Mother (Nature) Will Eat You: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

I. Beauty

In 1935, 32-year-old Leni Riefenstahl created one of the most beautiful films of her generation—a motion picture that remains a standard reference for film studies. Exquisite attention to stylistic detail, superb editing, and a masterful control of the camera produced a classic film, Triumph of the Will. Adolf Hitler called the film an “incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” Triumph was a documentary of the Nazi Party’s Nuremberg rally in 1934.

Like Riefenstahl’s Triumph, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a beautiful film. Ultra slow-motion flashbacks and intercuts reminiscent of a Bill Viola video; high-contrast, black-and-white lovemaking; textured, hypnotic, surrealistic scenes of humans intertwined with nature; and extreme close-ups of human eyes, bamboo in a glass vase, and unkempt hair (the camera sporadically zooms in on the backs of heads a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo) all make for a film that is impossible to get out of one’s sensual body. Antichrist’s images and sounds have infiltrated my dreamscape for the two weeks now since I saw it at the New York Film Festival, along with about 700 other attendees. I wish I had their phone numbers; even the disgusted dozens who walked out halfway through. I’d like to call them at 3:00 a.m. and ask what they are thinking about, what they are dreaming, if indeed they are sleeping. I need some therapy. This is one messed-up film.

The beauty of Antichrist is in distinct contrast to many of von Trier’s previous films. From the early 1990s until now, his films have conveyed an anti-beautiful sentiment. Critics have been quick to liken von Trier’s filmmaking to Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical mode of “alienation” (or, “distanciation”) in which audiences are prevented from empathizing with characters through formal, stylistic means. This is in contrast to most Hollywood films and Broadway plays that strongly encourage identification with one or more characters in order to “draw in” the audience. To keep viewers from being too engrossed in the unfolding world of the film, von Trier has typically employed handheld cameras, rough edits that jar the viewers’ visual sensibilities, microphone booms that become visible in shots, and a precedence of minimalist staging, especially in Dogville and Manderlay—though both were striking in their lighting and set design. Antichrist alludes to these anti-beauty sentiments: There are a number of handheld shots, and some curious breaks with the 180-degree rule, but those are early on in the film and it becomes the content, not the form, that is so disturbing in the latter half of the film.

The ancients, as well as many moderns, have concerned themselves with beauty and its attendant formal dimensions of symmetry, wholism, and proper ratios. In the third century CE, Plotinus suggested that all beautiful things produce “awe and a shock of delight, passionate longing, love and a shudder of rapture.” These words could easily be applied to many parts of Antichrist, just as modern day renditions of “shock” and “awe,” and “shudder” are far beyond what the ancients were imagining. Even so, the ancient Greeks, and groups like the National Socialists who pretended to be unearthing an ancient tradition, saw beauty as a property that prompts holiness and ultimately salvation, purifies its recipients, and promotes social harmony and prosperity. Which is why Riefenstahl employed it and Hitler enjoyed it. Beauty, it has been thought, leads to goodness and truth.

II. Nature

Throughout Western philosophical and theological history, one of the key sources for the encounter with beauty has been found in nature. The father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), was big on it, as are many in the Germanic and English philosophical traditions: nature is awe-inspiring, overwhelming even, leading to an encounter with the sublime, something uncontrollable, something that makes us realize the tremendous (making us tremble) forces that are beyond our human grasp, leading us to believe there might be gods and goddesses behind it all.

Von Trier seems to know this and in Antichrist we get nature in a big, bad way: leeches sucking blood off a hand, dead and dying animals, falling trees, falling acorns, and falling birds from nests (mimicking falling children, the “Fall” from original grace), and, finally, animals who prey on their young. Nature here isn’t the pristine, verdant world revered by eco-warriors. Von Trier and his production designers make sure that trees and grass may be “green,” but they are simultaneously rotting, decaying, and falling.

The film’s natural world is not unlike that described by Annie Dillard in her marvelous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Early on in her reflections, Dillard describes her experience walking along a shoreline in a beautiful environment and coming across a frog that was moving very slowly:

And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag… his skin emptied and drooped. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football… I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink.

Dillard goes on to realize that this “shadow” was a giant water bug that bites its victim, piercing its skin, and then proceeds to suck its prey dry. The image given is gruesome, and Dillard goes on to think of the theological implications: “Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created.” In the end, Dillard affirms a creation theology that appalls von Trier. For the latter, God is the malicious water bug. (See my previous piece on related topics.)

