Michael Braverman portfolio / personal site

Trier’s 'Melancholia' and Tarkovsky: God, Mysticism and Consolation

The general theme that the film Melancholia (2011) by Lars von Trier expounds is on the possibility of consolation in times of prevailing modern secularity and nihilism—in a moment where a global catastrophe announces itself as imminent. In this film, this immanent catastrophe presents itself as a planet named ‘Melancholia’ that is set to collide with Earth and promises to transform Earth into its primordial state in which it was 4.5 billion years ago—a period when Earth’s surface consisted of nothing but terraforming lava. This scientific resonance is quite important in the film; scientism plays a primary role in presenting itself in the film as something that is ultimately futile, even if it was once deemed as a celebration of human overcoming of religion and dominance reason over nature. Under these circumstances, nihilism is the ultimate form of consolation offered by the film; the options are either a resignation through suicide as in the case of John, or an attempt to stoically meet death face to face as in the case of Justine and Claire.

A detail that may perhaps serve as a start for commencing an exposition of the film, is the employment of certain details that grounds and bridges Melancholia to other film works. The film includes certain screens that include 16th and 17th century European Renascence paintings; one of the first paintings shown in the film is The Hunters in the Snow, painted by a Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel in 1565. The painting itself includes the subject matter of hunters who arrive home after an unsuccessful hunt. However, a very interesting parallel that The Hunters in the Snow embodies, is that is was also prevalently used in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s films Solaris (1972) and The Mirror (1974)—films to whom, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) undoubtedly pays tribute to. The Sacrifice (1986) is a film by Tarkovsky that presents many similarities with Melancholia, where in response to an immanent catastrophe that presents itself as a commencement of WWIII between the Cold War superpowers, one of the protagonists commits a Kierkegaardian leap of faith by lighting his home on fire1. Perhaps a relation of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia to Tarkovsky films, is worthy of a brief elaboration.

A filmshot from Melancholia (top) depicting Justine and a filmshot from Stalker (bottom) depicting Stalker both laying in shallow water. The way in which water provides metaphors in both of the films especially draws many resemblances; but many other influences that Tarkovsky had on Lars von Trier can also be pointed out in the film.

Although the theme of consolation and life’s meaning is prevalent in all Tarkovsky’s films, any attempt to totalize Tarkovsky’s films philosophically can be automatically prescribed as a crime—even if Tarkovsky’s films unravel the deepest philosophical, metaphysical, existential, and ontological questions about human existence. With this disclaimer in place, the totalizing philosophic theme that will be expounded, is the theme of consolation in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and its comparison to Melancholia. In Stalker the main protagonist named Stalker is payed to provide company to a professor and a writer to an area called ‘The Zone’, where mysterious phenomena occur that escape all human understanding and explanation (just like all Tarkovsky’s films). ‘The Zone’ is an area that is heavily guarded, in which mystical primordiality prevails; where all meaning meets its immediate dissolution. One of the two men who are accompanied by Stalker, is a scientist ‘Professor’, who has faith in science and reason, and a ‘Writer’, who antagonizes the Professor’s beliefs and affirms that life is meant to be lived, suffered and experienced throughout their joinery in ‘The Zone’. However, the two approaches towards life that these two men takes, ultimately present as meaningless and futile in explaining the phenomena that occurs in the mysterious ‘The Zone’. Stalker, the main protagonists who guides the professor and the writer into ‘The Zone’, understands that this zone escapes his understanding, which is the basis of his eschatological feeling towards it. When the three protagonists reach the center of ‘The Zone’ which possesses the power to fulfill anyone’s wish, the scientist makes an attempt to plant a small nuclear weapon device that would void the capacity of “The Zone” to fulfill ill-fated human wills and desires, based on his pessimism regarding human nature. Stalker, who finds a Sartrean meaning in the meaningless of his suffered quasi-atheistic eschatology towards ‘The Zone’, attempts to combat and resist the scientist; the writer, although physically supporting the scientist and his confrontation with Stalker, ultimately understands the ambiguity and meaningless of whatever side he takes—either the side of the scientists who destroys ‘The Zone’ and its capacity to grant wishes, or Stalker’s side, who deems ‘The Zone’ as a potential for granting a mystical raison d’être of being.

