God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125)
The Twilight of the Gods: Psychoanalysis of Humanity
1. The Roots: The Twilight and Fall of the Idols
Visconti's so called »German trilogy« (the movies »Twilight of the Gods«, »Death in Venice« and »Ludwig«) is deeply inspired above all by Nietzsche's philosophy. Moreover, it is probably the most systematic analysis of the implications of Nietzsche's thought for the cinematic medium, or to the arts in general. It is therefore natural that the very title »Twilight of the Gods« reflects the title of one of Nietzsche's works, which carries his entire philosophical thought, »The Twilight of the Idols« (Götzen-Dämmerung), written in 1888. The reference to Wagner's opera by the same name, from 1876, is secondary and derived. Visconti is primarily immersed in a dialogue with Nietzsche, and Wagner's title is simply adapted in the same way as Nietzsche adapted the title of his notorious essay, written in a single stroke and with feverish inspiration – as a metaphor for the apocalypse, and as the literally translated ancient Nordic term, which refers to the end of humanity or the end of the world. Significantly or not, the work of the German philosopher, written in Italy inspired the Italian director to deal with German history in a trilogy, which exceeds Germany and Italy, and even Europe. From today's perspective these works are a deep testimony of Humanity told through the story of Man. Globalisation didn't manage to snatch away their authenticity – on the contrary, it made them even more complex and more recognizable as a thought, which transcends the concreteness of time and space.
Nietzsche's »noise of the undertakers who are burying God« resounds in Visconti's work as the tremor of machines in steel-works, the echoes of soldiers boots, bursts of machine-gun fire, the drunk songs of murderers, or as the cracking wooden stairs under hidden steps of criminals, or as the sound of rain dripping against windows or tears gushing down frightened cheeks.
Visconti’s vision of what Nietzsche calls »the stench of the Divine rotting away« is not just the stench of thick and oily smoke above the concentration camps but also the heavy, poisonous smell of giant bouquets of flowers, which adorn the festival halls. In them the birth of the Übermensch is hailed simultaneously as the commemoration for the murdered God. »Lust, the desire to rule and selfishness« are the most sublime of all virtues pertaining to the new order of the transvaluation of all values, which Nietzsche proclaims in his work »The Twilight of Idols or How to Philosophize with a Hammer«. Already in Visconti they have taken controversial positions of a new religion and a new morality the philosopher has called for. The old morality, which is accused of being deeply contrary to the »instincts of life«, has died together with God. The new morality, which comes with the Übermensch, praises all instincts of life. Among which is naturally also death, as the basic vertical of life. Nietzsche railed with his hammer against the crystal pottery of the former philosophical thought, against the diamond decorations of faith, against the flowery bouquets of old art. These remains, sharp crumbles of glass, broken petals and destroyed glimmers without any value are used by Visconti in order to adorn this new man, this Übermensch who bleeds all scratched from the decorum of God's funeral. Between the great director and the great philosopher there is a space of seven decades – filled with the world wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, dictators and their musicians. They gaze upon each other over this rubbish heap of history – the ruins of towns and scorched fields, dead memories and live encounters, under which lies a long forgotten and buried in some mass grave of humanity, the lost murdered God. Without character and insignificant, among armies of nameless skeletons, without rank or file, among millions buried underneath, under the deafening noise of explosions and parades of military orchestras.
2. The Beginning of the Problem: The Family
The Twilight of the Gods begins its psychoanalysis of humanity in a precise, patient fashion. And the beginning of humanity stands the family as its basic unit. All great family dramas and plots of our civilization therefore meet in this story, from Hamlet, Oedipus, King Lear and The Buddenbrooks. What do we see behind them when they meet gathered in this fashion, called upon from their mutually distant centuries and spaces? Misery, pain, suffering and in the end collapse. Within its very formation the family is already destined to collapse. It carries within itself the seed of its own destruction. Everything here is wrongly assembled; the father and the mother are usually not what they seem or pretend to be; the children are not what they wished them to be, and are not ready to repeat the paths marked out by their parents. The family is the birth place of every taboo, the place of all novels of silenced words, the place of downcast eyes, which makes it impossible to see your interlocutor, the place of impatience and, perhaps above all else – a place of unfulfilled expectations.
