ANTICHRIST, Lars von Trier, 2009

Grief, Pain, Despair – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and the Nature of Evil

It’s somewhat hard to watch, show, and certainly write about a film named by various reviewers as “the best movie I can never recommend”, an “art-film fart” and “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.

Lars von Trier, a Danish director who also boasts responsibility for the first hardcore porn movie made by a mainstream production company, directed this film as a form of therapy, and this is somewhat how it should be viewed. The film is, however many critics respond to it, a work of art; a claim that had to be justified by Culliton in her work, Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ as Art. One of the items the film raises, no doubt on purpose, is the line between art and revulsion. The most natural, or perhaps the “easiest” and “accepted” response to the movie, as Culliton writes, is one of revulsion and the declaration that it is not art. This view is generally however one sparked from abhorrence, morally, about what is contained in the film. I should not want to be swayed into taking the easiest route by popular opinion however, and neither does Culliton. She uses the work of José Ortega y Gasset to support her view that one must work through the abhorrence to find the art:

The new art obviously addresses itself not to everybody…but to a specially gifted minority. Hence  the indignation it arouses in the masses. When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it…But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated…Through its mere presence, the art of the young compels the average citizen to realize that he is just this–the average citizen… Accustomed to ruling supreme, the masses feel that the new art, which is the art of a privileged aristocracy of finer senses, endangers their rights as men. Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle. (1)

So the chances are that you are likely to find this film morally abhorrent. This is a given. However the film acts as a challenge to us. We must overcome our ethics in order to realise the film as a work of art. If we disagree with the film being a work of art, we must ask ourselves the question of whether we believe the aesthetic and the moral to be inseparable. If you are not utterly convinced that they are, then press ahead. If you do, you are not going to appreciate this film, so you may as well not proceed with viewing it.

The title alone has a lot to do with the message conveyed by the film (a message often deemed a necessary component of a work of art). The term “antichrist” is often taken to mean a simple (or not so simple) spawn of Satan, mainly due to popular culture, however this is not what von Trier is getting at. Lars claims to have had a book of Nietzsche’s by his bedside since age 12, and if this is true, it certainly helps us understand the title better. Thomsen, in an essay on the event of violence and the use by von Trier of haptic imagery (a concept I shall explain later), writes how in the title imagery of Antichrist, the last t is replaced by the sign for Female. (2) This is a clue as to the film’s message. It also relates to the Nietzschean term “Anti-christ” in the book of the same name, meaning rather anti-Christian. Hence, one might propose that the film is both anti-Christian, and anti-nature, or rather in the Nietzschean sense a reversal of what is considered natural (but is in fact something completely natural), and in this sense anti-Satan (for one line in the film characterises Nature as “Satan’s church”). If woman too is nature, then she is Satan’s church. However,  Thomsen writes, Nietzsche’s antichrist is conferred with all the properties of Dionysus, and is thus opposed to order embodied in the Apollonian. For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the embodiment of the antichrist and is characterised as female, and so the theme continues.

In a discussion on the philosophy of the film in film quarterly, Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University, discusses what von Trier’s film has to say about women. (3) The film grapples with ideas of the tension between woman and man, and of the wild, Dionysian nature behind woman. “She”, the female character in the film, is in the process of writing a dissertation on the evil committed against women. Von Trier alerts us to the Nietzschean quote, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, then something is usually wrong with her sexuality”. Midway through, she states that women do not have control over their bodies, and that in fact nature does. She is seen to be internalising her research in the film, and this can be seen as Lars von Trier commenting on the state of society today and the internalisation and acceptance of the suffering of women. To reinforce this idea the film challenges our general conceptions of nature and the natural. Nature is turned on its head, and yet remains true, in a Nietzschean, Dionysian sense, to itself. We are presented with an image of an eagle eating its young, reflecting actions of “She” in the film, and it revolts us, and yet is at the same time natural. Von Trier’s use of Haptic imagery in this sense is entirely appropriate. Haptic imagery relates to the use of the graphic to convey sensory illusions and is used by von Trier, with an interesting employment of rotoscoping, to instil in us an uneasiness about nature. Haptic imagery is in a sense an embodiment of the Dionysian, and possibly of evil. It takes advantage of us and assaults our senses. Thomsen writes on how the texture of the imagery sits on the borderline of the psychic and demonic and relates its use with the Deleuzian concept of the “power of the false”. Von Trier misuses the camera and the medium of cinema – instead of his art revealing truth, to borrow and probably misuse a Heideggerian phrase, von Trier uses cinema to confuse, revile and bamboozle us by turning our preconceived ideas about nature and “what feels right” against us.

In this sense the film is a very interesting piece of art. As Culliton writes, von Trier’s thesis is that women are the source of chaos and wild nature, and to us this is wrong, but it does not matter that it is wrong. The film both reminds us that it is wrong and also helps us understand why it is wrong, and in that way it may be seen as a work of art.

Matt Beckett


(1) Betsy Walker Culliton, ‘Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” as Art’ <URL:; [Accessed on 11/09/14]

(2) Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, ‘Antichrist—Chaos Reigns: the Event of Violence and the Haptic Image in Lars von Trier’s Film’, in Journal of Aesthetic and Culture, (2009): 1-10, 3.

(3) Nina Power and Rob Wright in ‘“Antichrist”: A Discussion’, in Film Quarterly (Dec., 2012)


THE BELIEVER, Henry Bean, 2001

I wish to argue that The Believer asks us to consider our ideas, inclinations, prejudices and thoughts in the light of historicity and multiplicity. Danny Balint (played by the masterly Ryan Gosling) begins his life as a promising Jewish yeshiva student who challenges teachers with his heterodox thoughts on sacred texts. The first scene of the film depicts a 20 year old Danny in his bedroom lifting weights sporting a triskele (or three sevens) tattoo. Over the scene plays an audible clip from Danny’s past where he challenges his teacher on the meaning of the Binding of Isaac story. Danny claims that the point of the scene at Mount Moriah was to show God’s power over Isaac and that God is conclusively a bully.

