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The Anti-Nihilism of Kubrick and Haneke

FOUR BY THREE MAGAZINE

The Anti-Nihilism of Kubrick and Haneke

KEVIN L STOEHR

Kevin L Stoehr


Are the films of Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke entrenched in nihilism? Kevin Stoehr looks at both directors through the lens of Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy, illustrating just how much we misunderstand these great directors if we don't acknowledge their rejection of nihilism's negative orientation.


Two of our greatest filmmakers, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke, share an interest in narratives that center upon themes of emotional detachment, de-humanization, anxiety, thwarted freedom, and violence. I argue that the common philosophical vision underlying the major works of Kubrick and Haneke follows an intellectual trajectory first initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s writings on the problem of nihilism suggest that there are two forms of this existential orientation, both occasioned by the loss of faith in conventional values, traditions, and institutions. One form is life-negating and the other form leads to individualized self-affirmation and thereby a way out of nihilism in general. While some might label Kubrick and Haneke as “cinematic nihilists,” in that they return again and again to such themes, it is my thesis that these directors are, in fact, anti-nihilists in terms of the lessons that they intend viewers to take from their films. Their works express a shared rejection of the passive, negative orientation that has traditionally been associated with the term “nihilism.”


 

Nietzsche’s Two Forms of Nihilism

Nietzsche viewed nihilism as the chief spiritual and moral problem of the modern age - but a necessary one, given the development of the Platonic-Christian tradition. This tradition has followed the logical consequences of rationalist idealism and concluded in a type of pathological skepticism.  In a fragment at the very beginning of Book One (“European Nihilism”) in the volume The Will to Power (the posthumously edited collection of his previously unpublished writings), Nietzsche defines nihilism as follows: “What does nihilism mean? -- That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is missing; ‘Why?’ finds no answer.” [1] He also tells us in another fragment from a later book of that same collection: “A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of ‘in vain’ is the nihilists’ pathos – at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.” [2]

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Once we begin to question the underlying structures of our personal and collective existence, we begin to undermine the very threads that seem to hold our lives together. As Nietzsche tells us in his unpublished fragment “Toward an Outline”: “Skepticism regarding morality is what is decisive. The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. ‘Everything lacks meaning.’” [3] And his writings on nihilism certainly breed an initial pessimism about the decline and fall of Western civilization, as we can see from a “prophetic” fragment in the Preface to Book One of The Will to Power:  “For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”[4] But in spite of the dark tone of such judgments, it is clear that Nietzsche intends to stress the dangers of nihilism in the hope that at least some select individuals may find the strength to transcend this problem. In the fragment following this one, Nietzsche describes himself as “the perfect nihilist of Europe who, however, has even now lived through the whole of nihilism, to the end, leaving it behind, outside himself.” [5]

Nihilism in general is born of a sense of indignation that involves the loss of faith in certain unconditional, seemingly eternal ideals (God, the Idea of the Good, Absolute Truth, etc.), resulting in even deeper indignation toward that which is non-ideal (i.e., the earthly world along with the transience and finitude of human existence). [6] But the crux of Nietzsche’s teaching is that nihilism can also be viewed in a positive manner - as the necessary occasion for the emergence of a new type of self-enhancing individuality that nonetheless accepts its limitations and transience. Old values that have become stagnant and thus life-negating must be eliminated or allowed to fade away (Nietzsche’s “twilight of the idols”) in order to give rise to newly created values that express our currently situated drives and desires, ones that vitalize rather than fossilize. Nietzsche calls this transformation a “trans-valuation of values.”

