Late thoughts on Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac – Volume 1
First there’s darkness. The screen is black. The gaze sinks into darkness, into a tunnel of darkness. Quiet, muffled noises can be heard. But from where? This is not revealed by the blackness. A scene suddenly appears: light, gentle snow flocs and some water splashing in a monotonous, red-brown backyard. In this silent picture, an uncomfortable feeling creeps out, ice-cold violence floats in the air. In the middle of the courtyard lies the battered body of a woman. Suddenly, this scene is torn apart by the booming music of the German band Rammstein and what has just been seen, more precise experienced, was one of the most moving overtures in film history. ”You have grown close to my heart, when I bleed you have pain; we must know each other, my body has two names, nothing can separate us“, a deep voice roars.* The music stops abruptly; the silence returns.
The Paradox is Deep
An older man finally discovers the woman, he wants to call the ambulance, she refuses. He decides to take her with him and take care of her. The woman, named Joe, turns out to be a self-diagnosed, hyper depressive nymphomaniac, who recites her previous life (like a fable or parable) to her Retreater, a cultivated old man named Seligman. What follows is a two-hour tour-de-force – shocking, touching, distressing – and, one may hardly believe it, also amusing and wise; as if Sigmund Freud’s Super-ego and Id or Friedrich Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian were to engage in a dispute. It is precisely this mixture of shock and wisdom that makes Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac an indelible experience. In the end, the paradox is so deep that the spectator trembles out of the room, looks around in confusion and tries in vain to think of something positive. Then, suddenly, the self-imposed restriction of not crying bursts and the body flushes out everything accumulated through a mixture of tears and laughter – what remains is a quivering wreck that slowly finds its way back out and to new strength. This is how Aristotle’s catharsis must feel.
Philosophical Mind Games
Through the plot Von Trier explains many views on art and religion, draws parallels between catching fish and the search for sexual intercourse, exposes the human will, the human instinct as a low motive; yes, he shows the enslavement of mankind by its own genitals.
In one scene, the viewer observes a nameless man having sex with Joe, and next to him is a photograph of a tiger carrying an antelope in his mouth. The similarity and simultaneous discrepancy between the two images could not be greater: on the one hand, the sex shown is like a tiger eating an antelope, on the other hand, the tiger in the shot seems so much more elegant and noble than the nameless man. That is the fundamental difference between animal and human being. The human being must lower the head ashamedly. The tiger, however, remains meanwhile with raised head proudly on the screen. This is partly reminiscent of the pen by Arthur Schopenhauer: “Think of the most beautiful, most charming couple, how they, full of grace, in beautiful love play, dress and push back, desire and flee, a sweet game, a lovely joke – Now see them at the moment of the pleasure of lust – all joke, all that gentle grace is suddenly gone, suddenly disappeared at the beginning of the >actus<, and has made way for a deep seriousness. What kind of seriousness is that? – The seriousness of being an animal. The animals do not laugh. The force of nature works seriously everywhere… This seriousness is the opposite pole of the high seriousness of enthusiasm, of the rapture into a higher world: there is also no joke: neither in animality.”** That means: coitus tears man as a sovereign subject down into the ego-less nature and makes him the object of her instinct; man no longer plays, he is played along with it. The result is the humility and passivity of being driven. Speaking in Schopenhauer’s words, this is something like an attempt on his own sovereignty; man is (helplessly) chained to his sex. The animal, on the other hand, has nothing to fear, it can surrender to the instinct. It cannot laugh and therefore does not know ridiculousness. But man becomes ridiculous, because he knows laughter.
It is such moments that make the film immortal and trigger philosophical mind games. Von Trier doesn’t remain cynically cold, but also allows some moments of comfort – the offended person shouldn’t freeze completely in the shock of the Dionysian naked and horny. From the beginning to the end there is a (naive) poetry in the film, which puts a shimmering beautiful light on what is shown but is more and more saturated with poison. And at the end the booming music of Rammstein resounds again – after that everything is over and the viewer can tremble out of the cinema and then, finally, cry.
*Translated from German: Du bist mir ans Herz gewachsen, wenn ich blute, hast du Schmerzen; wir müssen uns kennen, mein Körper hat zwei Namen, nichts kann uns trennen.
**Translated from German: Denke dir das schönste, liebreizendeste Paar, wie sie voll Grazie im schönen Liebesspiel, sich anzie- hen und zurückstoßen, begehren und fliehen, ein süßes Spiel, ein lieblicher Scherz – Nun sieh sie im Augenblick des Genusses der Wollust – aller Scherz, all jene sanfte Grazie ist plötzlich fort, urplötzlich beim Anfang des >actus< verschwunden, und hat einem tiefen Ernst Platz gemacht. Was für ein Ernst das ist? – Der Ernst der Tierheit. Die Tiere lachen nicht. Die Naturkraft wirkt überall ernst… Dieser Ernst ist der entgegengesetzte Pol des hohen Erns- tes der Begeisterung, der Entrückung in eine höhere Welt: da ist auch kein Scherz: in der Tierheit auch nicht.