overdetermination is, of course, Verdichtung (condensation). Lacan, in turn, associated Freud’s condensation with the rhetorical device of metaphor, asserting that the devices of the Freudian dream work, condensation and displacement, corresponded to the two main “axes” of language identified by Edith Jacobson, metaphor and metonymy. This led Lacan to conclude that the unconscious was structured like language. In other words, Antichrist exhibits the structure of a dream. It is conceivable that von Trier literally thought of it in these terms from the point She takes a nap while He takes a stroll in scene 33, which we looked at in the beginning of this essay. His first “vision,” as well as most of film’s genuinely surreal moments, take place subsequent to this point.
In conclusion, consider the dispute between Hegel and Schelling regarding the relative importance of art and of philosophy. Recall that the approach of Hegel to overcoming the Kantian epistemological deadlock was the dialectical method, which ultimately led to his insight that “subject is substance.” We can know substance, according to Hegel, for as we engage in philosophical reflection, it is substance itself that reflects within us, that is being self-illuminated. To Hegel, religion, art and philosophy are the highest embodiments of the dialectical movement of spirit. However, while Hegel thought that the conceptual domain of philosophy marked the ultimate consummation of the self-realization of spirit, his one-time collaborator Schelling placed art on an even higher level. To Schelling, geistige Körperlichkeit, spiritual corporality, ultimately eluded philosophy and its conceptual oppositions and syntheses, but it could be encompassed by the more sensual domain of art. In von Trier’s aesthetic meditation, we sense the presence of geistige Körperlichkeit in those instances when the film conveys nature in visionary terms employing an aesthetics that evokes a “time of the Real,” as well as a self-reflective logical level that recalls the Hegelian formula “substance is subject.”
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