But the crux of Nietzsche’s teaching is that nihilism can also be viewed in a positive manner - as the necessary occasion for the emergence of a new type of self-enhancing individuality that nonetheless accepts its limitations and transience

So while nihilism in general expresses a basic loss of conviction in conventional and traditional values, Nietzsche also draws a clear distinction between negative and positive conceptions of nihilism. He tells us that passive or negative (“incomplete,” “pathological”) nihilism is a rejection of seemingly fixed values and institutions without the self-affirming spiritedness that allows one to become a creative individual. Expressed most tellingly by the philosophy of Nietzsche’s “teacher” Arthur Schopenhauer, passive nihilism is an existential orientation that is born of indignation toward the value of life itself. On the other hand, active or positive (“complete,” “healthy”) nihilism is the initiation of becoming a creative individual while rising above mere life-negation, and especially in the face of moral and spiritual crisis. [7] As Nietzsche tells us in a further fragment from of his unpublished writings: “Nihilism. It is ambiguousA. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism. B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.” [8] A later fragment in The Will to Power articulates the duality at play here: “Nihilism as a normal phenomenon can be a symptom of increasing strength or of increasing weakness …” [9] Nihilism as a “symptom of increasing strength” is, in fact, the pathway out of nihilism in general since it affirms the value of the individual, even when all other convictions have disintegrated.

And so, when we speak of nihilism, we should recognize whether we are speaking of nihilism in general (as a general collapse of faith in illusory ideals and conventional values) or of a particular form of nihilism (i.e., as an active or passive reaction to such a loss of conviction). In what follows, we will see that the cinematic works of Kubrick and Haneke represent a deep awareness and ultimate rejection of the type of pathological nihilism that Nietzsche combated in his writings. Yet in order to bring their audiences to a proper acknowledgement and possible transcendence of such a form of life-negation, these filmmakers must present the symptoms and consequences of the problem with unflinching honesty. Kubrick and Haneke create characters whose arctic apathy and inauthenticity lead them to dread, despair, and even self-destruction. These directors are consummate technical artists whose works are not merely visual spectacles but also stories imbued with a profound concern with the human condition.

 

Kubrick

Given Kubrick’s comments in rare but revealing interviews throughout his career, it would be fair to say that he dwells upon the irrational conditions of contemporary culture in order to point beyond such conditions, in the spirit of Nietzsche’s active nihilist – the individual who has rejected the conventions and traditions that bind the conformist slave-type personality, but one who also possesses the spiritedness to go on and become a self-affirming “master.” In good dialectical fashion, and implicitly following Nietzsche’s lead, Kubrick highlights the negative in order to indicate our positive capacity for self-creation, a capacity that is often repressed, and especially when the impersonal forces of collectivism predominate.  

His films, typically marked by a sense of emotional detachment as well as intellectual engagement, have always been singular visions of persons or worlds gone wrong.  His movies tend to unnerve the viewer by conveying a mixture of alienating numbness, dread, anxiety, and discomforting parody. Kubrick’s characters often find themselves trapped within bleak landscapes of collapsed institutions and values. Kubrick was told by a Playboy interviewer back in 1968, while discussing his recently produced 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), that some critics had “detected not only a deep pessimism but also a kind of misanthropy in much of” his work. 

This was especially the case, according to the interviewer, when considering the “curiously aloof and detached” style of his film Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick replied:  

You don’t stop being concerned with man because you recognize his essential absurdities and frailties and pretensions.  To me, the only real immorality is that which endangers the species; and the only absolute evil, that which threatens its annihilation.  In the deepest sense, I believe in man’s potential and in his capacity for progress.  In Strangelove, I was dealing with the inherent irrationality in man that threatens to destroy him; that irrationality is with us as strongly today, and must be conquered.  But a recognition of insanity doesn’t imply a celebration of it – nor a sense of despair and futility about the possibility of curing it. [10]

 

Many of Kubrick’s films, like many of Nietzsche’s writings, attempt to show us that our dependence upon the authority and conventions of “the Collective” is not only fragile but also blinding to the dangers of passive nihilism. Our mass-mindedness (what Nietzsche called “herd mentality” or “slave-morality”) often creates the illusion of security and stability where none really exists – at least not on a consistent, much less permanent, basis. Institutions, conventions, and traditions offer a false sense of fixity or stasis. They persuade us sometimes to postpone (sometimes with fatal consequences) the inevitable need to recognize our own personal potential in the face of the situated contingencies that constitute our everyday lives. [11]

