Thursday, 31 May 2012

Review: When Nietzsche Wept

Movie review: When Nietzsche Wept (2007)

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Directed by Pinchas Perry, this film adaptation of Irvin D. Yalom's novel of the same title. When Nietzsche Wept is essentially a piece of romanticized fan-fiction, depicting a relationship between Nietzsche and early Viennese physician and psychoanalyst Josef Breuer, friend and mentor of Freud. In order to treat Nietzsche for his infamous migraines (at the request of Lou Salome, Nietzsche's friend and, at a time, romantic interest), but confronted with the obstacle of Nietzsche's pride, Breuer feigns a desire to be mentored and enlightened by Nietzsche in order to attain sufficient insight into his patient's physical and mental condition. His psychoanalysis is interrupted further, when the parameters defining the role of doctor and patient become blurred, and the roles partially reversed; Nietzsche becomes Breuer's existential guru, with Breuer more dependent on his patient for his insight than his patient is on him for his treatment. The film is mostly this narrative, which the occasional reference to Nietzsche's books and a select handful of his thoughts.

Writing a review of this film must be twofold. On the one hand, I have to give the perspective of the Nietzsche enthusiast. On the other hand, I must also account for the quality of the film as a film in its own right, away from issues such as accuracy and the quality of representations of Nietzsche's thought. Let's begin with arguably the less important aspect; the film as a film.

When seen in the light of merely a story, there is a great deal of worth to this film. Firstly, the narrative is divided and extended through the use of numerous dream sequences. These dream sequences are perhaps the chief highlight of the film; a great deal of traditional theatrical tropes are used to convey the situations and contexts of the dream, and the emotions of the dreamer (Breuer) in a way which will truly resonate with the audience. They are well placed, and the timbre of the film is consistent throughout. There is a great deal of passion displayed between each of the characters, and it's not difficult to feel affection for them. Breuer's existential crises are genuinely accessible and to which it should be most easy for the audience to relate. Secondly, the cinematic qualities (camera work, soundtrack etc) leave nothing wanting, and generate a consistent and absorbing atmosphere for the film.

In terms of performance, the acting is wanting. For this writer's taste, the actors are perhaps a little too much like hyperbolic caricatures, and despite the empathy their circumstances might generate, there is something distinctly silly about the emotive display. The audience will notice some clichés of emotional expression, and this can leave the characters appearing foolish and immature, which is incongruous to their status. On the other hand, this could be seen as a strength of the film, in the way it reduces Breuer, a respected and successful physician and psychoanalyst, to an adolescent state of angst, ripe for Nietzsche's guidance and reformation.

From the perspective of the Nietzsche enthusiast, the film is rather disappointing. Aside from the trivial issue of the weak moustache, Armand Assante's depiction of Nietzsche lacks a certain finesse and aggression which we might anticipate. Assante's Nietzsche is much more like a stereotype of a wise and witty eccentric university professor than a revolutionary and intense individual; it is hard to see this Nietzsche as dynamite, philosophizing with a hammer. Rather, the portrayal of Nietzsche's thought is mostly heavily diluted, which might be acceptable under certain circumstances, but since this is basically the only work of cinema directly representing Nietzsche, this is a great disappointment.

In terms of Nietzsche's thought, the representation is most immature and pedestrian. The strongest parts of the film are few and far between in this regard. Nietzsche and Breuer on a swan-shaped pedalo, in a state of absurd and chaotic mania, contemplating the passage of time in an insane dream to the theme from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake gives a marvelous insight into the peculiar nature of Nietzsche's concept of time, but this scene is all too brief; if it had been any longer, we would perhaps expect dilution to occur once more. The other strong scene is Nietzsche presenting the concept of the eternal return to Breuer, which competently grasps the existential implications of the notion. This is let down by the subsequent descent of Breuer into an existential rebellion, in which his behaviour becomes erratic,impulsive and foolish, in a great departure from the form and style we might expect of someone who has truly grasped Nietzsche's thought.

As a whole, the film is probably worth watching, since there really isn't anything else out there like it. The dream sequences are marvelous, and I suppose this is relevant to Nietzsche's thought, but it definitely remains unclear whether this relevance is intentional, or merely a device. Watch with low expectations, or you will be sorely disappointed, and perhaps even a little angered at the representation of Nietzsche and his thought. I am left hoping for a greater film to appear in the near future, which will cast this peculiar piece of cinema in a more objective light.

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