These initial pangs of theological curiosity that Danny exhibits in school ferment over time into a poisonous hatred of the faith he was raised in. His rage is manifested early in the film when Danny is shown intimidating and assaulting a young yeshiva student at a train station. In just under a decade the promising young pupil transforms into the very bully he himself decried as a youth.

The film’s opening wants us to hate Danny. It presents him unforgivingly as a rancorous monster that we should reflexively despise. We initially treat Danny not as an individual as we perhaps should, but rather, as a symbol loaded with all the connotations and meanings that the triskele on his arm possesses. We allow him the all the patience and understanding that a symbol can expect, namely, a sudden, knee-jerk moment of judgement. But as the film goes on to explore Danny’s inner conflicts and contradictions we are faced with a character that frustrates our own views, both of Danny and of our ideas of belief and identity.

What separates The Believer from other neo-Nazi films is that the main character’s hatred is directed inwards at his own Jewish roots. (1) Danny despises what he sees as the essence of the Jew: weakness. One poignant scene places Danny and his skinhead friends with a group of holocaust survivors. One man in particular tells of watching his own son die at the hands of a Nazi officer. Danny charges the man with cowardice and bolsters his own convictions on the weakness and cowardice of the Jew. However, throughout the film Danny dwells on this story and visualises himself as both the Nazi and the Jewish father in recurring visions.

There are two scenes in the film which best illustrate this inner conflict: the desecration of the Synagogue and Danny’s prayer scene. The former sees a group of neo-Nazis vandalising a Jewish temple: holy texts fly through the air, anti-Semitic graffiti is sprayed on the walls and one member is seen urinating off of mechitza or balcony. Amidst the chaos, Danny walks solemnly down an aisle, seemingly oblivious to everything but the temple, a place he undoubtedly associates with his childhood. Danny’s racism is challenged for the first time in the film and the scene comes to a tense conclusion at the altar with the skinheads inspecting the Torah. When Danny explains to them that the calligraphy is what is called the ‘Flame Alphabet’ he is asked by a fellow Nazi, ‘How come you know all this shit?’ to which he responds, ‘how come you don’t? How can you say you hate Jews if you don’t know anything about them?’ He goes on to utter a string of Aramaic terms and then cites Adolf Eichmann’s own study of Jewish texts as a defence for his knowledge.

This charged event at the altar is an almost external play of Danny’s internal conflict, of his faith and his racism. To read the scene superficially as Danny simply reverting back to his faith would misunderstand the extent of his confusion; after all, Danny may have defended the Torah from being completely destroyed, but he seems comfortable with planting a bomb intended to wipe out a sermon of over a hundred attendees. His referencing Eichmann as inspiration also confirms his allegiance to the cause.

I will go on to analyse the existence of two contradictory stances later but for now I wish to investigate further the eruption of faith or belief experienced in the synagogue. One explanation for this resurgence can perhaps be found in Nietzsche. ‘Thoughts’ says Nietzsche, ‘are the shadows of our sensations – always darker, emptier, simpler than these.’ (2)  Danny’s racist beliefs are a part of his thought – his cognitive faculties. They are beliefs arrived at through logic (3) (no matter how skewed), through reading and analysis of the Jewish texts. Like Nietzsche observes, Danny’s racism is simple and easy to understand. The fact that he is able to articulate his political ideas furthers this notion. Danny’s racism is fairly uninteresting, even if it is supported on an intellectual level rarely manifested in other famous cinema skinheads. The film’s richness lies in that eruption of faith seen in the Synagogue. Danny’s faith is contrasted against his racism on all levels. Danny cannot articulate his feelings of faith nor does he ever fully reconcile with his religious past. His faith is manifest through action. This can be subtle like when he rolls up the violated and abandoned Torah or explicit when he dons a tallit (a shawl worn over the head and shoulders by Jewish males) and acts out a Jewish prayer (more on this later). In this, his faith is not thought but felt. It is a sensation.

The fact that this feeling is one of faith is incidental to my main argument (there is perhaps something relevant about the power of liturgy and ritual that I will come to later) and I don’t wish to make a grand statement about the nature of religious belief. My point is more about parentage and heredity. Nietzsche argues that a child uses up ‘the best of his energy and time in the imitation of [the] feelings’ of those ‘relatives and acquaintances among whom he grew up’. (4) In other words, it isn’t explicit thoughts that are passed down from parents to children (for otherwise heredity would be wholly deterministic) but feelings. This isn’t just to say that certain emotional traits are inherited, but the subtle habits. The reason faith is such a fine example in this case is because habit is manifest in faith as ritual. For Danny, there are significant items that cause his unified racist shell to rupture such as the Torah, or more specifically, the words and the calligraphy in which they are written. It’s also Danny’s upbringing within a Jewish family and community that would have made sensation a large part of his childhood; it’s not just the Yeshiva teaching (which is what Danny rebels against most explicitly) but the atmosphere: the colours, the dress, the food, the songs, and all the bright intensities of a strong religious life.

Danny clearly abandons the Jewish thinking of his community and adopts a belief system that isn’t merely anti-Semitic or racist but is loaded with historical significance – a system of action as well as belief. The Third Reich represents a terrible episode in the history of Judaism, one that makes Danny’s allegiance all the more potent. This allegiance is a reactive decision, that is, a decision made in direct response to Danny’s history as opposed to one made independently. Following his previous argument, Nietzsche states that ‘under the pressure of this experience towards which he feels powerless, [the child] admires neutrality of sentiment, or ‘objectivity’… and refuses to believe that this too is only the child of habit and discipline.’ (5) Danny’s reaction against his Jewish upbringing leads him into a view which he believes is objective; an ontology based on a conception of identity that is fixed or essential. Danny goes beyond this essence of weakness by dominating it (usually by dominating that ‘weakness’ in other Jews) through power.