Kubrick has vividly demonstrated these concerns since the very beginning of his career, first and foremost in terms of his choices of projects. The titles and plots and moods of his first three cinematic experiments – Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), and The Killing (1956) – give an inkling of his later explorations of the darker side of human nature. In Lolita (1962), adapted by Vladimir Nabokov from his own novel, the theme of the individual’s psychological encounter with his or her own chaotic character and instinctual nature is evident within the portrait of Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason) moral disintegration. Clear threads of nihilism are woven throughout Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.  In this masterful black comedy, based on Peter George’s book Red Alert, we witness the collapse of institutional values and a growing distrust in our fellow human beings as the specter of apocalyptic self-destruction looms on the darkening horizon. And the cosmic vision of the Star Child at the end of Kubrick’s 2001 recalls our infantile vulnerability in the face of an infinite and uncaring universe, with no clear pattern to serve as a standard of intelligibility. The monoliths remain coldly enigmatic and the “Star Gate” sequence is more kaleidoscopic than enlightening. Humanity’s faith in reason has resulted in a hostile and subversive technology – represented by HAL, the willfully malicious spaceship control system. As Kubrick himself once said: “If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility. Why, he might ask himself, should he bother to write a great symphony, or strive to make a living, or even to love another, when he is no more than a momentary microbe on a dust mote whirling through the unimaginable immensity of space?” [12] However, in response to such questions, Kubrick’s body of work creates a message that is not unlike the one that Nietzsche formulated a century before him.

The powers that dwarf and thwart the individual in Kubrick’s movies are typically the collectivistic forces of society – or else the negative power of the Void itself (as in 2001). The indifferent presence of the institution is explicit in some of Kubrick’s films and implicit in others. It appears in straightforward fashion in the governmental and military bureaucracy of Dr. Strangelove (epitomized by the vast War Room), in the secretive space agency in 2001, and in the prison system of A Clockwork Orange (1971). It is also evident in the military hierarchy of Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Paths of Glory (1957) as well as in the decadent aristocracies of Spartacus (1960) and Barry Lyndon (1975). In most of Kubrick’s films, psychologically debilitating and spiritually oppressive forces are amplified due to the eventual revelations of irrationality at the core of such forces. In a few instances, the destructive power of the collective or institution is unleashed because of the irrationality of one individual, even though that person’s instability may well have resulted from the repressive and de-humanizing conditions occasioned by the collective itself. For example, General Ripper’s (Sterling Hayden) rabid paranoia constitutes the direct cause of the chaos that erupts in the Cold War world of Strangelove. At the same time, Kubrick suggests in his film that it was the bureaucracy and discipline of military life within an adversarial Cold War culture that drove Ripper to his self-punishing, near-religious obsession with the ideal of celibate “purity,” an ideal that leads only to insanity. The negative moral and psychological effects of military indoctrination and bureaucratic habituation are also demonstrated clearly in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket.  

If man merely sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility
— Stanley Kubrick

For the genuinely passive nihilist, nothing matters -- not even oneself. The very distinctions between truth and illusion, between reality and appearance, lose their value and meaning.  In The Shining (1980), we are not sure for a time if we are dealing with actual demonic realities or with the private hallucinations of a man  driven to the brink (as well as back to drink) by his own self-haunting. As with the question of Alice Harford’s (Nicole Kidman) recounted sexual fantasy in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), we are forced to question whether the distinction between objective reality and private fantasy really matters in some situations. In Kubrick’s final film, the superficial tranquility of a troubled marriage has been corrupted nonetheless (affair or no affair) and, in the case of Kubrick’s epic horror film, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has already begun to descend quickly toward the terror and violence that await his wife and son (ghosts or no ghosts).  

