For the second part of this list, I chose the title Melancolia II, which is also the title of the second Dürer’s engraving depicting a melancholic angel. This allusion to Dürer is only for stylistic purposes, since I chose another painting to depict a melancholic setting, Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters In the Snow. I chose this particular painting for several reasons. For one, it is a link between the first part of the list and the second part, since Bruegel’s painting appears both in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and the film which is about to be discussed, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris. In Melancholia, the painting appears briefly, when Justine arranges the books on the shelf to highlight her melancholy and Bruegel’s painting is visible in a close-up, while in Solaris, Bruegel’s painting is shown extensively in a long take, the details of the painting are shown in a symbolic order.
The reason why I find this painting so interesting to depict melancholy is not only because it is shown in the films I wrote about in the first and the second part of this list, but because of its particular winter landscape which is an interesting portrayal of a melancholic setting. In a brief interpretation of the painting Dr. Beth Harris says: “Just looking at this painting makes me feel cold…. Wee see some hunters returning from their hunt with their dogs, but they haven’t got very much to show for their day out hunting.”
We can see that the hunters are carrying a rabbit, a rather meager catch, which gives us the impression of the stresses they must endure. Since it is winter, this might be the only food they can provide for their families. Harris also says: “You can see the footprints they are leaving in the snow. There is this real sense of trudging through this deep snowy landscape.” Dr. Zucker concludes: “In the foreground, there is that sense of melancholy as well. Their backs are turned to us. The pack of dogs that follow, their heads are down…”
This feeling of melancholy is in our focus, but if we look carefully, we can see children and adults skating on the lake, joyfully playing. This striking contrast is interesting since it shows the the harsh reality of material reproduction which brings us down, but also this joyful, inspirative play which takes place next to stressful lack of success. If we look beyond, we can see a bird and the Alps (there are no Alps in Netherlands, of course, Bruegel was inspired by the trip to Italy), a in a panoramic view.
This painting is a connection to the last film which is about to be intepreted in this list, The Turin Horse, since it portrays the everyday struggle to survive of two ordinary people, with cosmic, universal implications, similarly to Breugel’s ambition. At least this is a superficial thematic layer of the film, but it does share a connection to Breugel’s hunters. The way I see the painting, it shows the antinomy between the hardships of material reproduction, the hardships of life in general, and the ability to transcend these hardships in a jubilant play – creativity.
4. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1971)
I will interpret Solaris using a term coined by a Croatian writer, an essayist and my dear colleague, regarding the Soviet sci-fi films, and their understanding of space associated with melancholy. He termed it „melankolija pustog imperija“, and I would translate it to English as a “melancholy of a desolate empire”. Although I am not familiar with cartography and the notion of space in detail (Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth is immensely important for this), I will use this notion to briefly interpret Solaris.
Kris, a psychologist, comes to the space station orbiting a planet Solaris,consisting of an amorphous mass of thick, liquid material. It is in fact a nervous system, sending signals to the inhabitants of the station, creating neuron-based beings which come into contact with them. It is, as they say “a gigantic cerebral system… capable of thought process.” The crew has, as it is told, gone insane, but when Kris watches a video one scientist made before suicide, he seems completely lucid. Something drove him insane, made him lose the ability to survive in that environment. A scientist who visited the planet, saw the Ocean and returned in a state of deep shock.
In his report, he said that he had trouble operating the ship and focused all of his attention to it:
“As a result I wound up in a fog… It seems to be collodial and viscous. It coated all of the windows. Because of the fog’s resistance I began to lose altitude. I couldn’t see the sun, but the fog glowed red in its direction. After half an hour I came out in a large, open space. It was almost round, a few hundred meters across. At that point I noticed a change in the Ocean. The waves disappeared. The surface became almost transparent with clouded patches. Yellow sludge gathered beneath it. It rose up in thin strips and sparkled like glass. Then it began to seethe, boil and harden. It loomed like molasses. This sludge or slime gathered into large lumps and slowly formed different shapes. I was being drawn into the fog, so I had to struggle against this for some time. When I looked down again, I saw a sort of a garden. I saw shrubs, hedge, acacia trees, little paths. Everything was made from the same substance… They were all made of plaster, but life-sized. Then everything began to crack and break. Yellow sludge poured out of the fissures. Everything began boiling even harder and foam appeared.”
After this report, he shows a film to the audience and all we can see is a vast scarcely illuminated ocean which seems to be moving of its own volition, and then, a surface resembling bluish scorched earth surrounded with fog. We can aslso see sludge, which looks like some kind of mozaic composed of units of mudlike mass, but in fact, all of them are conjoined forming a moving composite. What does this all mean? Anri, the pilot was accused of having hallucinations, provoked by the Ocean. It seems that this hallucinations point to the nature of Solaris, it is a chaotic composite made of sludge, resembling slime, which boils, moves, in one word it is a living thing.
A living thing characterized by a huge amount of open, desolate space, which seems to be populated with vegetation only as result of a foreign contact. This kind of unending, moving, restless unpopulated space, which resembles something familiar to us only when we invade it, possesses a strange feeling of unwelcomness, hostility even, but as it is shown in a video, it is also a place characterized by restless melancholy, erupting and boiling only to return to its original state of quiet contemplation. Solaris felt invaded, so it reacted by creating a 3 meters tall child to scare off Anri.