On a Kantian conception of a unified self, such internal conflict and contradiction would be in danger of being pathologised. A richer view can be found in an account of identity that is fragmented. There isn’t a singularly contained identity, but rather, shifting multiplicities that constitute a self that is always ‘becoming’. In §19 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states that the self is composed of a number of hierarchical forces competing for dominance. These forces exist as a complicated and shifting network of commanding and obeying drives. Nietzsche argues that philosophers and metaphysicians have ignored these divisions by appealing to the synthetic concept ‘I’. (6) This grammatical invention has its roots in primitive psychology but our habitual usage of the concept has worn away its origins giving the ’I’ an impression of being a given or default concept. (7) Such a fixed and stunted notion of identity complicates and does little to explain a self which exhibits numerous appearances and identities in different situations. (8) Nor does it allow for the conflictions and disharmony felt between certain feelings, thoughts, sensations and beliefs.

Danny is a character where this conflict is most clearly fought. The rage felt toward his heritage can perhaps be attributed to this conflict. In his essay On Moods, Nietzsche claims that a mood arises either from ‘inner conflicts’ (which we have already covered) ‘or else from external pressure on the inner world.’ (9) These thoughts and feelings are ‘wild factions’ inhabiting ‘two enemy camps’. (10) In other words, they are fighting for power and control. This doesn’t happen dualistically, with the mind having conflicting thoughts and the winning thought becoming acted out; this conflict is an embodied one, both felt and thought (thinking, dare I say, being merely an appendage to habit anyway). This embodiment of warring beliefs is manifested in the second key scene of the film in which Daniel is seen wearing a tallit and performing a combination of the Nazi salute and Jewish prayer – shown by extending his little finger which is traditionally done upon having read the Torah. Conflict, for Nietzsche, isn’t necessarily awful: ‘The soul destroys and thereby gives birth to new things, it fights energetically and yet gently draws the opponent over to its own side for an intimate union.’ (11) When Danny’s conflict is finally exposed in the physical act of prayer, something peculiar does indeed emerge from within him. Like I mentioned earlier, the two beliefs are never destroyed or reconciled fully, but they do eventually meet in a most perverse, yet intimate fashion.

As a point of closure, I wonder how much control we have over our thoughts, beliefs and feelings and whether we have created an illusion of proprietorship over such things. I’m not talking about indoctrination or external psychological coercion, but rather, something elusive from within. Humans are full of vague and peculiar inclinations that we explain by imposing a causal picture or narrative on our lives (‘I like x because of such and such an event that occurred in my life’). Gilles Deleuze argues that our ‘concepts are exactly like sounds, colours or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren’t acceptable.’ (12) In the same inarticulate way that we cannot adequately explain our predisposition for attraction to certain people, our concepts and beliefs may be grounded in the same abstract and intangible forces circulating within.

Simon Booth


[1] Danny is actually loosely based on Danny Burros, a Jewish American who was an active member of the American Nazi Party and a Kleagle [recruiter] for the United Klans of America.

[2] Thoughts, Gay Science

[3] A number of critics commented on the worry that the film is in danger of glorifying racism by having Danny act as a respectable, intelligent ambassador for the cause. Though as Roger Ebert rightly asserts: ‘And if the wrong people get the wrong message – well, there has never been a shortage of wrong messages. Or wrong people.

[4] Parentage, Daybreak

[5] Parentage pt. II, Daybreak

[6] §19 BGE

[7] Nietzsche Reader, p. xxxi

[8]The company of parents causes us to act in a different manner than we would around friends, yet we are hesitant to say that we are not being ourselves.

[9] On Moods

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Deleuze, dialogues.


This paper discusses The Cabinet Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and analyses how it conveys Foucault’s theory of madness. The protagonist in this film, Francis, appears in the prologue and then narrates us the story. As such, the bulk of the film is seen through his eyes, he is both a character in the tale and its narrator. However, in the epilogue we realise we have not been experiencing a memory, but a delusion. As such, the main bulk of the film, between the framing mechanism, can be seen as an exploration of Francis’s madness from inside his phenomenological experiences (Gutting, 1989, p. 57). This paper will examine how the film illustrates Foucault’s notion of madness, as found in ‘Madness and Civilisation’, through our experience of Francis, paying special attention to the four keys areas of the mise-en-scene (Foucault, 1967).

The first aspect of Foucault’s philosophy, that this film exemplifies, is his emphasis on madness as a construct of an individual. Rather than using the person as an object of medical diagnosis, Foucault believed that we must analyse madness on its own terms, by determining the ‘concrete forms it takes in the psychological life of an individual’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 56). This is what Foucault calls ‘phenomenological psychology’ (Foucault, 1987, p. 45). In the film, the mise-en-scene encourages us to experience Francis’s world from his subjective view. The set, painted by Expressionist artists, is particularly apt to show Francis’s state of mind. Foucault would claim that Francis has made a projection of himself into a world that he has constituted and which expresses his existence(Gutting, 1989, p. 61). As such we are made highly aware of the man-made features of the set. Although, as we will see, humanity is ill-fit in this world; Francis’s world made concrete through set design. The establishing shot of the film shows Holstonwall, an abstract amalgamation of pointed roofs and triangular mountains in strange perspective (Fig.1). Diagonals replace the vertical, and horizontal and acute angles replace curves, even in the everyday shapes such as doorways and windows (Powell, 2005, p. 27).