Nihilism of the pathological variety breeds alienation and anxiety. Various Kubrickean characters exemplify this type of estrangement and disorientation. There is The Shining’s Torrance, the unraveling husband and hotel caretaker whose stifled creative energies are utilized by murderous, apathetic spiritual powers while the family is snowbound in a remote part of the Rockies. There is British Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) of Strangelove, who must contend alone with the insane General Ripper while trying to decipher the cryptic passcode that might save humanity from nuclear destruction. Astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood) of 2001 are prisoners of space and solitude who must cope with an amoral computer that governs a space mission in which these men become viewed as little more than expendable pawns. There is Alex (Malcolm McDowell) of Clockwork, whose rehabilitative programming leaves him impotent and helpless in a vengeful society. Earlier in his career, Kubrick presented us with the French battle commander in Paths of Glory, Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who finds himself on a futile crusade in defense of three of his soldiers against the immoral tyranny of his own army superiors. Dax has lost conviction in the moral purpose of the very institution to which he has devoted his life. Later in his career, Kubrick gives us Private Joker (Matthew Modine) of Full Metal Jacket, whose sense of humanity is gradually blunted by a military and a war where disciplined killing is the only “ethical” code. And then there is Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) of Eyes Wide Shut, whose trust in his seemingly happy marriage suddenly crumbles as he is thrown into a heartless world defined by irrational lust rather than by rational commitment.

Passive nihilism can easily result from situations in which humans become objectified, collectivized, and thereby de-humanized by external forces – typically involving a loss of dignity, integrity, and rational autonomy. Images of de-humanization are often conjured by Kubrick in terms of blatant caricatures or symbols that invite both laughter and horror. We recall the internal struggle within Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) between his human and mechanized selves (with the latter ultimately winning out) or the near-complete dependency of man upon machine in 2001. There is a portrait of de-humanization in the forced film-watching by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange as part of the sadistic rehabilitation process (the “Ludovico treatment”) which he has (ironically) chosen to undertake. The titular character of Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) becomes little more than a shadow of his former self after he has married into aristocracy and fallen into a near-catatonic state of debauchery and decadence. And there is the reduction of the individual to a masked and therefore anonymous voyeur in Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut.  Perhaps the most extreme form of de-humanization in literature and film is that of demonization, and this theme emerges most tellingly in Kubrick’s full-fledged horror epic The Shining. The degeneration of Torrance does not arise solely because of the outright possession of a body by some evil spirit. Rather, Kubrick depicts a process of “demonization” that is also enacted by means of solitude and frustration, creative block and alcoholic withdrawal, guilt and insecurity.

Some critics have faulted Kubrick, despite their praise for his technical craftsmanship, for his recurring tendency to project a general feeling of alienating numbness. His films (like many of his characters) tend to come across as cold, unsympathetic, and devoid of human warmth. Pauline Kael was especially vehement in her attacks on Kubrick’s apparent lack of emotional interest in his characters and on his seeming tendency to prioritize considerations of technical artistry over considerations of story and character development. [13] This type of criticism was also clearly evident in the case of many responses to his final film Eyes Wide Shut. [14] But in critiquing his “alienating” style of filmmaking, Kael and other such critics have ignored the ways in which Kubrick’s unique directorial style mirrors his primary themes of de-humanization, alienation, and the impersonal nature of institutions. And these are precisely the themes that point to his underlying message about the problem of nihilism in our contemporary age.
 

 

HANEKE

It would be overly easy, from an overly quick survey of Michael Haneke’s films, to classify him as an outright nihilist because of his choices of subject matter, not to mention his willingness to undermine audience trust and the traditional logic of narrative truth-telling. But much like Kubrick, Haneke is, at the end of the day, an anti-nihilist. His films reveal the problem of nihilism in modern society and seek to point beyond the problem. He makes us acknowledge the ugly truth of reality and the consequences of our own eventual numbness, detachment, and indifference. As Haneke once said in an interview:  

… I think it can hardly be denied that each fictional story, no matter how abysmal or horrible, is a trifle compared with the horror that strikes against us in reality. In order to see this, one must not be a pessimist – it suffices if one is somewhat awake … What is positive can only be the merciless demand for personal truthfulness. Only: The truth is no longer beautiful.  As Nietzsche already said in the past century: “For a philosopher it is wretched to say that the good and the beautiful are the same. And if he goes on to add, 'and also the Truth!', one ought to clobber him. The truth is ugly. [15]

