“I really wanted to be a Jew,” Lars von Trier said at the Cannes Film Festival this spring. The film he was promoting then, Melancholia, was released in U.S. theaters this week. “And then I found out that I was really a Nazi. Which also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. I think I understand the man, he’s not what you would call a good guy. But I understand much about him. And I sympathize with him a little bit.”
Maybe “promoting” isn’t quite the mot juste: As the Danish director learned instantly after making his comments, anyone empathizing with Hitler hasn’t much chance of being taken seriously.
It’s a shame. Because Melancholia isn’t only a profound, beautiful, and terrifying film; it’s also a wild and courageous exploration of the same sentiment that got von Trier into so much trouble: the cosmic inevitability of Hitler.
Not that the mustachioed menace is mentioned anywhere in the movie. The closest Melancholia gets to evil is Charlotte Rampling, who—while wonderfully imperious as an abusive mother—is nonetheless a few steps removed from contemplating a final solution. But from the film’s very first notes, the overture to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, we are never far from the same Romantic soil that sprouted the Third Reich.
The plot, as far as it matters, is divided into two chapters. The first follows Justine, a young and depressive bride, on her wedding day. The blinding-white dress and Kirsten Dunst’s vacuous expression combine to create the closest thing cinema can manage to a void, a gaping hole through which we’re invited to look at the friends and family members gathered in celebration. They’re a dubious bunch, greedy and gabby and self-centered, and we have no qualms with Justine’s efforts to escape the ceremony and its confinements, efforts that include a long bath and a quick romp with someone other than her betrothed. There’s also some talk of a star, Melancholia, which was hiding behind the sun and has now emerged to dazzle the skies with its splendid red glow. One of the revelers comments that there’s no chance of Melancholia ever hitting Earth, and because he is portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland we’re inclined to believe him.
It would spoil very little of the pleasure of watching Melancholia to say that the eponymous red star does end up colliding with Earth and that our home planet and everyone living on it ends up perishing in flames. All the while, the theme from Tristan und Isolde plays hauntingly.
Taken at face value, the movie leaves much to be desired. Its operatic opening, complete with a sequence of celestial bodies hanging low and bright, evokes the same madly grandiose aspirations that turned off so many people to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life and its depiction of the world’s creation. And von Trier’s characters do little more than insinuate, ever so careful not to succumb to real representation or sink to needless emotional depths. But read as an allegory, Melancholia is stunning.
An allegory of what? The film’s name might give us a clue. The word’s original meaning is “black bile;” far from mere sadness, it once represented a state of emotional, physical, and spiritual decline. “At the close of the Middle Ages,” Johan Huizinga wrote in his seminal book on that period, “a sombre melancholy weighs on people’s souls.” A similar sensation afflicts everyone in von Trier’s film. Even those who try their best to be nice and helpful end up paralyzed by some unholy mixture of sorrow, rage, and regret, until, quite literally, Melancholia (the star) destroys everything.
As the star approaches Earth, Justine grows calmer and more radiant. Riding horses in the misty countryside and lying naked by the river, she looks like something out of Wagner, a Valkyrie taking one last nap before darting off to Valhalla. Her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), on the other hand, becomes more and more neurotic, scrambling madly in an effort to avert the catastrophe. That one sister is blonde and lithe and the other is Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter is hard to ignore—the more Justine is intoxicated by madness and ruin, the more frantically Claire tries to appeal to the rational and orderly institutions of society for help. Nothing helps. Doom is imminent.
Which is where Hitler comes in.
Given von Trier’s comments in Cannes, his constant use of one of the Nazi dictator’s favorite pieces of music, his choice of actresses, and his clear metaphysical aspirations—you don’t open your film with images of the world coming to an end unless you’re trying to say something about existence at large—it’s not hard to imagine that the destructive red star might have a swastika emblazoned somewhere on its surface, representing the same demonic force that propelled Hitler to power. Both lurk in the shadows of a highly cultivated society, and both consume a universe far too reasonable to believe that total annihilation is possible.
But von Trier seems less interested in the destruction itself than he is in its theological underpinnings. His sympathy for Hitler is rooted not in some juvenile sense of morbidity or prankishness, but in the same impossible question that occupied so many thinkers in the aftermath of Auschwitz: How, in the wake of such monstrosities, can we still have any hope, any faith? We ask the same while watching the world teeter toward its destruction in Melancholia—should we just accept the demise of all these people? Should we just sit there as humanity screeches and burns?
Von Trier thinks so. Black bile, he argues, is likely to consume us every time, but from the ashes a new world, a new morality, a new life will emerge. Far from a nihilistic celebration of the beauty of destruction, von Trier’s film offers us a radical and necessary theodicy that tells us we’re going to suffer but promises us it’s all for a good cause, the cause being the rebirth of the horrifying as the beautiful and the sublime. Terror gives way to reflection. Suffering gains meaning.
A somewhat similar view was expressed by the rabbi and theologian Ignaz Maybaum. Escaping Berlin in 1939, the Vienna-born Maybaum lost his mother, sisters, and other relatives in the Holocaust. In 1965, he published his attempt at understanding what had happened to the Jews. Titled The Face of God After Auschwitz, the book made a radical claim: Hitler, Maybaum argued, was an instrument of God, used “to purify, to punish a sinful world; the six million Jews; they died an innocent death; they died because of the sins of others.” The Jews, in other words, have become the “suffering servants” Isaiah talked about, and their sacrifice cleansed the world of its evils and ushered in a new era of hope and joy.
Maybaum’s remains a controversial argument—the chief reason, perhaps, why this marvelous thinker and writer isn’t very well-known today. It’s also a theory one imagines von Trier happily adopting. In 2005, he gave an interview to the German weekly Die Zeit, revealing his shock at discovering late in life that the man who’d raised him, a Jewish gentleman named Ulf Trier, was not his biological father. “Before she died,” he said, “my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation.” His real father, von Trier learned, was a German with the unimprovable name of Fritz Michael Hartmann, heir to a long line of classical musicians; von Trier’s mother told him that she believed that by becoming pregnant with Hartmann’s child she would produce an artistic genius. “You then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative,” von Trier mused. “If I’d known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!”
It’s Melancholia all over again: the inevitable destiny, the suffering, the sublimation, and the eventual redemption. Doomed at birth to a life of hardship, dedicated to bearing witness to the world’s ills, reviled but determined to find beauty and meaning in the darkest hours, von Trier is more of a Jew than he might care to admit, and Melancholia is more of a Jewish movie than he might realize. There’s no redemption here, but nor is there despair. Instead, there are human beings with human fears, some panicking and some calm, and a final moment that is preordained but that is nonetheless surprising, saddening, and beautiful enough to send us out of the theater humming Wagner and dedicated to doing whatever we can to make life count before our own world ends, as it inevitably will. There’s little more we can ask a movie to do.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.