Ultimately, there is nothing inherently nurturing about nature, and nothing maternal/paternal about caring for one’s young. The images conjured within Antichrist are those from the myths of Saturn (Roman) and Kronos (Greek), of divine beings devouring their own young. Birds do it, bees do it, deities do it; let’s do it. Kronos in particular stands behind the film with its dealings in family struggles and castration. Peter Paul Rubens’ great 1636 painting, Saturn/Kronos Devouring his Son [below left], is replicated in Antichrist as an adult bird ripping open a hatchling.

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The godly water bug no longer preys on other species, but preys on its very own; those of its own image and likeness. Ethical arguments based on the “natural world” (in terms of “normal” family life, sexuality, and violence) should pay heed. Biologically speaking, monogamy is not the norm, and biological family values are a far cry from what politicians render them to be. Eating one’s young is not too far out of the ordinary—especially in times of stress.

In this light, Antichrist is full of paradoxes, a confusion of opposing forces. Nature and nurture are toyed with, just as left and right shoes are mixed up—perhaps having something to do with the son’s death. Left and right, right and wrong, are nowhere delineated in the film, but confused throughout, and grand mythologies are intertwined with children’s stories and fairy tales. Mythos has a showdown with logos once again, but now in the dead of night instead of high noon. As is usual in von Trier’s films, there is a key character who is a doctor, a medicine man (and it is always a man), and a female character who disbelieves the logos of the medical establishment. They are pitted against each other again and again.

In Antichrist, He (the unnamed character played by Willem Dafoe), the pedantic therapist, lays on the wooden floor of the shack in the woods in Eden, emasculated and half dead, yet even so cannot give up his so-called rational outlook. He looks up at the stars exclaiming, “There’s no such constellation,” regarding the purported “three beggars” from “her” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) research, even though He seems to see them. What He overlooks is the fact that there is no such thing as a constellation anyway. Stars do not somehow “choose” to be together, do not immediately coagulate with each other. Constellations are always created by the observers, a subjective deciding process. There is no logical reason to link one star to the next, and from what we know via modern astronomy, some of those stars might not even exist anymore since their light takes so many years to reach us. What is thought to be natural is nothing of the sort.

III. Grief

The more frustrating dimension of reviewers’ obsessions with the genitals and drills and grindstones of the film (for which von Trier shares much of the blame) is that they stop talking about what begins as the great triad of “pain,” “grief,” and “despair” that make up the chapters of Antichrist. Yes, Lars von Trier treks into the horror genre in ways similar to his Kingdom miniseries, though far more gruesomely. Yes, he pushes the misogyny quite far (though one should not overlook von Trier’s general misanthropism, as well as what can only be called his misotheism). But hating women, people, or deities does not make grief, pain, and despair go away.

Drawing on Russian fairy tales dealing with infanticide, von Trier mythologically calls pain, grief, and despair the “three beggars.” On one hand the film’s three beggars (a crow, a deer, and a fox, seen also as figurines in the boy’s room and as constellations in the night sky) are the opposite of the “three wise men” of the Christian myth: instead of giving gifts to the Christ-child, they eat their young. Here it is the mythological paintings of Rubens and Francisco Goya who supply the visual impetus for the set design. (And I’m going to leave the Renaissance “gynocide” imagery to the many others who have already tackled the subject.)

On the other hand, the grieving process over a lost child simply cannot be overestimated. Gut-wrenching films like In the Bedroom (2001) should be seen in this light for the potential violence that erupts as a part of the grieving process, and History of Violence (2005) for the extent that people will go to protect a family (though it has a few more twists). The most memorable scene I know of in terms of loss and grief and violence takes place in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue (1993): Julie (Juliette Binoche) has lost her two children and husband in a car accident, and as she leaves her old life behind she walks beside a stone wall, grinding her knuckles along the jagged surface, cutting and bruising her hand. Pain, even and especially when self-inflicted, seems as natural as anything at such points in life. Antichrist is an extensive delving into that pain, and what it might provoke in the lives of those still living. Surrealistic, yes, but not as “sur-” as many might think.

Horror conventions aside, as a father of two children I must say there is much to the process of grieving drawn out in von Trier’s film. The scenario of child falling out a window, or drowning in a bathtub, or being hit by a speeding/texting car driver, is all too frequent in many of our lives. We run the films through our minds over and over, trying to edit it out, but it remains. I can’t even imagine what the feedback loop is for those who have lost their children.

Like so many things, perhaps the grieving process cannot be taken on in direct ways: through brute, masculine logic; through doctrinaire doctors who know the way its going to go. In the end, maybe grief needs beauty. Or at least some semblance of the beautiful, fictitious as it may be. Or at least art. Some black and white, slow motion image with aria accompanying.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.