 

If there is one thing that differentiates Kubrick and Haneke most tellingly, I would argue, it is the fact that Kubrick sometimes tends toward an exaggerated form of surrealism, satire, and black comedy (most especially in films such as Lolita, Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining). Haneke, on the other hand, refrains from this type of exaggeration in most instances. And yet, much like Kubrick in many instances, Haneke often evokes a nihilistic form of anxiety and even horror: our dread, not of some specific object or threat, but of the very sense of meaninglessness and indifference that may seem to pervade our lives at certain moments. He also addresses the theme of violence in most of his major films and does so in a way that reveals the cause of violence as one of nihilistic apathy and self-repression. Violence is presented in his films at times through the filter of the media (e.g., TV news) so that it becomes conventionalized and trivialized. At other times, violence is portrayed with the shocking and immediate suddenness of a gunshot on a quiet evening.  

I think it can hardly be denied that each fictional story, no matter how abysmal or horrible, is a trifle compared with the horror that strikes against us in reality
— Michael Haneke

In Haneke’s film The Seventh Continent (Der siebente Kontinent, 1989) – one of the films in his earlier “glaciation trilogy” (which also includes Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) – a family is led to a horrifying act of self-destruction after apparently succumbing to the deadening effects of an overly routine and conventional existence. They are too weak or indifferent to forge a new way of life or set of values, and so the only “rebellion” that they dare to undertake is total life-negation.  Even the parents’ process of preparing for their act of collective suicide becomes as methodical, robotic, and value-neutral as their previous lives appeared to be. And in The Piano Teacher (La pianiste, 2001), the title character (Isabelle Huppert) commits acts of psychological sadism and physical self-mutilation after having lived a life of obsessive and severe self-denial.

The violence in Haneke’s films is most terrifying, not merely when it is unexpected and almost casual, but when it reveals that human reason has been completely rejected – when the very attempt to rationalize or negotiate has provoked hatred, contempt, and ultimately destruction. One telling instance of this is in The Time of the Wolf (Le temps du loup, 2003), when a family of hostile and hungry strangers has broken into another family’s country house after some unexplained apocalyptic event. The victimized father (Daniel Duval) manages to convince his rifle-wielding counterpart to allow his two children to return to the family’s car. When he then quietly suggests that they unload the car and eat, he is instantly shot dead and his wife (Isabelle Huppert), in a state of shock, can only respond by wiping the splattered blood from her face. Even the wife of the killer breaks down in a shocking fit of disbelief that her husband has actually pulled the trigger and killed a man in front of their own young son. Has he done so merely by accident, the mistaken impulse of his trigger finger? It does not appear so. Was he so embarrassed at watching his wife and children reduced to scavengers before the eyes of the house owners, his obvious superiors in social and economic status, that he can no longer stand the humiliation? Or is it an act of sheer irrationality? Since Haneke does not give us any further clue to the killer’s motive, we can only surmise that it was the very proposal made by the now dead father, an attempt at reasonable negotiation and further discourse (even in the face of a gun barrel), that prompted this man to fire unexpectedly. Such an act of nihilistic terrorism is an assault upon the very values of rationality and humanity. And in Funny Games (1997, and re-made as an American-produced version in 2007), when the father (Ulrich Mühe) asks the young vandalizers (Arno Frisch and Frank Giering), “Why are you doing this?” The reply is chilling: “Why not?” When he later asks the same question, the response is a series of obvious lies about the other hoodlum’s mother’s incestuous wishes and their desire to obtain money for drugs. They make it conspicuous that these are arbitrary lies that are offered for entertainment purposes at best. The funny games played here are even scarier when nihilistic indifference itself become parodied, as when one of the hoodlums tells the couple that his partner in crime suffers from “world-weariness and ennui.”  

