Von Trier: Melancholia

The opening of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is problematic. Oh sure, it’s beautiful — slow-motion scenes that represent but avoid replicating the final moments of the film, set to the churning Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

It’s hard to divorce Melancholia from von Trier’s remarks at the film’s Cannes premiere, where he said of Hitler, "He's not what you would call a good guy but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit, yes.” This feels especially knotty and solid with the specter of Wagner hanging over the soundtrack, given Wagner’s own antisemitism that later fueled the Nazi party.

Whether or not we approve of von Trier's behavior, however, this gives us an opportunity to look at our perceptions — our thoughts — and their own knotty nature. Like the roots that grasp at Kirsten Dunst’s ankle in one moment, they take hold of us. They try to pin us down. They make us feel as our current vantage point is the fixed mark of our perspective. This is also why the opening (along with the rest of the film) makes for such an effective metaphor for depression.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody deconstructed this at the time of the film’s premiere. He is able to hold two things as equally valid: That von Trier doubtlessly “spoke with grotesque insensitivity.” And that von Trier “did indeed seem to be acknowledging something substantial and deeply considered: that he recognizes a link from German romanticism through Nazi aesthetics to von Trier’s own.”

Here, then, is the consideration that we aren’t so fixed in one place, especially in comparison to others. We are, to re-quote Tara Brach, not our thoughts. And if that holds true for us, it also holds true for others. Melancholia is constantly challenging the beliefs that the characters hold to be true — those who are unwavering seem to falter. Those who approach things a bit more flexibly (even with challenges like severe depression) seem to have an easier time of it. That doesn’t negate suffering, but it does seem to lessen the blow.

Today’s Contemplation: Notice your thoughts as they arise. Breathing in, feel them. Breathing out, feel them. When you start to feel rooted to the ground in one opinion, in one perception, in one mode of thought, can you start to see things from the other side? Can you contemplate the similarities that link us to other beings, even those who seem diametrically opposed to our values? Can you shake off the roots that grasp at all of our ankles?