The second aspect of the mise-en-scene, the staging and direction of the actors, compounds the experience of madness. We are kept in a state of suspense throughout the film through hints that the fantasy we are experiencing with Francis is incomplete. The slow iris in and out, which is used throughout the film, isolates parts of a picture, blocking our orientation in the frame, before expanding (Fig.2). Our orientation is further effaced by the actors. Their wide-eyed gazes off scene perturb our expectations of eye-line match and point of view shots. The characters frequently occupy themselves with things we cannot see, whether through these visual distractions off-scene or, as in the asylum, by physically handling non-existent things (Powell, 2005, p. 26); we see a pianist playing without any visible keys and a demagogue addressing no one (Powell, 2005, p. 31). They each occupy their own fantasy and for us to understand their individual madness we must ‘attempt to capture the world as lived by the patient’, as Foucault urged us to do in his early work (May, 2003, p. 289). The disorientation is key to entering the psychological experience of madness with Francis, in which we experience his isolation and unease. The staging of the actors is at all times unnatural and broken, in part because of the constraining set design. The flat background throws the actors into relief, making them strange and inhuman. In some cases the deranged set has the effect of blurring the line between the man-made and the actors. The animate actors lose their humanity; they are made inorganic, whilst the inanimate gains life (Powell, 2005, p. 28). This dissolution of the difference in the mechanical and the animate is consistent with Expressionist aims, in which material objects are transformed into emotional ornaments (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69), furnishing what Foucault would call the ‘interior dimensions’ of the mad (Foucault, 1954, p. 69). In Francis’s room, for example, the rounded padded chaise lounge represents his relative comfort, whilst the high back chair dominating Alan’s room indicates Francis’s apprehension at this part in the story (Fig.3).

The lighting throughout this film also adds to our experience of Francis’s phenomenology. ‘Light’ is painted directly onto the set and often in discord to the actual lighting, which serves to efface our rules of perception (Kracauer, 1974, p. 69). The low key lighting is harsh and unforgiving, creating high contrast, and is entirely produced by on set lights which allowed more control of the effects. Tints are used to indicate the time of day or draw attention to Francis’s emotional response to certain points in the narrative. For example Jane’s lounge is tinted with purple, representing Francis’s romantic feelings for her, whilst blue and yellow tints indicate night and daylight (Fig.4). Alan’s murder is depicted entirely through the interplay of Cesare and Alan’s shadows, allowing this psychologically damaging event to be communicated through Francis’s psyche. Francis cannot recreate this event in stark light, and so instead confines it to the shadows, and this is how we see it. Perhaps for the same reason, the murdered bodies are represented by lit bundles of white sheet, often tumbling off the bed. The inanimate dead bodies, so conveyed, bear striking similarity to Jane asleep on her bed, all white sheets, lit brightly and still. This indicates Francis’s inability to conceive of Jane in a fulsome way, reducing her to a stock character, a maiden-in-distress, a body.

The costume of the characters signifies how Francis is conceiving other people in his mind. What is most striking about Francis’s costume is its ordinary nature, particularly in contrast to Caligari’s stylised hair and absurd cloak, or Cesare’s skin tight leotard (Coates, 1991, p. 36). This serves to highlight his different-ness from Caligari and Cesare, whose costumes make the actors inhuman. The still of Dr. Caligari in the town hall looks like a painting, made absurd with the high seat for the clerk and the black lines on Caligari’s gloves and hair (Fig.5). His eyebrows are painted flat to his face and when he moves he becomes a mess of abstract forms. Contra to Cesare’s skin-tight leotard, which shows he has no autonomy from his costume, no individuality to express through clothing. The close-up of Cesare also looks like a painting (Fig.6), with heavy eyeliner, horizontal mouth and brows, a straight hair line and striped polo-neck (Powell, 2005, p. 28). Francis is not stylised in his costume or make up. His hair is naturalised and his make-up is discreet and minimal, serving only to outline his features against the strong lighting on set. Foucault may suggest this is because Francis sees himself as alien to this world, one of murder and insanity. The schematized clothing of Caligari and Cesare create simple personas – ‘bad guys’. Francis’s self-perception is normal in relation to them, he is the hero, and perceives himself as so dressed.

The mise-en-scene is not merely an exploration of phenomenological psychology. It also displays the nuanced nature of this psychology. Foucault suggests that the psychological world of the mad is not isolated from their experience of reality ‘but occurring all the time’ (Gutting, 1989, p. 61). To think of the mad as removed from common experiences, is to classify them as something non-human. The recurrence of the asylum in the epilogue demonstrates how closely related the psychological world of the mad is to their ordinary experiences. The set design is identical with the same sunburst on the floor, serving as the placement for Francis in and outside the fantasy. The asylum, we discover, is Francis’s usual environment so it is unsurprising that is portrayed exactly in his fantasy, as the setting of Caligari’s descent into madness and Francis’s final heroic act. When Dr. Caligari is confronted with the dead Cesare he explodes in a manic rage and is wrestled into a strait-jacket. This desperate frenzy mimics exactly the movements Francis makes in the same circumstance in the epilogue. This mirrored staging demonstrates Foucault’s point that the important experiences of the mad will appear in their constructed world. At its core phenomenological psychology is a description of actual experience, made up of both the imagined and the shared (Foucault, 1970, p. 326).

Another way in which this closeness is portrayed is by the recurrence of characters who have provided the model for Francis’s fantasy, but who are essentially different in the epilogue. Although the set remains the same, the characters act differently towards Francis. His enemy, Cesare, is the picture of innocence, cradling a flower, and we note out of his leotard (Fig.7). Jane, his fantasy lover, is aloof and icy, passively staring off screen. Caligari is now the one in power and Francis is the mad one. The film therefore exemplifies Foucault’s notions of the phenomenology of the mad, as, essentially, constructed with reference to their genuine lived experiences.

