This tension has led to von Trier’s interest in counter-dogmatic and anti-rational forms of belief. In Breaking the Waves (1996), von Trier explored religious mysticism in the figure of Bess, the first in a series of saintly female martyrs who live in selfless devotion to a cause worth dying for. In stark contrast to the values of the theocratic island community in which she lives, Bess’s faith centres on her intense devotion to her husband and a personal communion with God.
In Dancer in the Dark (2000), Thelma ultimately sacrifices her life in her determination to provide a sight-saving operation for her young son. She also cultivates her own personal state of grace, creating a private world out of the transformative magic of Hollywood musicals. In Dogville (2003), Grace’s selfless goodness is such that she is all things to all people—as the narrator tells us, she becomes “eyes for McCay, a mother for Ben, a friend for Vera, brains for Bill”. But these saintly women are also mirrors in which society finds its own ugly reflection. Innocence tempts the wicked, and their virtue brings out the worst in others, inviting abuse and exploitation. Often in von Trier’s universe, beneath an appearance of decency and decorum, society tends toward destruction and chaos, and individual good intentions are the most dangerous thing of all.
In Antichrist von Trier takes his career-long exploration of these social fracture points to new extremes, this time played out in microcosm within the fragile confines of the family unit—society’s building block. Grief opens the door on a frightening new reality in which the critical apparatuses of two high functioning intellectuals prove hopelessly inadequate to prevent their lives being ripped apart by forces they struggle to understand or control.
In this bleak view of the capacity of human beings to shape their own destinies, von Trier is to some extent projecting a central anxiety of his time and place. European intellectual life has lately exhibited a powerful strain of philosophical misanthropy, perhaps best exemplified in the work of the British political philosopher John Gray. In Straw Dogs (2002) , a book written with the intention of “removing the masks from our animal faces”, Gray describes humanism as a “masquerade”, in which religion resurfaces in the guise of the Enlightenment concept of progress. Those who believe in it, he argues, have replaced an irrational belief in God with an irrational faith in humankind.
In Straw Dogs Gray says: “Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food and die. That is all. But…our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings… is flawed… We control very little of what we most care about.”
Gray’s thesis owes something to the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) offers a scathing and by now familiar critique of modernity. But Gray is also tapping an older vein of counter-Enlightenment thought to which von Trier himself is no stranger; one that stretches back to Marquis de Sade, whose novel Justine (1791) inspired Breaking the Waves, and Nietzsche, whose The Antichrist (1895) lends von Trier’s latest film its title.
This pessimistic mindset is currently undergoing a resurgence, buoyed by a number of factors including the perceived exhaustion of the left-liberal consensus, a sense of disempowerment in the face of globalization, and the fracturing, disorientating effect of 9/11, a cataclysm that has encouraged some to see modernity as a world in which advanced technology and barbarism will increasingly exist cheek by jowl. Grey shares this outlook with a number of influential intellectuals, including the late JG Ballard and French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose upbringing by radical hippies strongly resembles von Trier’s own and has had an equally formative impact on his work.
But here the similarities end. Houellebecq is a political reactionary, as is Gray who, in contrast to von Trier, is untroubled by “the pangs of belief”. In an interview with Will Self in 2002, Gray said: “I don’t believe in belief. If one aims simply to see, then beliefs… are just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage it.”
Gray may be content to do without beliefs, but for a child of the liberal left like von Trier, a universe of moral chaos is a troubling prospect.
Fear of losing self-determination, and the dread of staring into the ‘animal face’ of our true nature, all inform the philosophical horror of Antichrist. In this Eden, man does not have mastery over the animals—he is one of them. The scales have fallen from the eyes of its Eve. Gainsbourg sees with terrifying lucidity the cruelty of nature, which von Trier’s film imbues with an almost demonic malevolence.
She tells Defoe: “I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden, it was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear things I couldn’t hear before; the cry of all the things that are to die.”
Von Trier has described how he wrote and directed Antichirst in the grip of a depression so debilitating he could not hold a camera, and has described the film as a form of therapy. Just as Defoe takes Gainsbourg to Eden to confront the source of her anxiety, in Antichrist von Trier looks his own worst fears in the face. What if belief in the capacity of human beings to shape their own destiny is an illusory comfort? And once such constructs give way, what lies beneath?
One answer to this question might be found in von Trier’s TV mini-series The Kingdom (1994). The most technologically advanced hospital in Denmark, the Kingdom, rests on ancient marshland, the gateway to a primordial past. A voice-over at the start of the first episode tells us: “Now life was to be charted—and ignorance and superstition never to shake the bastions of science again. Perhaps their arrogance became too pronounced, and their persistent denial of the spiritual. For it is as if the cold and damp have returned. Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice”. The hospital thus becomes a metaphor for a fragile modern Europe afloat on a quagmire of mythology, savagery, and superstition.
In Antichrist von Trier plunges headfirst into this underworld. He takes us into the woods, into a pre-social, pre-Enlightenment universe where chaos reigns and for all we know, witchcraft could be just as valid a way of explaining the world as the precepts of modern psychotherapy.
Defoe, as a therapist, and Gainsbourg, as a cultural theorist, are the epitome of middle-class moderns. Once in Eden, their sophisticated worldview proves insufficient to resist the pull of chaos, the chthonic claims of an older natural order. Once the precepts of modernity give way, regression takes hold. The nameless couple break down into archetypes—he, an avenger of the patriarchal social order, harbinger of rationality and repression; she, the threat of untrammelled, sexual, female nature, and the chaos of the subconscious. The mysticism that provided an otherworldly paradigm of goodness in Breaking the Waves here presents in Gainsbourg its dark double—madness, occultism, possession. It becomes increasingly apparent that, in appointing himself her therapist, Defoe is attempting to perform an exorcism on his wife.
The film builds toward a collision of irreconcilable forces, which is also a showdown between the warring halves of von Trier’s own psyche—the masculine, detached, control-freak director and the anti-authoritarian, emotionally volatile free spirit who identifies so strongly with his female protagonists. In this elemental struggle, all that remains is for society to impose its will on nature in the only language nature understands—violence. Defoe strangles his wife and burns her body on a pyre, an act of immolation suggestive of a purifying ritual. The couple’s transformation is complete. Like the well-meaning protagonists of the ‘Europe Trilogy’, they have become their antitheses.
Antichrist warns us that once the delicate balance of our lives is disturbed and our core convictions tested, the values we hold most dear can be stripped away with terrifying speed and ferocity. For von Trier, a director vacillating between the agonies of doubt and the pangs of belief, in a world where the worst can and very likely will happen, the homilies of the humanist-progressive tradition offer cold comfort. A profoundly personal work taking cinema to places few directors dare to visit ,Antichrist might best be understood as a deep howl of anguish, a kind of celluloid primal scream.