When Nietzsche’s philosophy is taken into account, the phrase “test of will” cannot be found in the original texts of the philosopher, but it appears in the interpretations. To be more specific, in the interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, put on the silver screen by the legendary Coen Brothers. Chigurh, a demonic character in the novel, far more complex and profound to interpret than this introduction allows, murders someone in a bar and is handcuffed and taken to prison. As we can see, he manages to escape from the handcuffs and murders the police officer. This is a grizzly example of the Nietzschean test of will, as one interpreter calls it. Chigurh himself later admits that this was hubristic; he committed murder only to prove to himself that he is powerful enough to escape the predicament. This leads us to the question, is our own testing of will through watching the films that are going to be presented in this essay, hubristic? It certainly is. Yet, by confronting horrors we can gain profound insights about our being-in-the-world.
Another example of a test of will is recounted by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. On witnessing the aftermath of a Tokyo earthquake, and the ensuing riots, Kurosawa remembers: “Amid the expanse of nauseating redness lay every kind of corpse imaginable. I saw corpses charred black, half-burned bodies, corpses in gutters, corpses floating in rivers, corpses piled up on bridges, corpses blocking off a whole street at an intersection, and every manner of death possible to human beings displayed by corpses. When I involuntarily looked away, my brother scolded me, “Akira, look carefully now”. Looking back on that excursion now, I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother, too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.”
In other words, watching the films presented here may be a horrifying experience, but also an expedition to conquer fear. Plato dreamed of a drug which would induce fear in a human being, so he could conquer it. He also advised that young men should be taken to see the battlefield, so they can learn to overcome the horror which usually accompanies such impressions. Rewatching these films has been a difficult experience for the writer of this article as well, yet, we cannot improve ourselves if we don’t confront the worst.
1. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
This film seems to be akin to the drug Plato dreamed of. It tells the story of a rape in a reverse chronological order; after a severe beating, the victim (Monica Belucci) ends up in a coma. Her boyfriend seeks revenge and in the gay club called Rectum, his friend beats the wrong guy to death with a fire extinguisher. Noé is the European cinema’s most famous and probably the most controversial nihilist. There is no meaning to the extreme violence at all. The film starts with a man recounting how he had sex with his daughter and ended up in prison. The beginning is symptomatic.
According to psychoanalysis, civilization begins with the prohibition of incest, and the man’s words are announcing that we are entering the realm where the norms of civilization are extinct. The jungle scene in the gay bar is just a beginning, we see a 10-minute long rape scene which is truly hard to digest, horrifying and shocking. Noé’s intention was not to film the material for the sadists to enjoy it; he confronts us with the horror and due to the manner of storytelling he unequivocally condemns extreme violence.
At the beginning of the film, an extremely low-pitched noise provokes anxiety in the viewer as if the whole narration is not sufficient enough to disgust the viewer and unsettle him. The question is, why would anyone want to watch this film? To confront the audience with the images of extreme violence may be one way to send a clear message that this kind of violence is unnaceptable, in any civilized society.
Noé achieves this through paradox, by extinguishing the norms of civilization, he establishes them by the narrative technique he employs (reverse chronology). Film critic Rogert Ebert argued that Irreversible is not an exploitation film since we witness the rape first, and then the story is slowly unraveled, we get to know the characters, analyze their weaknesses and traits of character, in one word we emphatize with them.
Michael Haneke made a powerful social critique of violence in his Funny Games, perhaps in a more harrowing manner since the violence is not actually shown, but Noé decides show the despicable aspects of our civilization, as in a broken mirror, whose pieces we are collecting as the movie progresses. And, as far as the hubristic motivation goes, we are confronted with a test for our nerves, and we harden our will.
2. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
Why do people watch films about Nazis? To see power and sadism! We can do that! We can make something even more sadistic than… more sadistic than what you see in movies about Nazis. –Anwar Congo
The term “black irony” is not used often, but could be used to describe Oppenheimer’s film. It is a documentary which shows the perpetrators of the 1965-66 killings of communists and “communists” in Indonesia, who recreate the murders in the style of Hollywood movies. The film opens with a shot of a giant metal fish and gorgeous women scarcely dressed getting out of it. It is completely surreal, but the film itself is even more so.