The third key element of Foucault’s philosophy exemplified by this film is our modern consciousness of madness. Foucault outlines the shifts in our conceptions of the mad through time, and each era is represented in this film. The character of Cesare illustrates the Classical era of the mad as inhuman, irresponsible and therefore confined both physically and ontologically. Dr. Caligari can be seen as exemplifying the Renaissance era perception of madness as a form of entertainment, holding some magical or mystical knowledge. The interplay between Dr. Caligari/The Director and Francis reveals our modern conception of madness, and this is what I focus on below.

During the fantasy Dr. Caligari is communicated to us as he appears to Francis – a terrifying example of authority deranged with power (Kracauer, 1974, p. 65). Indeed fear is ‘an essential presence in the asylum’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 245). A key visual indicator of this relationship is when Francis is forced into a straitjacket. For Foucault the straitjacket is the perfect manifestation of our modern madness; constrained and controlled through a scientific, objective and supposedly humane mode of consciousness. The deep seated nature of this notion of madness is obvious within the film, permeating into Francis’s fantasy. At one point we see Francis’s notion of what it is to be a prisoner – disempowered by severe downward vertical lines and trapped by the patch of ‘light’ on the floor (Powell, 2005, p. 30) (Fig 8). Foucault criticised modern psychiatry for inspiring moral shame and fear as a ‘treatment’ for the mad and the basis of the doctor-patient relationship (Foucault, 1967, p. 247). This is echoed when the Director announces that he can ‘cure’ Francis, a distinctly modern notion. Contemporary psychiatry conceives madness as mental illness, by definition, curable. The asylum is converted into a medical space, justified by a scientific objectivity. The modern psychiatric doctor is seen by his patients as a thaumaturge, possessing a miraculous cure (Foucault, 1967, p. 273). This relationship infuses Francis’s psyche. Dr. Caligari is able to perform a magical act of communication with Cesare; but in doing so the doctor turns his patient into an object, as seen through the way Dr Caligari sits Cesare up and how, in the epilogue, Francis is similarly handled, manually made to sit before the Director, stiff with terror (Fig.9). ‘This new relation between insanity and medical thought …ultimately command[s] the whole modern experience of madness’ (Foucault, 1967, p. 269)

This paper has explored three key elements of Foucault’s vast philosophy of madness. The film’s mise-en-scene effectively communicates what Foucault would call the phenomenological experience of Francis’s madness. Through analysis of particular parts of the film we can illustrate the nuanced relationship the world of the mad has with their actual experiences. The final part of Foucault’s philosophy discussed here, was the way in which this film portrays our modern conception of madness as exemplified by the relationship between Francis and the Director/Dr. Caligari. When watching this film, I felt I was the character of the man to whom Francis tells his story. During the epilogue we discover Francis is mad, we withdraw from him, much like the unnamed man. But even at the last we don’t trust the Director, especially when he dons his spectacles and for a moment looks like Dr Caligari. However, if we are the man at the beginning, to whom Francis tells his story, a character who is clearly mad as well, we have to ask ourselves – are we all mad here?

Claire Travers


  • Coates, P. 1991. Gorgon’s Gaze: German Cinema, Expressionism and the Image of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. 1919. [Film] Directed by Robert Wiene. Germany: Eureka Videos [DVD]
  • Foucault, M. 1954. Malade Mentale et Personalitie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Foucault, M. 1967. Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. London: Tavistock Publications Ltd.
  • Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things. New York: Random House.
  • Foucault, M. 1987. Mental Illness and Psychology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gutting, G. 1989. Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Scientific Reason. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kracauer, S. 1974. Caligari. In: From Caligari to Hitler : a Psychological History of the German Film. Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 61-76.
  • May, T. 2003. Foucualt’s Relation to Phenomenology . In: G. Gutting, ed. The Cambirdge Companion to Foucault (Second Edition). Cambridge: Cambirdge University Press, pp. 284-311.
  • Powell, A. 2005. Deluze and Horror Film. Edinburugh: Edinburugh University Press.

Further Reading

  • Foucault, M, Biswanger, L, ed. Hoeller, K. 1986. Dream and Existence. Seattle :The Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry.
  • Toombs, S. 1987. ‘The Meaning of Illness: A Phenomenological Approach to the Patient-Physician Relationship’ in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy. 12. pp. 219-24


Figure 1. The establishing shot of the film and the background to the fair is an Expressionist drawing of Holstonwall. The pointed roofs bow inward and blend with one another and the trees. The shot is immediately disconcerting as the triangle focuses the audiences eye but with no apparent meaningful focal point. It also gives us a juxtaposition from the natural three-dimensional set of the prologue.

Figure 2. The iris is used to focus the audiences attention on certain parts of the frame, and serve to disorientate us. In the left image the round iris mimics an eye shutting or opening, and the last or first thing we see is Caligari. In the left image the diamond iris frames Cesare outside the window, expanding to show him at the back of Jane’s bedroom. The angular iris puts the audience on edge.

Figure 3. Tints are used to communicate subliminal emotions, in this case purple is used exclusively for Jane’s lounge, which is also the only set entirely without a straight line. The round orb lights the room, throwing circular patterns of light on the floor and up the walls. The white cloth and round table gives the room a cosy and welcoming feel. Francis feels most safe here.

Figure 4. In the left image the round padded chaise lounge represents Francis’s comfort in his room. Once Francis leaves this room for the last time his obsession with Dr. Caligari does not allow him to return. In the same position in the right image the straight backed chair dominates the frame. Alan’s room is overshadowed by it; perhaps a symbol of Alan’s impending death.

Figure 5. Dr. Caligari looks like a painting, with stylised black and white streaks in his hair and on his gloves.

Figure 6. The still of the close up of Cesare is reminiscent of Man Ray’s ‘Marquise Casati (1922)

Figure 7. Cesare is seen in the epilogue as the picture of innocence. His blunt fringe and austere make up is gone, and he is wearing trousers and a black top. He cradles a flower, peaceful and a still sad. The flowers remind the audience of our last experience of him, dead under the funeral pall.