Here, Stalker’s eschatology towards ‘The Zone’, is one that resembles an atheistic, but mystical kind; in reductive terms, it is a fusion between Spinozism and Buddhism with some Sartrean and Dostoevskian elements. Ultimately, what unifies these stances, is their atheistic nature in the Nietzscheist sense, embodied in his famous proclaimation ‘death of God’—the philosophy of whom, Tarkovsky is immensely aware of.2 The rather strong claim to be derived from this however, is that Tarkovsky comes unprecedentedly close to demonstrating how mysticism and eschatology can nevertheless persist in the age of secularity—as an overcoming, defeat, and spitting in the face to its naive positivism. It is precisely this aspect that becomes completely omitted and plagued in Melancholia due to its contingency to Hollywood intertwined with its cultural, rationalist, scientific positivism. In Melancholia we get secular universe where planets are terraformed, form the conditions for creatures to establish the Hollywood film industry, just in order to be reduced to a soup of terraforming lava, atoms and molecules once another planet collides with their planet; in such a secular universe, no meaning is derived. While in Tarkovsky’s films, while still secular, opens up a dimension for mysticism and meaning, where Nature is deified but at the same time not; it is an antithesis to scientistic fetishism. Unfortunately (or perhaps even fortunatly), the outcome of Lars von Trier’s attempt to replicate this aspect of Tarkovsky’s films in Melancholia resembles very little beyond Kitschified aesthetics. But that is not to say the Melancholia does not provide a discourse in relation to its underlying scientism, in the same way that Tarkovsky provided a discourse in relation to the idoelogical materialism that was prevalent in USSR at the time. Tarkovsky however, did not conceal his intent to provide a counter answer to Hollywood; Tarkovksy’s Solaris was for example, a response to Lucas’s Star Wars series: a fetishized, scientistic, utilitarian, hedonic, imperialist-expansionism of space, where the energy of stars, resources of planets and the stardust of all galaxies belongs to appropriation of humanity. While Tarkovsky Solaris is anti-expansionist and expresses life’s belonging to Earth trough the prelude’s of Bach and defied, yet mystical naturalism. Based on a review of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Mark Fisher has explicated brilliantly well the role that deified Nature plays in Tarkovsky’s films, which more than anything applies to the mysterious ‘Zone’ in Stalker along with Stalker’s eschatological, mystical relation with it:

Tarkovsky’s vision is of an immanent, impersonal, Spinozistic God, where God = Nature. Tarkovsky’s spirituality is profoundly alien to the West’s dualism: it is earthly, earthy, as cool and clear and material as the water his camera spends so long dwelling upon.3

At the end of film Stalker, the three men sit together in a tavern, reconciled with the meaningless of each other beliefs, they silently sit in each other’s thoughts, while being completely confounded by the ambiguity and meaningless of ‘The Zone’ as it escaped all their attempts to understand its meaning. This is precisely the similarity that we find in Melancholia; although all protagonists in Melancholia assert a certain belief in regard to how they can find consolation in their demise by the approaching planet, all of them potentially lack meaning—which is the nihilism of the film. In this sense, Justine who is the main protagonist in Melancholia, comes very close to Stalker’s position because she ultimately sees the futility of attempts of consolation that her family members have come up with—and embraces demise through a form of stoicism.

The three men sitting in the Tavern at the end of the film.

Given that a catastrophe in the Melancholia is imminent, the question ultimately turns to how the protagonists deal with their imminent death in the age of secularism, death of God, and prevalence of scientific and empirical understanding about the world. Since God is nowhere mentioned in the movie, except for the wedding at the church that Justine’s mother asserted to not have attended due to her beliefs; the film demonstrates how the protagonists find comfort in this absence of God.

To start out, John the father of Justine, is a pragmatic utilitarian businessman, who’s aim is to maximize his daughter’s happiness based on the wealth he invested in her wedding; he tells her she “should be goddamn happy” with the wedding he paid for (ironically, this is only the second time when the syllable “god” can be heard in the film). He is an optimist, he claims that science has determined that the planet Melancholia will pass by and not collide with Earth which fuels his fascination with telescopes that can track the distance and speed of the approaching planet. In another scene, he happily poses with his son for a photo in front of the planet Melancholia as is approaches a fly-by. Until the end John is assured that science can predict the trajectory of a planet which posits that Melancholia will not collide with Earth. His faith is therefore in science, although by the end, he admits the futility of his faith and renounces the promise he made to Clair that the planet will not collide—because in science he says, “there is always a margin of error that must be accounted”—which is perhaps, the ultimate futility of science fixed on using probabilities, trial and error, etc. towards the end to understanding and manipulate nature—as a source for consolation. The ultimate way out for John ends up being suicide which he commits by swallowing pills that Clair had hidden in her drawer in the case she will end up wanting to commit a suicide herself. This ultimately demonstrates how science, pragmatism and utilitarianism are ultimately incapable of providing basis of values that can ground a raison d’être during a confrontation with death; instead, it ends up only offering a fatalistic resignation from life through suicide. This nihilist defeatism is precisely what Tarkovsky’s films prefigure and give warning to, in resonance with Nietzsche.