Members of the Indonesian government, the journalists, a TV host, the leader of a paramilitary organization, openly speak of the murders and celebrate them. Anwar Congo, the most prominent murderer in the film, jubilantly agrees to reenact the murders in the style of gangster movies, and movies of the similar genre. He murdered about a thousand people and doesn’t feel shame or guilt, although he admits that he has nightmares…
Two terms which are used most often in the documentary are “sadistic” and “gangster”. Bearing in mind that the Indonesians in the film celebrate gangsters as “free men” and the prominence of the word “sadism” in the film, it is as if Marquis de Sade is the leading figure. Some scenes, in which the member of the paramilitary organization speaks of murder and rape, seem as if Marquis himself wrote it, an illiterate version of him at least.
Congo often speaks of sadism, but it seems that his sadism is “forced”, hat he employs the term to make himself look more “cool” and detached from the killings; it seems that he doesn’t really grasp what sadism means. A short debate is held in the movie, about the distinction between cruelty and sadism. We find out that there is none. For the murderers and their accomplices in the film, freedom means liberty to rape, steal and murder, while democracy is equated with anarchy. International law is a cynical instrument of the leading powers.
As the film progresses, we find out that Anwar Congo does feel terrible about some killings. Yet, the legitimate question is, why should we care how he feels about the murders. His victims and the victims’ families suffered, and he was the perpetrator. Oppenheimer seems to care how he feels. A film critic Anthony Lane wrote the following in his review of the film: “We hear that Congo personally exterminated a thousand people. Does that figure stand up, and does it not matter more than his dawning remorse?” In Aeschylus’ Orestia, it is proclaimed that we “must suffer into truth” (the Greek word for ‘truth’ in this case is episteme, which could also mean understanding).
Black irony is that Congo kind of “suffered” into truth when he was playing the victim in the film and realized the gravity of his conduct. But he didn’t really suffer, his victims did. He has just experienced a tiny fraction of the horrors his victims lived through. In the end, we see him vomitting. I am inclined to agree with Lane that Congo’s remorse is overemphasized, in a particularly harrowing manner it is even comic. Congo represents “the banality of evil” as Hannah Arendt called it. He is even more ordinary and stupid than Eichmann was and he genuinely doesn’t seem to be truly aware of the things he had done. He associates it with Al Pacino’s movies and a way to get shiny clothes. This fact is perhaps the most horrifying thing about The Act of Killing.
3. Come and See (Elen Klimov, 1985)
This frame of the movie is cinema’s equivalent to the most famous war photograph ever taken, depicting the execution of a Vietnamese. Come and See is beyond doubt one of the best (anti-) war films ever made. The film literally presents what happens when a boy is confronted with the madness of war, a phenomenon which Plato suggested as an educational policy. One of the war movie greats, Saving Private Ryan, looks like a children’s book in comparison to it. The plot is fairly simple; after he finds a buried rifle, a young boy joins the Soviet army, in Belarus, during the WWII Nazi offensive. His mother is terrified and tries to stop him, but he is anxious to join the army. His confidence quickly gives way to terror and complete lostness in the madness of war. Between the 20th and 50th minute (roughly speaking), the film is utterly hypnotic, completely poetic and maddening. I came across the film when Michael Gira, the frontman of the band Swans talked about it in the interview. It is curious that he mentioned it, since the aforementioned part of the film feels like a Swans song, from their later phase; this one for example:
An airplane is persistently in the sky, suggesting the omnipresence of danger and ultimately death. As the boy finds out that his family is dead, he wanders through the countryside, only to find more death. Nazis gather the villagers in a building and burn it to the ground. The simplicity of the plot and film’s neverending complexity is itself maddening. We progressively see how the boy’s face changes: in the end it does not really resemble a human face, it is completely traumatized and marked with horror, as if disfigured.
This film deserves to be seen and no words can encompass its power of impression; the war itself cannot be described, it can be more or less successfully portrayed in images, but it was never put to film in the manner of Come and See. After the film is finished, the viewer may find that his face has changed and a fraction of the horror presented may change him as well, if only for a brief time. This in fact is a memento, in the same way the boy’s face is unforgettable, a mark of the complete horror the war brings, and we are made aware of the fact that the sound of trumpets is masquerading terror, innocent deaths and the extinction of life as we have come to know it.
4. Night and Fog (Alan Resnais, 1955)
Ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Alan Resnais chronicled how they functioned and their aftermath. Night and Fog was one of the first films which explored this phenomenon. It runs for about 30 minutes and the narrator gives a detailed, but condensed account in an impassive voice. His language borders on poetic, although the word which is often used is “ordinary”. The camps look rather ordinary, the guard houses are built in the Japanese style, Germanic, or with no style at all. They are built like a modern city, suggesting a Foucauldian interpretation of biopolitics.