Figure 8. The prisoner is surrounded with blunt shapes; even the ‘ball and chain’ is angular. Weighty downward columns make the prisoner look oppressed and the patch of light painted on the floor seems to contain him.

Figure 9. In the left figure Dr. Caligari dotes on the sleeping Cesare, with almost parental gestures. In the right image the Director approaches Francis with the same air of natural paternalistic authority. In both cases Cesare and Francis are manually manipulated for the whim of the Dr.

BIGGER THAN LIFE, Nicholas Ray, 1956

Nicholas Ray was the son of a lumber magnate and grew up in rural Wisconsin. He enjoyed a middle-class upbringing, coming from a wealthy and ostentatiously, at least, strictly religious family. However Ray’s father was excommunicated from the local diocese for his many affairs and his heavy drinking. Despite performing well at school, Ray had an unconventional childhood: he began drinking at the age of ten, becoming involved in the seedy underworld of a seemingly idyllic village and even tried to seduce one of his father’s lovers at the age of thirteen. Ray was arrested at seventeen for allegedly trying to run over Doc Rhodes, the physician who had attended his dying father, and the person he blamed for administering medication which caused his death. Ray’s main biographer Bernard Eisenschitz claims that this event sowed the seeds for his later scepticism towards medicine and the medical establishment as whole, which is expressed in Bigger Than Life. Also, this chaotic family upbringing can be interpreted as being the reason behind Ray’s scathing attacks on middle-class American lifestyle and morality, something which is also present in Bigger Than Life.

Ray became interested in theatre at an early age, and moved to Chicago to study it there. Here he met the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the writer Thornton Wilder. The former invited him to his artistic and intellectual project the Taliesin Fellowship.  Named after the Welsh bard (Lloyd-Wright identified himself as Welsh-American, and aimed to forge this into a stable ethnic and cultural identity), its aim was to propose a new way of thinking about the world and a new approach to learning, one which (in the words he used in a self published circular) would ‘develop a well-correlated human being: since correlation between hand and the mind’s eye in action is most lacking in modern education.’

The fellowship was based on an isolated farm in the same Wisconsin countryside Ray knew well from his childhood. Spending nearly a year there, he was asked to leave thanks to his heavy drinking and drug taking. According to his ex partner Jean Evans, a ‘vindictive and moralistic’ Wright also took issue with Ray’s bisexuality and they severed contact when Ray left for Mexico in 1934. Thorton Wilder’s existentialism was something which attracted Ray, who himself kept books by writers like Dostyevski, Camus, and Satre, alongside works by modernist writers like Joyce and Thomas Mann, and the theatre of Brecht. However, the confines of university education also proved too much for the rebellious young director, and he lasted six months at the University of Chicago before moving to New York to work in radio and begin his professional involvement with drama.

In the ‘Big Apple’ Ray made the acquaintance of Turkish director Elia Kazan, who at this point was striking success with his own theatre company, and ‘Gadge, as he was known to friends, introduced Ray to the NY theatre scene. This period of his life, spent in the heart of Greenwich Village, was a raucous one. Through his work in broadcasting and his involvement with theatre groups inspired by the works of Marxist writers like Brecht and Shaw, Ray met figures like the folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie, the self styled founder of jazz Jelly Roll Morton, as well as the musician Duke Ellington with whom he worked on what was to be Ray’s only Broadway production.

The cosmopolitan New York, with theatres and nightclubs which were beginning to defy segregation norms and allow entry to non white people, saw the emergence of African-American voices in popular culture and also the establishment of a working-class identity in the mainstream. This captured Ray’s imagination, and led to a social consciousness and political awareness which was to determine his next career move: Ray became involved with government art projects ushered in by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ray was placed in charge of an unprecedented and never repeated move by the federal government: to support and fund theatre, painting, independent film, and even the plastic arts. This task led him to travel the country and experience firsthand the effects of the depression, and the anger felt by many towards the government’s failure to deal with the problems incurred by the economic slump seen in the wake of the 1929 crash.

This also led to a brief spell as a member of the communist party, something that would later threaten his career as a filmmaker during the ‘Red Scare’ of the fifties. Ray himself claims that it was only thanks to the efforts of the eccentric millionaire media mogul and celebrated aviator Howard Hughes, who was at that time owner of RKO Pictures, the production house that Ray was contracted to during the fifties, that he was able to avoid being called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities and risk being blacklisted as a Hollywood director. Even so, a brutal decade of producing nearly a film a year took its toll on Ray and he collapsed on set of the Charlton Heston vehicle 55 Days in Peking, and this ended his career as a commercial filmmaker.

Nicholas Ray’s life was full of paradoxes, like the America in which he lived. A brawler, heavy drinker and playboy, he seemed to epitomise on the one hand a certain ideal of American masculinity. However, on the other hand, his drug taking and bisexuality defied his becoming an all American caricature. And his socialist ideals, held even whilst he worked in an aggressively conservative and rampantly capitalist film industry led to these paradoxes being weaved and spun into the films he made. Ray was able, alongside filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, to adhere to the rules of the conservative motion picture production code, otherwise known as the Breen or Hayes Office, yet at the same time subtly subvert these same rules which sought to promote a Christian and conservative view of the nuclear family and of an American society strongly committed to consumerism. Bigger Than Life is a great example of how a director is able to, with clever use of the medium, tell two stories at once, and is able to celebrate and criticise his subject matter simultaneously.

Shortly before his death on 15th June 1978, Nicholas Ray was quoted, after a screening of his last film, a collaborative project with the German New Wave director Wim Wenders, as saying that he had ‘dreams of being able to tell all of Dickens in one film, all of Dostoevsky in one film. I wondered if it was possible for one film to contain all of the aspects of human personality: needs, desires, expressions, wants…’ Does Ray achieve this ambitious project in his in his films? Perhaps one can think about this as one watches Bigger Than Life. Like his contemporaries Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, and Howard Hawks, Ray, working in the Hollywood studio system’s Indian summer, was able to exercise an incredible amount of control over the content of his films. Also, given his background in theatre, Ray is clearly aware of the potential that cinematic techniques hold in producing meaning.