Betrayed expectations of parents for children and vice versa. Against all expectations of their daughters, their fathers have lovers. And they drink. Against all the idealised wishes of their sons, their mothers have lovers. And they also drink. Despite what they publicly and ceremoniously promised to God himself, the parents do not love each other. And despite all of their parental teachings of goodness, they are not good. They have their locked chests with poisonous truths and well-kept closets hiding corpses. On the other side of the battleground of the family, against all expectations of the parents, the children have their small and little less small secrets, their closets with ladies gowns for boys, closets with axes for girls, often more terrifying than those, which their parents keep under lock and key.
Being as they are, each on one side of the family wasteland, they can neither meet, nor love each other. But they constantly talk how the family is the place of love and how each loves one another, and then they shun their glances and swallow words, close their closets and love each other. They love each other and smile publicly, for holidays, for birthdays, for Sunday mass, on city walks, but they cry and poison each other privately, between walls of family dungeons filled with the portraits of ancestors. And so it goes well and peaceful for years, centuries and millennia. And all of them pretend they don't see this war. The ancestors gazing from beatified portraits with evil looks full of spite and accusations, filled with sin and bitterness, are the most indifferent and as omni-powerfull as only the dead can be.
Sometimes although in this completely choreographed order of family celebrations, a falling out occurs. As with Oedipus, because of the lack of knowledge. As with Hamlet, because of the excess of knowledge. Or as with Lear, because of the wish for justice and love for power. Or as in the scandal when Hanna Buddenbrook decides to play instead of making money. Such excesses, such small tremors from time to time in the monotonous and calm rhythm of the family harmony of humanity, disclose for a moment the filled closets, lift the heavy shrouds and show what lies underneath ... until everything calms down again back into accord with the harmonious lento of the family symphony. But precisely such occasional tiny »fires« form the »tight structure« of the family myth. In these cracks dwell the ancient forests, which will one day grow, over this family fortress of heavy and bulletproof walls. And in these cracks »The Twilight of the Gods« begins its post Freudian meditation on the family, its research of the error inscribed into the basic formula of humanity, its recognition of the erroneous reading of the code in the cipher of Creation.
3. The Metastasis of the Family: Society
More families form a bigger unit, namely society. Every family builds society by imprinting itself into it, with all of its locked closets of corpses and all of its chests with dark secrets. In this way society becomes a labyrinth of closets full of skeletons, a warehouse of chests with secrets. The history of society is an impeccably ordered archive of swallowed words, with shelves cramped with files and folders full of blank papers and white sheets, precisely inscribed with decent silences and every impossibility of dialogue plainly recorded. The time which Nietzsche and Visconti meditate upon, records the chronicles of ruthlessness and stupidity. Nietzsche recognizes Marx's socialism as the »tyranny of the stupid«, the social order at the forefront of which emerges »the animal from the herd as the master of the herd«. The mutation of this idea into national-socialism is researched in »The Twilight of the Gods« as the state in which the herd is not lead by the most powerful of the animals anymore, but by the most resourceful and the most adaptable of animals, which arrives at the fore-front by pure chance. But all the other animals in the herd are so stupid in regards of the circumstances that they can't even evaluate the capabilities of the leader. »The Banality of Evil« of which Hanna Arendt spoke is still depicted as a banality – in its beginnings evil still has some perverse grandeur, a decadent theatricality, but its banal and primitive disease is still hidden beneath a mask. This is a disease, which has already infiltrated society and is reflected as a well-felt and favourable warmth, as a fever, which generates motion. A sick society is still ignorant of its sickness. On the contrary, it feels itself strong and omni-powerfull. Only after some time the feverish shivers will begin, the delusions, the torture, the smelly ulcers, pain, bleeding and death. In the first stages the sickness of society is manifested as a light tremor, mainly as a comfortable anger and giant acceleration. Insomnia. Unrest. A shiver and trembling. Visconti focuses on the collapse of the system of moral values, on the complete demise of the ethical order and every illusion of humanity. Nietzsche has, researching the roots of morality, come to realise that he dealt with the product of a very complex social and political past. Depicting how the Christian morality came about among slaves and nations who were in a subordinate position in the Roman Empire, and he cautions how it naturally and logically developed, from an inferior social position, its own values based on guilt and sin, its idea of unconditional obedience, its