The reason why it drove the inhabitants of the space station insane, I believe, is because it felt threatened; similarly to a mind which rests in quiet contemplation and is suddenly awoken from its calmness with barbarous noise, coming from outside. The melancholy of Solaris is a “melacholy of a desolate empire”, invaded by those who waned to assault its contemplative melancholy and thus provoked a violent eruption, creating foam, pouring yellow sludge. Desolate empires create melancholy in its inhabitants, so perhaps it is not strange that the Soviet Union gave us another SF film similar to Solyaris, Na srebrnym globie, created by the Polish director Andrzej Zulawski. This film came out in 1988, a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zulawski’s film is similar to the behaviour of the planet Solaris, it erupts when provoked, but that is a topic for another article.
I will not write about Kris’ encounter with a deceased woman from his past, the philosophical implications of it, as well as discussions on the nature of love etc., but focus on the things interesting for the understanding of mankind’s relationship to expansion, space and its vision of an endless empire. Dr. Snaut, a scientist aboard the station says: “We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand the Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.” Our goal, as Dr. Snaut says, is to expand Earth’s borders without limits, to build an empire, which would necessarily make us melancholic.
Looking at space is like looking at the endless ocean (thus the metaphor of a planet as an Ocean), it is terrifying. It is a godless place, inhabited only by our dreams, which can be endlessly imaginative, or dull. Premodern cartography was fearful of the ocean, and thus maps from the times before modernity cannot imagine vast oceans. Those are places without God. When the notion of space, the idea beyond the Earth is imagined, there are no limits. Melancholy cannot be overcome by compact spaces because there are none. Only vast, endless, desolate spaces await us, spaces without gods and men.
5. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011)
1 In the beginning, God created heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Genesis, King James Version
Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse opens with the description of the day Friedrich Nietzsche descended into madness. The narrator says that the day in question was 3rd of January 1889. Nietzsche saw a man beating a horse. The narrator says: “Nietzsche comes to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene caused by the driver, by this time foaming at the mouth with rage. For the solidly built and fully-moustached gentleman suddenly jumps up to the cab and throws his arms around horse’s neck, sobbing.” He continues and explains that Nietzsche lied motionless on the divan for two days and uttered his last words: “Mutter ich bin dumm!’. He lived for another ten years, silent and demented, under the care of his mother and sisters. The narrator concludes: “We do not know what happened to the horse.”
In this film, we can see what happened to the horse and his owner, in the span of six days, portraying the desintegration of an extremely poor man’s and his daughter’s life. It is a story of creation told in reverse, in other words, a story of ruin. The relentless wind blows restlessly, a ragged horse is shown pulling the cart. In a memorable long take, the particles of dust, carried by the wind beat the horse, he is shown at his health’s end, close to ruin, he trudges through, only to succumb to the biological desintegration. We observe the first day, “the evening and the morning” (Genesis), as the daughter of the man puts his clothes on, while the organ ominously plays, they perform the daily routines; they take the water from the well and in the evening they eat boiled potatoes.
The second day is similar to the first, it is still “the evening and the morning”, but on the third day, a man called Bernhard comes to the cottage asking for pálinka (fruit brandy). Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai wrote the screenplay and during several minutes of Bernrhard’s monologue, we hear everything Kraszhnahorkai wanted to be said; the rest of the film is filled with silence, stern commands and very short remarks. Bernhard speaks of the modern world’s debasement by those who “acquire”.
“Because, you see, the world has been debased, so it doesn’t matter what I say because everything has been debased that they’ve acquired and since they’ve acquired everything in a sneaky, underhanded fight, they’ve debased everything, because everything they touch, and they touch everything they’ve debased, this is the way it was until the final victory, until the triumphant end… the heavens are already theirs and so are our dreams, theirs is the moment, nature, infinite silence; even immortality is theirs, do you understand?”.
He says that “everything is lost forever”, and that the great and the noble “all at once realized that there is neither God nor gods; all at once they saw there is neither good nor bad: then they saw and understood that if it is so then they themselves did not exist either…” In these words Bernhard speaks in a genuinely Nietzschean fashion of the debasement in the modern times (19th century free-market oriented doctrine concentrated on acquirement of material possessions), but also about the Nietzschean thought which proclaims the “death of God”. It doesn’t mean that there is no God, atheists proclaimed that much earlier, but the death of all values civilization was based upon is that very death.
Bernhard says: “there is no good or bad”; morality is a design which is now not only put in question, but is unsustainable. If there is no God or gods, there is no good and evil, we ourselves are an illusion, as Nietzsche speaks in the Twillight of Idols, only by overcoming illusions new dawn and truth can come into light. This monologue happens on the third day, on the day God named “dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas.” (Genesis, KJV) In other words, on the third day, the day God named our planet Earth and by the act of naming, brought Earth into existence, Benhard speaks of the utter ruin of man as we have known him; “this change has indeed taken place.”
On the fourth day, the day when “God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night”, a band of gypsies come on a wagon, cursing and stealing water from the well, the source of life for the father and daughter. They leave screaming “Drop dead! Drop dead! Drop dead!”; soon the daughter reads from the Bible, the words about the desecration of the holy temple, the great injustice done, which needs to be atoned for. On the fifth day, father and daughter see that the horse doesn’t want to eat, or drink, he is at the death’s door. On the sixth day, the final day, the day when God made man and “saw every thing that was made, and behold, it was very good”, father and daughter are in a cottage, in complete darkness. The lamp, although it is filled, cannot be alighted. It is not “the evening and the morning” anymore, but complete darkness: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” (Genesis, KJV)