What is interesting about Nicholas Ray, and in particular this film is how it attracted the attention of a school of French critics writing for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Founded in 1951 by theatre critics André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, the journal wanted the relatively new medium of film to be recognized as an art, rather than simply filmed theatre. This became Cahiers du Cinema’s mission. Those who wrote for it tried to define new ways to discuss, criticize, and write about film, often analyzing films from big directors like Hitchcock, Capra, Welles, and Huston in terms of their technical qualities. Famously, this led to many of the Cahiers critics becoming filmmakers themselves, utilizing the concepts which they had created in their critical endeavours, and famously spearheading the 60s film movement the French New Wave: Francios Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol all wrote for Cahiers and are only three names amongst many who successfully made the transition from film criticism to film production. Indeed, after the war, the embargo on Anglo-American culture in Paris was lifted, often leading to whole evenings showing works by one director. This perhaps can serve as an explanation for the rise of theorists who successfully identified signature touches by certain director’s, like Welles’ deep focus, or Max Ophul’s distinctive use of lighting.

Two things are important to note here. One, that in trying to gain respect for the new medium of film, these early film theorists gave the director the bulk of the credit for the production of meaning in a motion picture. Two, the director was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as having complete control over the set, the casting, the cinematography and all the other factors within the text which help to produce meaning. As earlier mentioned, this is perhaps not an incorrect assumption, because the studio system was created and structured in such a manner that allowed the director to have a large amount of creative control over the content of the film. Whether we can make the simple comparison between a director and the writer of a novel or a philosophic treatise is not easy to answer, but I have followed the lead of these auteur theorists in assuming that the director is responsible of the lion’s share of meaning within a film, especially within a film produced in the controlled environment of a Hollywood studio.

Furthermore, the Hollywood melodramas of Nicholas Ray attracted the attention of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His work on film is split into two volumes: one dealing with the movement image and one which deals with the time image. For our purposes, we are concerned with the movement image and with two specific types of movement image: ones which express thoughts and feelings, and ones which are mimetic, that is to say, ones which attempt to be objectively, or purely representational. It is easiest to understand Deleuze’s distinction as the difference between the close-up and the mid shot: the close-up is deployed by a film maker to stir up feeling in an audience, whilst the mid shot depicts action, distances the audience from the image and enables a viewer to take in action with more of God’s eye view. They are no longer immersed in the feelings of the characters they perceive, but are more concerned with the distances between bodies which enables actions like those seen in fight scenes or shootouts to be understood in spatial terms.

According to Deleuze, Ray’s development as a filmmaker can be understood as a progression from the representational to the expressive, from a form of cinema which attempts to be mimetic to one which is lyrical. This is why he claims that Ray’s films shift from the naturalist tradition seen in theatre, which is constantly viewed by an audience in a static mid shot, and utilised by directors like Sirk and Kazan who began treading the boards before becoming directors, towards lyrical abstraction which comes with Ray’s later work, of which Bigger Than Life is a prime example. Thus, Bigger Than Life can be viewed as a film which attempts to break from naturalist representationalism towards a more complex use of the visual image, one which is aware of itself as medium and furthermore, one which is able to, like the lyric, express extremely complex meaning.

Deleuze’s two volumes on the ontology of cinema are heavily influenced by auteur theory, and thus on the assumption that the director, in this case Nicholas Ray, is the locus for the production of meaning in a film. We can draw a conclusion from this: film is a controlled world, like that an author creates in a novel, and reading it as simply being mimetic is a perhaps a naïve mistake.  Rather, the film, like the written text of a fiction writer, addresses certain concerns that the director has, and even though the director may be constricted by a production environment, a screenplay which he hasn’t written, and even a hostile political landscape, he is, through the clever use of the medium, able to work these concerns into the work he is in charge of producing – even if those concerns are unpalatable to the audience it addresses. I think Bigger Than Life is an excellent example of this.

I’d like to say a few things about the iconography ­and one major issue which seems to have divided critics about the film, and couch this in terms of the existential philosophy that Nicholas Ray was aware of and which remained a major influence upon him throughout his career. A synopsis of the film will help us here: Ed Avery is a schoolteacher who moonlights in the evenings as an operator at a taxi firm in order to support the suburban lifestyle that his family enjoys. His life seems to be the realisation of the fifties American dream. One evening he collapses, is whisked to hospital and quickly diagnosed with a terminal condition whose only cure is a new drug which is still in its experimental stage, the painkiller cortisone. Avery and his family are warned that this drug has side-effects, one being a risk that it could lead to erratic behaviour. Faced with the choice between certain death and cortisone, Avery takes the drug and so begins his change.

The film’s script is based on an article by New Yorker staff writer Berton Roueche, warning about the dangers of cortisone. His story was adapted into a script, and Bigger Than Life was released almost a year to the day after the story’s publication.

So to begin with, if we look at Fig. 1 from the film, we see a broken mirror, a favourite icon deployed by directors of this era to depict derangement, a fractured personality, and mental instability.


Another famous example of this can be seen in Orson Welles’s The Lady of Shanghai (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

In Bigger Than Life, this is given an extra twist when we consider that it is the mirror to the medicine cabinet which is shattered by his wife, exasperated by the demands of her husband. The cortisone is affecting him, bending his personality and he has changed from the aloof, yet cheerful and seemingly content figure we see at the beginning of the film, to something much more sinister. Indeed, Bigger Than Life was released in France, Italy, and Spain as Behind the Mirror, which is in direct reference to this scene. The implication here is that it is the cortisone which is behind the mirror, and it is this which is shifting his personality, a la Jekyll and Hyde.