And so nihilism arises frequently in Haneke’s films when any regard for reason and truth have been completely rejected – when it is the very failure to engage in rational communication that has occasioned emotional numbness, hatred, self-contempt, or even violence. Such a rejection of communication is also illustrated in the type of seemingly irresolvable conflicts between cultures and generations that is the primary theme of Code Unknown (Code inconnu, 2000), whose very title may indicate a lack of mutual trust or understanding. And in Hidden (Caché, 2005), the abandonment of meaningful dialogue is embodied in the confrontations between Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Majid (Maurice Bénichou), particularly in their final encounter. The opportunity for a genuinely redeeming conversation has been forsaken – ironically so, given that Georges is by profession a television talk-show host. Their failed acts of mutual communication have become a series of accusations, threats, and denials, all founded on lies and misperceptions. The only act of “closure” by which Majid sees fit to end their renewed “relationship” is a wordless act of self-destruction – a leap into the abyss. In the case of Caché, the decision to omit or distort the truth is motivated by a desire to maintain the illusory status quo of a comfortable life, even when reality signals that things are not running as smoothly as they seem. Georges’ bedside conversation with his mother (Annie Girardot) is a perfect illustration of such an attempt to gloss over the truth.

Haneke’s two most recent films are intriguingly different from one another in that The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte, 2009) focuses on a collective sense of nihilistic anxiety and despair while Amour (2012) centers upon a far more personal and private sense of the same. In the end, however, both films indicate, perhaps far clearly than any of his others, that Haneke’s dark vision is propelled by a very humane interest in the possibility of overcoming the negative forces in our lives. The former film, photographed exquisitely in Bergmanesque black and white, depicts a rural north German village around 1913, one that has become plagued by a series of sinister, enigmatic events that point ever more increasingly to the diabolical machinations of the village children. The movie’s storyline does not dwell on any one character for too long but drifts from one life and situation to another, pulling the audience into a communal vortex of quiet violence and ritualized psychological abuse. We can surmise, given the time and setting of the film, that Haneke presents us here with the severely repressed lives of those youngsters who would grow up and become members of the future Nazi generation. The evil deeds in the village appear to be the vengeful actions of those whose youthful lives have been poisoned by their elders’ physical as well as spiritual perversions.

Amour, on the other hand, takes us into the claustrophobic private lives of its two main characters, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), and invites only a few other figures into their agonizing circumstances. When Anne slips into sporadic dementia and then a paralyzing stroke, Georges is forced to cope with the overwhelming challenges of caring for her. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), except for a few all-too-brief visits, proves to be of no assistance whatsoever, and one of the temporary day nurses proves to be unreliable and even sadistic. Haneke shows us in graphic terms – and in a slow, deliberate, haunting tempo of montage – the solitary challenges and horrors of their daily existence. Most of the movie is set in the couple’s apartment and the world beyond is glimpsed only through windows and doorways.  

And yet there is hope and humanity underlying the darkness. In the case of The White Ribbon, we can see the hideous trajectory that summons the viewer from the immediate given-ness of the repression and violence in the village to the imagined consequences that lie ahead in the future: a nation’s genocidal evil. But the true ending of the film does not lie merely in the shot of the small chapel congregation at the finale, but rather in the lessons that the audience has already learned from the hideous historical events that await many of these characters. If anything, Haneke gives us a diagnosis (in miniature) of at least a few important aspects of a cultural sickness that breeds monsters. As with most of Haneke’s films, there is an earnest attempt here at truth-telling and thereby at showing us a way beyond the horror. In this sense, the very act of making such a film about nihilism’s symptoms and causes is inherently anti-nihilistic, and especially so when taken in the broader historical context that has already demonstrated the link between passive nihilism and life-extinguishing evil.  

