More from Roger Ebert on von Trier's 'Antichrist'

Almost as soon as I'd posted, the feed from Ebert's blog brought news of a second, more in-depth post on Antichrist. He starts by noting that the film 'will not leave me alone' and goes on to say, 'I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing. Its images are a fork in the eye. Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound.' He quotes one of the comments on his blog, which asks, 'If it is in fact the most despairing film you've ever seen, shouldn't it be considered a monumental achievement? Despair is such a significant aspect of the human condition (particularly in the modern western world) so how can this not be a staggeringly important film, given your statement?' Ebert acknowledges that there is some truth in this, and remarks

In the first place, it's important to note that "Antichrist" is not a bad film. It is a powerfully-made film that contains material many audiences will find repulsive or unbearable. The performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are heroic and fearless. Von Trier's visual command is striking. The use of music is evocative; no score, but operatic and liturgical arias. And if you can think beyond what he shows to what he implies, its depth are frightening.

I cannot dismiss this film. It is a real film. It will remain in my mind. Von Trier has reached me and shaken me. It is up to me to decide what that means.

With its very explicit theological connections, and since von Trier is extremely interesting on spiritual issues, I'm very interested in what the film has to say. The trouble is, it sounds so shocking that I have absolutely no desire to watch it. Ebert says he thinks it's an 'exercise in alternative theology', a reflection on the beginning of Genesis (Ebert says Exodus) where humanity is driven from Eden after rebelling against God. He writes:

The Prologue, a masterful sequence lovely b&w slow motion, shows a couple, He and She, making love while their innocent baby becomes fascinated by the sight of snow falling outside an open window, climbs up on the sill, and falls to his death. This is Man's Fall from Grace. Consequently, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls into guilt and depression so deep she is hospitalized. That is one half of Original Sin. The character named He (Willem Dafoe) insists she cut off her medication. He will cure her himself. That is the other half. Her sin is Despair. His is Pride. These are the two greatest sins against God.

These are not quite the greatest sins against God, though pride is very close to it. The greatest sin, the fundamental act of rebellion against God, is to put something other than God at the centre: idolatry. This is why the first of the ten commandments is 'You must not have any other god but me' (Exodus 20:3). Pride is close to this because it puts us at the centre; it makes us our own gods. All other sins follow from this basic act of defiance.

He and She go to Eden, where He psychologically tortures She, and She phsyically tortures He. Ebert explanation of this gruesome-sounding film is:

The title Antichrist is the key. This is a mirror world. It is a sin to lose Knowledge rather than to eat of its fruit and gain it. She and He are behaving with such cruelty toward each other not as actual people, but as creatures inhabiting a moral mirror world. As much as they might comfort and love each other in our world after losing a child, so to the same degree in the mirror world they inflame each other's pain and act out hatred. This would be the world created by Satan.

If I am right, then von Trier has proceeded with perfect logic. Just as a good world could not contain too much beauty and charity, an evil world could not have too much cruelty and hatred. He is making a moral statement. I'm not sure if he's telling us how things are, or warning us of what could come.

All of which leaves me asking 'Why?' On the evidence of this, von Trier would seem to be very conflicted, even disturbed, character. According to Wikipedia, he was brought up in an atheist family by Communist parents who were also nudists. Several childhood holidays were spent in nudist camps, which may explain why his films have featured very explicit sexual content. He describes his upbringing as 'unbelievably lax', to which he attributes his well-known neurotic nature. He has been interested by religion, perhaps as a result of religion being banned in his childhood home.

I'm not yet sure what he's trying to say in Antichrist, whether he is now attacking Christian faith with a parodic inversion of the account of the Fall. Ebert's phrase, 'It is a sin to lose Knowledge rather than to eat of its fruit and gain it,' might be the key. He misunderstands the Fall again at this point. It is not knowledge itself which is the problem in Genesis 3, but that human beings wanted the 'knowledge of good and evil' for themselves so that they could be like God. It is an expression of idolatry again, wanting themselves at the centre, not God. The issue was that they declared themselves to be the ultimate moral authorities in their lives and grasp at a kind of knowledge from which human beings should be free (since our knowledge of evil is from the inside, as evildoers, not the objective, external knowledge of a God who is absolutely untainted by evil). But He and She are not losing this knowledge, they are embracing it more wholeheartedly - leading to the despair Ebert referred to. What they do lose is the knowledge of Good because they turned away from their responsibility to protect it, to protect innocence. In which case, it sounds like von Trier has expressed with conviction the madness and despair that ultimately results from turning away from God.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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