understanding of misery as logical and just punishment for guilt, how it contemptuously posited itself against reason and intellect, called for an absolute subordination to God, and understood life only as an rehearsal for another world. Nietzsche compared »the correcting of people« with moral teachings, with the taming of wild beasts in cages, where the beasts are isolated, made week, humble and sick and in the end completely obedient. This kind of treatment is used by morality and religion against people, and the means by which they accomplish this Nietzsche proclaims as »basically immoral«. Visconti researches the effects of this immoral dressage when it functions as the means for a new totalitarian morality (a morality which rejects God as well as Nietzsche, but simultaneously refers to both of them). Society becomes a well-enclosed bestiary in which only the tamer and the beast being tamed exist. The space between them is cleansed of life. For the animals only one possibility of escape remains – to become the tamer. But when all the beasts have become tamers, whom will they beat and teach and tame? What purpose will empty changes serve? Here lies the seed of collapse of a society, which builds itself upon the destruction of its enemies. It becomes its only enemy, it is eaten away by self-destruction, and finally, amidst its pompous sound and fury, it dissolves in its own destruction, remaking its underground bunker into its posthumous crypt. But along the way from formation to demise, the society which Visconti's »The Twilight of the Gods« researches, will traverse all the phases of disturbance and annihilation. As one giant family full of crazy uncles and corpses hidden in cellars, secret births on basements and locked chests. As one sick set of rotting parents, a metastasised ur-family which breeds like a tumor, quickly, with a destruction without order and without scruples.
4. The Birth of Society: The Nation
Such a society has its own special and famous birth, which it calls »nation«. It often likes to show it off in parades and events as its first-born heir, concealing the truth about this illegal bastard begot in the brothel of history, infected from the beginning with the puss of decay. Historically this spectacle is a pathetic performance in which constantly and continuously, such sick bastards battle among each other for the place of the best, bigger, nobler, stronger and older. History reveals itself as a circus of monsters and clowns in shiny armours stirring their swords, while they butcher its own kind under false names. At times this could even be fun, if there would be someone there to watch it. But God, as we said, is long dead and buried in a ditch along the way, and everyone else is on the stage, on the sand, it could be that they ran here by their own desire and pleasure, or perhaps they were forced into their roles of gladiators.
And so nations constantly perform one perverse and reasonless bloody performance, which no one can behold. Visconti in »The Twilight of the Gods« focuses on the Germans, although it is perfectly clear that an identical analysis is possible for any nation in history, based on a similar model. The grandeur of the scenography upon which Germany performed its crazy spectacle, and the amount of force they put into this destructive performance, makes them an appropriate metaphor for the abstract nation. »The night of long knives« is literally depicted as a theatrical show, bizarre, fascinatingly perverse and carnevalesquely insane. It is the night when a nation murdered itself with passion and cruelty, which it definitely did not show towards the ones it extinguished methodically, routinely and without application of any specific emotion. Such a grandiose spectacle deserves the mix of genres, which Visconti supplied, from rustical play and pastoral, to carnival and grotesque cabaret, to tragedy and finally farse. A long time before this night, when the Nazi family (risen to the level of nation) had to solve it family business, when Hitler, the adopted son had to butcher his powerful father Rhoem in order to grow up and demanded his right as heir, long before this night a nation was cleaning its dirty underwear from their chests and ventilated its skeletons in its closets, one of them, Friedrich Nietzsche maintained that this nation has long lost its spirit. Claiming that the Germans lack spirituality, Nietzsche criticized them for the lowering of culture, and especially for funding the state, instead of putting money into culture. He cautioned how the state and culture have become antagonists, and that the »one develops on account of the other«, always in opposition and immersed in exclusivity, and that »all great epochs of culture« have been simultaneously »epochs of political decline«, i.e. that cultural greatness is something »apolitical, even antipolitical«. Visconti turned his gaze on the moment when Germany had the most powerful state in the world. According to Nietzsche's formula, this necessarily meant that they were at the same time the most uncultured and unspiritual nation on earth. »The Twilight of the Gods« therefore depicts Nietzsche's fundamental idea – the state swallows culture – and shows how power and force with which the Nazis built their national structure, directly and with the same force, destroyed all forms of German culture and spirituality, necessarily leading into »the banality of evil« as the final escape from this process.