Claire on the other hand (after whom Part II of the film is titled after), experiences melancholia caused by the planet directly. As the planet Melancholia does a fly-by and becomes visible from Clair’s window, she then goes on Googling “melancholia death” to confirm her dad’s prognosis that the planet will not collide. She starts to suspect that Melancholia might indeed collide with Earth based on recent estimates made by astrologists, but does not entirely submit to the affirmation made by scientist without first consulting her father John, who in this case perhaps, serves as a form of ultimate authority for providing meaning. Instead of a holy Saint, John functions as paternalist figure for providing consolation. Claire’s father ultimately admits that the scientific predictions might not be correct; she panics frequently, always trying to find a comforting state of mind in which she can reconcile her imminent death—which she always attempts to hide and not admit to herself. However, Clair does confront the suicide of her father quite calmly, which perhaps demonstrates her adaptability to finding new forms of beliefs that can comfort her and provide consolation. Without a paternalistic figure that blesses one’s consolation, Claire is left with herself and her sister Justine.

Justine on the other hand, presents a different approach in confronting annihilation by the planet Melancholia, which contrasts from her sister’s and her father’s approaches. The trauma that Justine experiences does not necessarily have to do with the planet Melancholia itself, but with how she reacts to the general state in which she finds herself in. It is a nausea of disenchanted modernity in which God is dead, and as humans either find some reconciliation, refuge in nihilism, or blind optimism—ultimately, these are all futile for her since as Melancholia hits, end of humanity is imminent. Instead, she finds meaning in the meaningless of the situation, almost like an existentialist, but also a stoic in a way. She declares to Claire that “The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it”—because ultimately, Claire claims to know that there is no life besides on planet Earth, so there would be no sentient being to even conceive the meaning of the fact that life had been negated somewhere else; which is what constitutes the precarious leap of faith that makes her proclaim that she knows there is no other life outside the cosmos—this is precisely the basis of her faith which is based a faith combined with reasoning. This is perhaps her equivalent for an ontological proof for God, but which substitutes God with a reason the proclaims that there is no other life beside Earth. Like Sartre would, Justine projects her own meaning onto the meaningless of world, in which life has no meaning a priori, and is meaningless until it is lived; it is us, the free subjects, who give it meaning through our will, reason, action, intentionality, and our ontological relation with the world4. At the end, Justine suggests to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Clair, which she ultimately does not, since Lars von Trier realized perhaps, that not even Beethoven can provide consolation when the sonata of cosmic harmony prearranged the destruction of Earth. Perhaps Bach could’ve been an attempt to achieve the aim in that regards, who is ultimately the preferred composer in Tarkovsky’s films, precisely because in his films, Bach serves as a unifying element for achieving the Spinozistic, cosmo-mystical reconcilement between God and Nature. Tarkovsky extensively uses Bach’s preludes to bring to surface this point made by Fisher above.

Given the way in which the protagonists approach their death in Melancholia, the question remains as to what role does God serve in this consolation. In Melancholia, it appears that God, nor religion really have a role or function since it was substituted by other forms of consolation that either rely on reason, free will, or nihilism. Overall, it is a film that mediates on a scenario of a catastrophe in a society where, as Nietzsche proclaimed, ‘God is dead’: where faith no longer serves as a source for meaning, redemption and consolation. If Margaret Thatcher famously announced that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism, Melancholia announces that there is no alternative to nihilism; if the former was the cause of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the later perhaps, is the cause of Tarkovsky being no longer. On a cosmic plane similar to Bach and Shakespeare who prefigured and expressed the human encounter with modernity, Tarkovsky lives along with them, but also with us, as a specter5, for as long as we are moderns. However, the theme of consolation in Melancholia, is one that is undoubtedly reflective and expositional.

  1. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006, 2009), p.85. 

  2. A gravest crime against Tarkovsky’s films has been committed in the prior two sentences, perhaps coming even close to the crime against one’s own life that Socrate’s commits in the Apology by justifying his own death in the face of prosecution by the Athenian law. A Disclaimer has been stated above neverthelss. 

  3. Mark Fisher, “Mirror”, K-Punk blog, Feb. 18, 2004. 

  4. Jean-Paul Sartre, trans. Carol Macomber; Existentialism is a Humanism (Yale University Press: 2007), p.51. 

  5. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994).