Amour presents us with a decision that seems, on the surface, to be as nihilistic as any that has appeared in Haneke’s earlier works: the choice of Georges to terminate the life of his beloved Anne, and along with her life, her unbearable suffering and pathetic condition. In the context of the overall film, however, this choice may be viewed as a very humane one, especially given all that we have experienced up until this point.  The film steers us toward compassion for Georges’ acceptance of euthanasia as the best possible solution. While Haneke intentionally uses moral ambiguity in many of his film narratives, it is in some cases a merely surface-level ambiguity. Just as it is quite clear by the end of The White Ribbon that the children are to blame for the evil -- along with their cruel treatment by certain adults in the village -- it is also clear by the end of Amour that Georges’ deep love for his wife has made it unbearable for him to continue seeing her fade painfully into a mere semblance of her former self.  It is far from being a selfish or even nihilistic decision, especially given all that we have witnessed of his selfless dedication up to this point. If Nietzsche’s idea of passive nihilism is founded upon the outright rejection of the intrinsic value of life itself, then the conclusion of Amour is, ironically, a heartfelt rejection of that attitude. An affirmation of life goes beyond the mere prolongation of insufferable biological existence. If there is room for moral condemnation at the end, then it would be the condemnation of Georges’ rather callous, self-absorbed daughter who, in the final image of the movie, enters their empty apartment to consider the awful twilight of lives she barely knew.


References

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, transl. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1968), I9.
[2] Ibid., “Book Three: Principles of a New Evaluation,” 585 A, 318.
[3] Ibid., “Book One: European Nihilism,” “Toward an Outline”, 7.
[4] Ibid., “Preface,” 3.
[5] Ibid., 3.
[6] Ibid., “Book One: European Nihilism,” 9.
[7] In Section 28 of Book One of The Will to Power, a similar distinction is made between “complete” and “incomplete” nihilism.
[8] Ibid., “Book One: European Nihilism,” 22, 17.
[9] Ibid., “Book Three: Principles of a New Evaluation,” 585 B, 319.
[10] “The Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick,” Playboy magazine, Vol. 15, No. 9, September 1968, 190.
[11] Thomas Allen Nelson, in the first chapter of his Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, makes a similar case that Kubrick’s films express an “aesthetics of contingency,” as he puts it.Nelson states:“Films … present us with a totally contingent universe, where images and sounds mean both nothing and everything, where worlds are erected on the epistemologically shifting sands of total probability and zero signification.And this cinema of contingency found no fuller expression in the second half of the twentieth century than in the films of Stanley Kubrick.”(Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000, 15).
[12] Quoted by Thomas Allen Nelson in his Kubrick: Inside A Film Artist’s Maze, 17.
[13] Pauline Kael, For Keeps (Dutton/ The Penguin Group: New York, 1994), 223.See also pages 416-417.
[14] See especially Lee Siegel, “Eyes Wide Shut: What the critics failed to see in Kubrick’s last film,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 299, No. 1793, October 1999.
[15] This is my own translation of the following excerpt from Franz Grabner and Michael Haneke, “‘Der Name der Erbsünde ist Verdrängung’: A Conversation with Michael Haneke,” in Michael Haneke und seine Filme: Eine Pathologie der Konsumgesellschaft (Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2008): “Und ich denke, dem ist kaum zu widersprechen, denn jede erfundene Geschichte, sei sie noch so abgründig und grauenvoll, ist eine Lächerlichkeit gegen das Grauen, das uns aus und in der Realität entgegenschlägt. Um das zu sehen, braucht man kein Pessimist zu sein – es genügt schon, wenn man einigermassen wach ist (11) … [D]ieses ‘Positive’ kann nur die unbarmherzige Einforderung persönlicher Wahrhaftigkeit sein.Nur: Die Wahrheit ist eben nicht mehr schön.Wie sagte Nietzsche schon im letzten Jahrhundert: ‘An einem Philosophen ist es eine Nichtswürdigkeit, zu sagen, das Gute und das Schöne sind Eins.Fügt er gar noch hinzu: und das Wahre!, so soll man ihn prügeln.Die Wahrheit ist hässlich.” (12-13)

 

Kevin L Stoehr is Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University. With an expertise in ethics, film and philosophy, he is the author of Nihilism in Film and Television and co-author of Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western.

 

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