Traversing the void: Nihilism & clinical depression in Antichrist.
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist forces the audience to reckon with the void — holding our eyes open and compelling our gaze. It also reflects the profound clinical depression of its creator…
Depression is an incredibly insidious illness. It effects everything about you: consuming your energy, drive, self-worth, indeed your very soul. It is not unlike sinking slowly into a tar pit — the blackness filling your lungs ever so slowly, making it just a bit more impossible to breathe with every passing second.
I know these feelings because I have and continue to experience them first hand — having suffered from major bouts of depression for about a decade now (after having my cancerous thyroid removed and my best friend taking a shotgun to his head), and been hospitalized 3 times for the problem (though not recently). Luckily, I found my solace in art (photography) and writing and editing here and other places online.
What is quite possibly the most perilous and slowly-encroaching fear in clinical depression is the nihilism, where meaning is lost and inverted. West is East. Down is up. Black is white. The whole world is upside down. Not one iota of sensory experience seems to hold any meaning anymore while all of life seems to be inhabiting a psychotic, disorganized and chaotic state.
It is this precise fear of the evaporation and reversal of all meaning that Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist lives in and forces the audience to reckon with. Indeed, the film grabs you by the throat and forces your eyes squarely into the void through its terrifying nihilistic allegory. Von Trier wrote the bulk of the film while spending time healing from a bout of major depression in a psychiatric hospital. He was still largely in recovery while filming it too, which can be seen and felt in damn near every frame.
Antichrist tells the story of He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their child Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm) who died tragically as an infant after falling out a window, while his parents had sex nearby. This pivotal scene is shot as an incredible, high-contrast monochrome, slow-motion fugue to Handel’s “Lascia Chi’o Pianga” and ends with the child’s death. Watch the scene here, but be forewarned that it (like the entire movie) shows very graphic sex that gets progressively more violent as the narrative unfolds in its chapter format — Nic’s death being the prologue.
“Chapter 1: Grief” unfolds with She being hospitalized in a psychotic state from her grief. Since He is a (rather arrogant and falsely self-assured) “therapist”, he thinks he knows best how to treat his wife, and disregards the advice from the actual medical doctors around him — while simultaneously abandoning basic medical ethics which say he should not be treating someone so close to him because his thinking may become biased and unscientific.
This is a common problem I encountered in the mental health system. Too many, not so qualified people, are able to call themselves “therapists” and hang a shingle out as such, when they likely have degrees in something that isn’t psychology or a hard science like biology. This, in my experience, often leads to treatments that don’t really treat, and therapists that care genuinely but are easy to manipulate if one knows what they want to hear and merely feeds that to them.
This is exactly what we see in He’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement. He knows best and forces She to flush her pills and head to their cabin (called “Eden” in going with the sweeping mythology of the piece that isn’t just influenced by Biblical material) to undergo a regimen of treatment that He prescribes.
Thus begins “Chapter 2: Pain (Chaos Reigns)”. Throughout She’s treatment, She craves sex with He as a way to temporarily ease her pain and heal. Never mind that we start to see She shatter and He’s treatment do absolutely nothing — unlike a real doctor, He refuses to modify the treatment with the results, believing that his version of exposure therapy is the only treatment that will allay her grief.
It is during this part of the film that the nihilism begins to creep in. Von Trier chooses a brilliant vehicle throughout the film to communicate it solidly: an inversion of nature from something beautiful into what She calls “Satan’s Church,” which is marked by chaos, death and even murder.
This upside-down nature of the world that she sees in her psychotic state of grief is first manifested by acorns pummeling the roof of the cabin the couple inhabits at Eden. Von Trier deftly ratchets up the speed that they pummel the cabin at, until the couple begins losing more and more sleep with the deafening machine-gun like noise invading and arresting their senses.
Soon after, other manifestation of nature’s nihilism start to present themselves to He. These are “The 3 Beggars” — a white-tail deer who births her still-born fawn, a fox who chews on his own insides after presumably being gutted by a competing predator and who says “chaos reigns” to He, and a baby bird who falls from the nest and is devoured by a colony of ants. The 3 Beggars have a larger significance in the film that is largely tied to not just this look into the void, but also to Earth worship and truly old-school Paganism, and the 3 Kings of the Bible who heralded both birth and death in the story of Jesus Christ.
“Chapter 3: Despair (Gynocide)” sees He start to finally make some pretty pivotal connections. He first figures out that She may have begun losing her mind much earlier than originally thought when He discovers her voluminous and maniacally written notes (where She’s writing becomes progressively less readable) for her doctoral thesis on the way women were treated historically, in mass tragedies like the Salem Witch Trials.
He begins integrating some of this into the therapy sessions with She only to discover that She seems to believe all the misogyny that largely drove the historical occurrences in question. She uses true depression logic to justify her belief. If nature is incomprehensible and lacking of any true meaning, it is evil. Woman is made of nature. Thus woman must also be, in turn, evil and deserving of the sadism that was inflicted upon her.
It is this part of Antichrist that had more than a few critics panning it as nothing but outright misogyny. But this interpretation completely misses the true nature of She’s admission: it is not just a generalized belief that She is uttering. Her belief is one that She formed individual to herself and then applied to the world too. It is psychotic logic formed in a profoundly insane mind that was driven further mad by grief and having what could truly help her (psychotropic and time in the hospital being treated by real doctors) taken away. It is not logic that is meant to be applied really at all to groups. The real analysis here is that She thinks this just about herself but to keep what little is left of her mind together, must to some degree fallaciously generalize to the world at large.
Chapter 3 also implies a rather big twist in the narrative with what is in parentheses in its title. Just how much did She really have to do with Nic’s death? The violence also gets ramped up in this part of Antichrist — this is profoundly symbolic sexual violence, mutilating the very parts of man and woman that bring life (for your warning: in a very bloody and gratuitous way), which in the film’s psychotic line of logic becomes something profoundly evil because of She’s projection of her interior state.
She finally attaches a grindstone to He’s leg after bludgeoning him into unconsciousness. This is more interesting symbolism that is undoubtedly meant to reference the Gospel of Matthew’s quote from Jesus: “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The stone could also be viewed as a literal showing of him being tethered to his body, and thus what is earthly and evil. More broadly, it could further be viewed as mental illness itself being tethered to the sufferer and dragging them down with it to ultimate destruction.
Despite its incredibly dark subject matter, Antichrist is a profoundly cathartic and brilliantly structured piece to watch when one looks at it from a psychoanalytic view as an allegory of the profound feelings and struggles its creator was going through when it was born. An interpretation of the film based on a group feeling analysis just does not work here and misses the entire point of this incredible film.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.