Although Arendt noted that the goal of totalitarian regimes is to reduce the lives of the camps’ inhabitans to the simplest physiological processes, attempts at rebellion are chronicled. An account is given on the life of the camps’ inhabitants, some footages are reddish like dried blood. We find out, in a detached storytelling way, how the hell within the walls progressed from the inhuman to the point of numbing the senses of the viewer until all that remains are photographs of thousands of glasses and female hair.
5. Damnation (Béla Tarr, 1988)
Béla Tarr, a Hungarian director, is not only one of the greatest living European filmmakers (although he had ceased to make films, his last one being The Turin Horse), but also one of the greatest European artists. On his films, he collaborated with László Krasznahorkai, perhaps the greatest European contemporary writer. Krasznahorkai’s novels have been adapted to the screen by Tarr two times, and the writer was Tarr’s screenwriter on several other films. It is hard to even phantom such a magnificent amalgam of creative energy and virtuosity.
Krasznahorkai said that he was deeply influenced by the Romanian school of philosophy, most particularly the writings of the pessimistic essayist Emile Cioran. This is particularly vivid in Damnation, written for the screen by Krasznahorkai and Tarr. Regarding the Hungarian language, Cioran wrote: “Hungarian language – savage it may be but of a beauty that has nothing human about it, with sonorites of another universe, powerful and corrosive, appropriate to prayer, to groans and to tears, risen out of hell to perpetuate its accent and aura… words of nectar and cyanide.”
This way it is a nice family story. But it finishes just like any other story. Because stories end badly. Stories are all stories of disintegration. The heroes always disintegrate and they disintegrate the same way. If they didn’t it wouldn’t be disintegration but revival. And I’m not talking about revival but disintegration. Irrevocable disintegration. So, what’s about to happen here is just one form of ruin among the million that exist.
Damnation is characterized by hypnotic long takes, immaculate black and white photography, depicting the ordinary aspects of life, mostly in bars, where the accordion plays to a melancholic rhythm and drunken people dance through the night. The film has a simple plot, and if it were a Hollywood movie, it would, as one critic noted, last for 20 minutes. A defeated and melancholic man is in love with a singer at a bar; he gives her husband a smuggling job to carry out (suggested to Karrer by the bartender) in order to get him out of the way, possibly hoping that he will end up in prison. Karrer is a somewhat typical Krasznahorkian character, a beaten man, possibly mad, who rambles on and on about philosophical issues, with great eloquence and some truthfulness to his words. He is the voice of the writer, but also a fictional character with a beaten life of his own.
The bar singer tells him that one cannot live without love and decency, pointing to his lack of desire to overcome obstacles and be victorious, while at the same time she hopes to go to the city and be a famous singer. She still has the Nietzschean energy in herself, while Karrer embodies Cioran’s will to powerlesness, a passive stance, without action. He admits that she is stronger than him and throughout he film he consistently tries to win her over (again) and for a short period he succeeds.
An old woman, whose role resembles that of a seer fom a tragic play, quotes the Old Testament concluding that men suffer the wrath of God due to their sins. Schopenhauer’s philosophy seems to be important for the film, since one character speaks of the Veil of Maya, a motif decisive for Schopenhauer. Karrer tells the bar singer that once, he told to the woman who loved him, that he didn’t love her and even hated her, her loyalty, virtues – the woman killed herself after a few days. Karrer says: “I couldn’t believe that frail body had so much blood in it.”
The reason why Karrer might be unpleasant to us is not only his detestable character which even fails to provoke pity in us, it seems that he doesn’t want our pity, is because he embodies the one thing which may be our greatest fear (even greater fear than the fear of death, contrary to Hobbes’ understanding) – the fear of failure, as a human being. Karrer is beaten, defeated, a failure and his impassive stance is all the more terryfing since we can sense that he is devoid of… everything a human being needs to live a decent life.
Towards the end, he talks to a police officer and speaks of order, the basic need for order one has to renounce when he has broken the law and the social pact which enables him to live like a decent human being (the one who violates the social contract is, according to Locke, in a worse position than an animal). When the end comes, literally and metaphorically, Karrer is in the mud and rain, starts to behave like a dog, he barks at a vicious dog while the dog barks at him and the bestiality of madness engulfs him.