The aloof figure who is presented at the beginning of the film, before he has taken the cortisone, as being dissatisfied with suburban life, socializing with bourgeois middle-class colleagues and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, to quote the film, is unleashed as a menacing tyrant who terrorizes his family and local community with paranoid hectoring and eventually a blood-lust which sees him come close to committing filicide. The question which divides critics then is this: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, or has it unleashed some part of his personality, a drive perhaps, which has lain dormant, suppressed by the social glare and the pressures of the American culture in which he lives?

Discussion of another pair of images can also help answer this question.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 we see Ed with his son Richie and his wife Lou in a gloomy scene in Ed’s study. After missing lunch as a punishment for not catching an American football pass, Avery’s son Richie struggles to complete a maths problem. His father tells him not to get flummoxed, and implores him to ‘use his reason’ to work out the calculations. He will not allow the child to eat his evening meal until he has completed the work set for him. We see Barbara Rush, as Ed’s already beleaguered wife Lou, pleading with her husband to let the child go. What is interesting here is Ray’s use of the low key light which creates the long and menacing shadow behind the actor playing Ed, James Mason. It casts a long shadow on the door behind. Ed’s shadow is big and looming, dwarfing that of his wife. We see the child, Richie, right at the front of the screen, making him seem disproportionately small.

Indeed, size is often used during the film, both in terms of image and text: note the scenes in the garden in which the father and son play American football, and in particular the shot in which Avery, in what the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch describes as being a ‘disgusting’ shot, towers over the school, taking up the whole of the screen. In the lead up to this shot, Avery tells Lou, who drives him to work on his first day back at school after being hospitalised, that the first sight of her and his son after he regained consciousness at the hospital made him feel ‘ten feet tall’. Apart from the obvious name drop of the Berton Roueche article that the script to this film is based on, this scene is significant because it seems to suggest that the sense of superiority which comes to manifest itself later on in the film is already a deeply rooted feature of Avery’s personality. It also seems to come with his status as the male patriarch in the nuclear family. In the poster in Fig. 4 below we see the corny tagline by the face of the medical practitioner saying “I prescribed it…He misused it!’ This could easily lend anyone to think that they were watching a moral panic tale like Reefer Madness (see Fig 5), however Ray’s clever insertion of this shot before Avery starts to overdose on the cortisone poses the question: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, and if not, why does he become what he does become as the film progresses?

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

This has split critics, and which way one goes will affect how one sees the film: if one thinks that Bigger Than Life presents us with a melodrama, one which tries to warn us that even the most honourable pillars of society can be warped into hideous monsters thanks to taking drugs, then so be it, I will not disagree with this, on one level at least. On the other hand, the change in Avery’s behaviour can be seen as something which is always there, the sickness he feels is a malaise brought on by a culture which celebrates mediocrity and is paranoid of the other, one which does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the sort of consumerism which characterized this decade. The cortisone has simply served to amplify this frustration and unfettered it from his emotional ties to his family and to the economic ties to his profession.

Finally if we look at Fig. 6 we see Ed Avery in a state of delirious happiness after cheating death thanks to the ‘miracle drug’ cortisone. He takes the family shopping, and splashes out more than the family can afford, spoiling his wife and child in a frenzy of consumer spending.

Fig. 6

We have previously seen Ed worry about the family’s finances to such an extent that he has taken up a second job moonlighting as a telephone operator, yet here we see him spending money on expensive clothes by Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. This is after he has forced Lou to parade up and down in dresses he has selected. Visibly uneasy with this false display of wealth and expressing reservations about the purchases, Ed exercises economic power over her by asking her to ‘remember who is paying for all this’, and we see a blatant exertion of his economic and social power as the patriarchal figure in the family. However, in this instance, and in much the same way as in the scene described in Fig. 3 above, we see Lou challenge Ed. I think that this is interesting because it shows that the previous power which Ed inevitably had as the patriarch in the family is only challenged when it is exerted to despotic measure. In the daily life of the family this power goes unchecked and unchallenged, allowing Ed to be the dominant economic force out of him and Lou. It also allows him to make the major decisions for the family. It is only with the taking of cortisone, and the emergence of a socially unacceptable form of power that this is flagged up.  Therefore the drug acts as a catalyst which warps his behaviour beyond socially accepted norms of power.

The results of the drug upon Avery’s behaviour are interesting to think about, and perhaps can serve to show us, as viewers, how we are trapped, or to be more optimistic, kept sane, kept from performing monstrous actions on the ones we love, our contemporaries and our colleagues, by our ties to the community in which we live, be they emotional and/or economic ones. Perhaps  the jargon of authenticity that blights some existential works can lead to a belief in a chimerical realm of genuine existence which in fact merely brings suffering and wreaks a path of destruction, a rejection of all that fails to shape to a, by necessity, nebulous and ill-defined realm of the authentic, genuine, or true way to live.

However, here’s the sting in the tail: is the drugged Avery completely wrong? Are his criticisms of the church, the education system, and his society the ravings of a cortisone addled mind? I’m not sure. While his character becomes an arrogant tyrant, he is at the same time charming and even charismatic, an anti-hero whose ridicule of the church is comparable to Marlowe’s Faustus. He is an ambitious intellect, dissatisfied with those around him who seem to be content bumbling through life with no aim other than to work and gain pleasure in their spare time. Should we vilify him for taking a drug which enables him to think he is a king amongst men, and gives him escape from his dreary existence as an underpaid schoolteacher? This is one of the many questions that this film poses, questions which have no simple answer and questions which make Bigger Than Life a rewarding film, a film which stands up to repeat viewing more so than much of the cinema produced in the sunset of the Golden era.

Kevin Jones


Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray, Charles Letts and Co, London: 1991

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, The Athlone Press, London: 1997

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, New York: 1992