One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s more famous and strangely popular idioms is his “Death of God” theory presented through the madman in his 1883 work The Gay Science.  Though it has been used for all sorts of philosophical and theological purpose, often twisting it to fit whatever schematics the debater wants to shape it into, the idea itself can apply to several pieces of cinema, all of which in some way exemplifies Nietzsche’s idea as well as numerous other philosophies of his on religion and Christianity.

The original quote from The Gay Science is as follows:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

One reading being that unless society created a post-Christian way of thinking (perhaps for the positive, striving ever closer to become the Ubermensch) that society would twist in on itself as it attempted to justify its increasingly stifled beliefs, eventually leading to sociological affects akin to chaos, whether physically or emotionally.  Or even that the very belief in an afterlife makes its followers unable to cope the strains of everyday reality.  Three films come to mind when discussing these ideas, all aesthetically similar as well as thematically.  This speaks of creating a universal aesthetic with all three directors unconcerned with entertainment and instead looking to point-blank question the viewer’s standpoint on the issues raised.

The first and earliest of these films is Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963).  The most underrated from his Faith trilogy, often hiding behind both The Silence (1963) and Through A Glass Darkly (1961), it manages to convey the collapsing belief system far more effectively than the other instalments.  The film follows a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand) whose lack of faith in both himself and humanity is beginning to affect the people under his care.  His relationship with a local teacher (Ingrid Thulin) becomes one filled with venom as the silence of God breaks down his sense of duty and care.  Not only does this lead to the cruel, almost tormenting method of release from the priest towards the teacher but also leads to the suicide of a man (Max von Sydow) unable to comprehend the death of everyone by nuclear war.

Nietzsche argues that:

“One often preaches one’s faith precisely when one has lost it and is looking for it everywhere – and at such a time one does not preach it worst!”

This sums up Tomas the priest perfectly, unable to rise above into a post-Christian way of thinking due to both his emotional stance and his working position within the schematics themselves.  The winter light of the film is the cold, harsh light of realisation, normally replaced with faith in humanity.  However, as Bergman has set up the latter to be a suicide inducing impossibility, the priest breaks down within the rays of the winter light, stuck in a Nietzschean nightmare akin to the philosopher’s own breakdown, described in the last film to be examined.

The next film bears a number of striking similarities with Winter Light, especially visually as it continues down the icy, glacial path of cold acceptance.  Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) is perhaps not as direct as Bergman’s film but is equally riddled with the fallout from the collapsing belief system of everyone in the village.  The film is set just before the beginning of the First World War; quite possibly the ultimate collapse of humanity within the character’s sense of truth and Christianity.

The town is being continually punished over time for slowly escaping into a post-belief society, eating away at itself as it fights to stop its changing identity.  Each punishment is inflicted on the individual, yet has consequences that spread like a wave, examining the birth of cruelty stemming from the power figures of the village; chiefly the Doctor and the Pastor.  Suspicion drowns the townsfolk as it starts look as if the children of the village, quiet, solemn but unnervingly rebellious, are at the heart of the punishments, especially in the case of the torture and attack on the young disabled boy, Karli (Eddy Grahl).  This in itself is a Nietzschean happening with the philosopher seeing that:

“Only in Christiandom did everything become punishment, well-deserved punishment.”

More interesting though, is a scene early on the film which is given little attention.  Martin (Leonard Proxauf) is seen by his schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) walking along a treacherous beam on the bridge in woodland.  When the teacher questions why Martin would take such a foolish, unnecessary risk, he simply states that he “wanted to give God the chance to kill him.”  To believe this to be an opportunity for punishment, implies that the belief system has come under strain and the guilt complex that lead to the punishments was about to manifest again.  The people committing the violent acts are trying to prop up their societal pressures through a release from abuse they have suffered themselves, even with its contradiction as beyond and outside of this system, there is only an “uncomfortable emptiness and deprivation” as Nietzsche put it.

The final film is the most obvious to look at with it being the only one here to be deliberately based around Nietzsche’s ideas and even the narrative of his life.  Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) follows a horse and its owners; the same horse that Nietzsche saw being flogged before his breakdown.  While it deals with more of Nietzsche’s ideas than most other films (Tarr himself left filmmaking afterwards to teach a class of Kafka) the collapsing belief system is one that is more subtle and outside of Christianity within The Turin Horse.

Instead the viewer sees the strain of everyday life drive down the only real belief system left to the two characters; that of a general longing for hope of escape from the monotonous life that they lead.  Even the horse recognises the pointlessness of their life before they do.  Unlike the other two films, the fallout from this isolation is far from dramatic, more of a quiet melancholic whimper like the last dying embers of a fire as they fade into a black, universal ash.

Gone is the Kantian sublime and desire for individual based action and instead the world of these three films is left with a gestalt-like wave of belief defined action; a deadly domino effect that leads to everything from suicide, abuse, and a perpetual living death – stuck in the limbo between chaos and void.

“Thoughts are the shadows of our sensations – always darker, emptier, simpler than these.”

Perhaps these thoughts that are emptier versions of our sensations release our inner most bile, quite unable to comprehend a nuclear war, a world war or a world of constant toil; a constant inescapable clash in the worlds of Bergman, Haneke and Tarr

Adam Scovell

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One thought on “Collapsing Belief Systems and The Nietzschean Death – (Winter Light, The White Ribbon, The Turin Horse).

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