5. And today to the core of the problem: The Individual
Today »The Twilight of the Gods« needs to answer even heavier and even more entangled questions than in Visconti's time. What in his time Germany could symbolize, depicted in the battle between its grandiose culture (Nietzsche, Wagner) and its deepest fall and twilight (Nazism) is today, unfortunately, a picture extended throughout the planet. What do these grand sermons mean to us today? And what could they mean tomorrow? What do they tell us of our time, after Hiroshima, after September 11th, after the »conquest« of Space and the loss of our own planet? The psychoanalysis of humanity after it opened the problem of the family, state and society, finally arrives at the core of the problem, at the individual as the unit responsible for its own creations: the family, society and the state. But they, as in the battle between a grandiose culture and its dark fall, show themselves as two opposite sides of the same form. As artificial births and monstrous inventions working against man, the individual and his freedom, and as the birthplace of his creation, creativity and strength. The individual is always equally alone and lost in the grandiose emptiness of the world, when he floats in the womb, when he levitates on the surface of the Moon or Space, or when he marches with teary cheeks against the unknown twilight. In the whole German trilogy Visconti dealt with the relationship between the individual and history. The giant historical transformations of Europe in »The Twilight of the Gods«, or Ludwig of Bavaria, an individual who tries to make history and is taken under as its victim in the process, or the powerlessness of the individual to stir events even in his own story as in »The Death in Venice«, all of these are places of battle between the individual and history, in which the individual necessarily and inevitably succumbs and collapses. But, we today, after it all, know that there is no History other than those made by individuals themselves, that there is no history, apart from millions of Personal histories. In this light and with this heavy knowledge, with this unwanted truth, which we have to carry as fate, we gaze upon the circumstances, which cause events and observe in them again and again the great questions of human freedom. Distant echoes of Nietzsche from the end of the nineteenth century signal as disfigured echoes, broken into the ruins of history, which have been piled between him and us. The result of the death of God was truly the destruction of the very foundations which held humanity together, and the beginning of man's »wandering through the eternal nothingness«. Nietzsche prescribed the antidote in the form of traversing all human boundaries. The idea that man has to become equal to the gods, become an Übermensch, was formed in Nietzsche as an admonishing question, which he posits to the human race: »I teach you the Übermensch. Man is something that needs to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?«
What have we, actually done, a century and a half later? In the time between? In time? We played gods, with more or less success, created and destroyed, we mastered the grammar of Creation, the core of the atom and genetics, but we haven't learned to write with its language, its words we do not yet understand, and we haven't reached the Übermensch. In our crystal solitude we stand naked and shiver with cold for a warm rain, for some ten thousand years. In his »Twilight of the Idols« Nietzsche showed the »four great human delusions«, making the »corruption of the mind« the greatest of all delusions, and he considered none human delusion greater, than the reversal of cause and effect. Today, more than ever, it is necessary to clearly separate cause and effect and to see the boundaries between them. The delusion of free will, Nietzsche recognizes as a fraud and a dangerous »trick of the theologian«, a bluff which wants to pronounce people as »responsible«, only in order to make them blameable and punishable. The truth is, that among people »no one is responsible for existing, for being who he is, for living under such circumstances, in such surroundings«. Man, as Nietzsche teaches us, belongs to the whole totality, and doesn't have no higher purpose, no meaning, but because we can't blame this totality for anything, we can't blame man for his procedures. Drowned in this way in a certainly meaninglessness totality, the individual has no chance. His only possible way out is in his search, although he knows beforehand that there is nothing to be found. In his universal solitude the individual can only search for his own inner universe and master his own secrets, discover his own unknown continents and populate them with his own ideas and emotions. This endless and grandiose business gives man the sublimity, which the Übermensch never could have attained. Even God couldn't have attained it, if we would let him survive our urge for »The Twilight of the Gods«.